True teamwork

Marshall County Jail staff recognized for their dedication, service

It’s a mix of discipline and compassion. It’s finding that balance between treating people with respect and dignity, while never forgetting that trouble and the potential for violence could be just around the corner.

While the risks and the dangers are inherent, for Steve Atcher, Leon Sanchez and Kaitlyn Randall, being a part of the 34-member Marshall County Jail staff offers the opportunity to change lives, from inside a jail cell as well as out in society.

Next week is National Correctional Officers Week (May 7-13), and the three Marshall County correctional officers, along with Chief Jailer Pat White, said while the work is challenging, it is never dull or routine.

“The way I look at it, it’s not a job,” said Sanchez, a 16-year veteran of the jail staff. “I really enjoy doing this, and sometimes we can see that we’ve changed (inmates’) lives. We talk to them; talk to them about being a better person. The arresting officers only deal with them for five or 10 minutes, but we deal with them every day, sometimes for months.”

“It’s very hands-on,” said Randall, who has been with the agency for two years. “We want (the inmates) to be better. They’re going to be in jail for a period of time; we don’t want their stay to be worse.”

Atcher, a 13-year staff member and a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force, concedes that while some days can be difficult, most days are positive.

“Every day, you get to interact with someone different; it’s very interesting,” he said.

Interesting, but without question, challenging, especially when you’re dealing with those who may be in jail for everything from a public intoxication charge to someone accused of murder or other violent acts.

“Yes, some of them are really violent,” said Sanchez. “And sometimes we have to use force … but when they come in, we try to meet them at the same level, calm them down.”

Despite the potential for attacks, and there have been cases where jailers at the Marshall County facility have been assaulted and/or injured, all three say they feel secure because of the support from the entire team.

“There are some concerns that you might get hurt, yes, it’s part of the job,” said Atcher. “But you could get assaulted at (private sector workplaces) — that’s part of today’s society.”

And while it’s rare that violent outbreaks will occur, the jail staff is prepared.

“You know you’re walking with (an inmate) and you wonder, ‘Is he sizing me up’ and yeah, that’s always on the back of your mind,” Atcher said. “You’re in a place where you’re not dealing with society’s best all day long, but I don’t sit on pins and needles either. You still need to interact with people and your co-workers. We’re a team, people will come running (if you’re in trouble).”

Surprisingly, some inmates, those who are subsequently released after they have finished their time in the jail, often express gratitude and appreciation to those jailers who, at least temporarily, kept them locked up.

Randall said surprisingly there have been kind words and thank you cards from former inmates who, in part because they were able to turn their lives around post-incarceration, were appreciative of the treatment they received while behind bars.

“They’ll say ‘Hey, I’m sorry for whatever I said or did,'” Randall said. “I think someone recently wrote a letter, or sent a thank you card …”

Some inmates even want to be friends, however …

“I’m not here to make friends; I’m not here to make an enemy,” Atcher said.

“You can be friendly without being a friend,” White emphasized.

Sanchez while he and the other team members understand the risks, they also recognize the rewards of making things better for those who have fallen short of being productive members of society, those who may be struggling with a number of issues that has landed them in jail.

“You have to have compassion, and let them know they have the power to change their lives,” he said, adding that’s the message he tries to impart to the inmates he encounters.

“It takes a special person to do this, not just anybody can walk in and do this job,” said White.

Marshall County Sheriff Steve Hoffman agreed.

“When we select candidates to hire, we look for people that are looking for more than a J.O.B., we are looking for people committed to serving the community as professionals in an environment that is never glamorized, and their reliable, good work is often unrecognized and under appreciated by many. I, for one, appreciate the dedication and diligence of our staff and hold them in the highest regard,” he said.

“We have a very dedicated team,” White said. “They come to work every day and do their best to keep things running smoothly. They’re vested in what we’re doing here. They take a lot of pride in what they do.”

But to describe what they do proves challenging because it’s not simply a matter of acting as a guard standing by a locked jail cell.

“It’s almost hard to put into words exactly what (the jail staff) does,” White said. “They wear so many hats — nurses, psychologists, they’re housekeepers, food service, secretaries …”

Perhaps, more importantly, they’re loyal teammates — a close-knit group ready to run into danger should a fellow jailer or inmate find themselves in a dangerous and/or vulnerable situation.

“It’s different than working any other kind of job,” White surmised. “I just know if something happens, the guys will come running. We’ve got the greatest group of people in here, because you know every day your life could be in their hands. I trust them all with my life.”

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Contact Jeff Hutton at 641-753-6611 or jhutton@timesrepublican.com