« WSAU Opinion Blog

OPINION - Jail problems

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) The modern-day sheriff is primarily a law-enforcement administrator. Just like it would be unusual to find a police chief walking the beat, a sheriff in a mid-sized county generally isn’t on-patrol. The sheriff oversees a staff of deputies, investigators and jail guards.

The underlying theme of the Marathon County jail safety report, which was released yesterday, is that there wasn’t proper oversight. This can be traced directly to having absentee leadership. Before he retired, sheriff Randy Heonisch conceded that he’d spent very little time in his office. Distracted by his wife’s legal problems, many days he didn’t show up for work.

One of the questions a good manager asks is, ‘can we do this better?’ The leader of the sheriffs department appears to be neglectful in the area. The jail safety report says some security procedures hadn’t been updated in 30-years. The jail inspector from the Department of Justice said she made numerous recommendations, but never actually met with the sheriff and doesn’t know if her suggestions were followed-up. Numerous corrections officers and managers offered their testimony about understaffing, low morale, and overcrowded conditions.

None of those conditions are ideal, but none are fatal to jail-safety either. They are situations that need to be managed. But on too many days the manager was nowhere to be found.

The report on jail safety is a good first step. Parts of the report have already been implemented by interim sheriff Scott Parks. The county is moving to hire two more corrections officers. As jail workers see their concerns being addressed, morale will improve. In short, the right steps are being taken to solve the problems.

The more-troubling question is how did we get to this sorry state? The simple answer is we had an absentee sheriff. But it’s more complicated than that. The sheriff is an elected official. He’s not answerable to the county board; he’s answerable to the voters. The media (our newsroom included) was slow to cover. And the voters, you and me, elected someone who didn’t always show up for work.

The two most-dangerous jobs in law enforcement are undercover investigations and corrections officers. We owe it to the men and women who work in our county jail to make sure things improve.

Chris Conley