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State jail inspector says concerns were ignored by sheriff, administration


WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAU) - A Marathon County study panel heard more testimony and comments on a fundamental breakdown in communication that lead to a serious attack in the jail.

Department of Corrections Jail Inspector Denise Ellis told the jail safety panel that some recommendations she made to the sheriff and the jail administrator may have been acted on, but that there was little other communication. "I had issues trying to get in contact with your previous sheriff on a number of issues. I have not been able to get an exit interview with the sheriff for several years. There wasn't that communication here." She says attempts to work out interviews and discussions on safety in the jail were rebuffed and put off. Ellis will present her review of the incident that severely injured a corrections officer to county staff on Wednesday.

There was more testimony from a pair of corrections officers as well, who say that morale in the jail has been extremely low. Officer Danielle Gray says that comments and requests for change made to former jail administrator Bob Dickman and sheriff Randy Hoenisch fell on deaf ears. "After years of asking for things and getting shut down, you just stop asking. All of us have been asking for training."

The jail has been running understaffed for some time, long enough for Ellis to bring up the issue in her 2011 report to the county. Ellis told the panel that administrators said they would not fix staffing levels since they couldn't get the funding. County administrator Brad Karger says he never told Dickman or Hoenisch there was no money for more officers in the jail.

Officer Bill Baudry says they are extremely understaffed, and that there were times when inmates were walking around unsupervised in the halls. "It's a zoo at times." Officers are required to check all of the blocks in the jail every hour. One officer is assigned to moving inmates around to see parole and probation, lawyers, nurses, social workers, clergy and all of the other people who need access to inmates on a daily basis.

On a better note, since the attack in the jail and several changes to the way the COs and inmates interact with each other, Baudry says it's been a safer workplace. Interim Chief deputy Chad Billeb says his staff are also working on a full policy review for the jail as well as a better way for corrections staff to get in contact with administration in the rest of the sheriff's department.

The panel will meet next Tuesday to continue their talks and start drafting their recommendations to the county board.