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Our View: Jail report provides starting point, but culture change is vital

3:15 PM, Jul. 9, 2013  |  Comments
The Marathon County Jail citizens review panel detailed failures of equipment, of communication and of leadership.
The Marathon County Jail citizens review panel detailed failures of equipment, of communication and of leadership.
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The Marathon County Jail has been plagued by specific, disturbing breakdowns in security. It has been understaffed and equipped with shoddy, outdated equipment. Its employees' morale has been terrible, and their training standards have been all over the map.

Those are some findings of a citizens review panel tasked with looking into the jail's issues in the wake of a March 27 attack by an inmate on officers. The report contains specific changes that must be adopted - some of which already are being implemented. And it contains no small amount of blame for two men who are no longer in leadership positions with the institution: former Sheriff Randy Hoenisch, who announced his retirement in February, and former jail administrator Bob Dickman, who resigned soon after the attack.

As leaders, Hoenisch and Dickman were the ones responsible for setting policies, maintaining staffing levels and ensuring properly updated equipment.

At the same time, the citizens review panel's report as well as reporting by Daily Herald Media reveal problems of culture, lack of oversight and poor procedures that cannot be laid exclusively at the feet of Hoenisch and Dickman.

Particularly disturbing is the seeming lack of any channel for employees' concerns to be heard by their supervisors. Every workplace has its annoyances, and every employee has gripes. But the level of dissatisfaction among jail officers was deeply disturbing - failure to recognize it feels inexcusable. Certainly, establishing channels for those concerns to be reliably heard and acted upon needs to be a top priority for new Sheriff Scott Parks.

And where was the oversight from the Marathon County Board? It's true the sheriff is an elected position, not directly answerable to the board, but the county does hold the power of the purse strings. It seems reasonable to expect that if, for example, it allocates money to upgrade jail communications systems, it should also be able to follow up to confirm that the system has been implemented.

The truth is the jail's problems resulted from a failure of leadership at many levels. And it's a culture that will take time to rebuild.

It starts with Parks. It's up to him to both demonstrate the leadership the department lacked under Hoenisch - setting a tone, embodying the values of the department, soliciting and listening to feedback from employees at all levels - and to re-evaluate department policies and make concrete changes so that problems of the scale of those that beset the jail will no longer be allowed to fester and deteriorate.

As a final note, the county deserves credit for assembling the citizens review panel to take a serious look at the problems within the Sheriff's Department and jail and to do so with transparency and a focus on real changes. The panelists themselves, including chairman Paul Jones, deserve our thanks for the time they spent gathering information and a broad range of perspectives, for taking the task seriously and producing a serious report that does not whitewash or rubber-stamp official explanations. They've performed a service by providing an unvarnished look behind the jail walls.

The process of addressing the problems has already begun. A county committee last week approved the hiring of two new corrections officers, and Parks has started to make internal reforms.

He has a big job ahead of him. So do other county leaders.

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