Portage County – Democrat Portage County Sheriff David Doak is running an uncontested race for re-election this fall, so he is assured a second term. Nevertheless, Republican Portage County Commissioner Tommie Jo Marsilio is going out of her way to lend support to Doak.“When anyone in government does the right thing simply because it is the right thing, their story deserves to be told,” she explains. “It doesn’t matter if he’s in my party or not. It’s the people out there — taxpayers footing the bill — who I answer to. Sheriff Doak is running the ship in a way people should know about. It’s an important story to tell.”
Despite the beating his reputation took as a result of five inmate deaths between July 2010 and October 2011, (three from apparent suicide), Marsilio says Doak is worthy of praise. Suggesting that perhaps these deaths could have been avoided if enough guards had been available to monitor the inmates more closely, she added, “our Board has not always done a good job finding enough money for appropriate staffing levels in the jail.”
Doak, along with Major Dale Kelly and Officer Robert Symsek, are pleased to demonstrate the positive measurable differences made at the county jail since Doak took office. A straightforward jailhouse tour showcases a clean, well-maintained facility overpopulated by well-adjusted, industrious inmates who seem to be making the best of a temporarily bad situation.
Low-risk inmates (not guilty of committing violent crimes) are motivated toward good behavior so they can earn a spot on the inmate work crew. Seventy male inmates (of a total 209) and 34 female inmates (of a total 60) voluntarily participate in the CPS (Cleaning Painting Shoveling) Program, which saves tax dollars by putting inmates to work.
Doak started introducing the new program the first week he took office. Facing a chronically shrinking budget and “deplorable” standards of maintenance throughout the facility, Doak eliminated the one full-time and one part-time maintenance positions and put the inmates to work instead, maintaining their own facility. In 2010, inmates repainted the interior of the jail (requiring 200 gallons of paint).
The jail commissary, which also used to be managed by an outside contractor, is now internally operated, and generates enough funds ($180,000 since 2010) to provide the commissary manager’s salary, fund the inmate work program, purchase new equipment, and provide other services for the betterment of the inmates, such as GED classes, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, anger management sessions, and other educational opportunities. Under the guidance of program coordinator Jake Miller, Portage County inmates — primarily incarcerated for domestic violence, drunk driving, drug charges or various misdemeanors — worked over 21,000 hours last year alone.
“They learn life skills so they can be productive on the outside,” Symsek explains. In return, inmates are rewarded with extra meals, extra visits from family and friends, or items from the commissary. “Besides,” adds Doak, ”they appreciate the opportunity to get out of here and breathe fresh air for a while. And they feel better overall, being able to give back to the community.” Kelly says the opportunity to work (gaining respect and a sense of worth in the process) also contributes to lower stress levels in the jail, and that translates to less disruption due to bad behavior.
Work crews assist in the maintenance of the Justice Center, serve jailhouse food; provide general cleaning; landscape Justice Center grounds; do laundry; mow; refurbish, paint, wash and wax county vehicles; do carpentry projects (including updating office spaces with new countertops, cubicles and carpeting); pick up trash along every state highway in the county; pack Thanksgiving food baskets and gift boxes for underprivileged kids during the Christmas season; and work at other non-profit organizations in the county, including nursing homes, schools and cemeteries.
Beyond that, the Inmate Sewing Program began in March 2011, under the supervision of an instructor who visits three times a week. Inmates now make all the jail uniforms, cutting costs in half, from $14 to $7 per uniform. One inmate even figured out that they could make more efficient use of each bolt of cloth by changing the orientation of stripes from horizontal to vertical. In the past 45 days, a rotating crew of four sewers has produced 400 uniforms, 446 rags, and 359 towels.
Paws on Probation is yet another innovative program since 2011 which helps find homes for stray dogs from the Portage County Dog Warden. Dogs are trained, along with their inmate, by a dog trainer who comes to the jail twice a week for the eight-week program. An appropriate “forever” home is then found for the dog after they graduate from the program. The exception is Abby , a boxer who came in 2011 and graduated from the training program. However, she fit in so well with the environment that she is now a permanent resident at the jail. She has her own dog house, built by inmates, to use outside during mild weather.
The reality is that the inmates in the Portage County jail are almost always going back into the community. Those involved in recent changes hope that teaching skills will prevent the inmates’  return while saving taxpayer dollars.