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New jailer brings discipline to role

Newly appointed Island County Chief Jail Administrator William “De” Dennis is still getting used to his job, but he’s no stranger to the discipline needed to run the jail house, or to the community.

“The Navy has prepared me,” he said. “Other than my wife marrying me, it was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Dennis served 30 years in the U.S. Navy, retiring in 1995 as a command master chief petty officer at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.

“I would have stayed in longer, but they said 30 years was the limit and they kicked me out,” he joked, an accent betraying his East Coast roots.

Dennis could have retired and enjoyed the good life with his wife, Cherry, and sons James and David, but he decided not to go that route just yet. Instead, he considered taking on another uniformed job, despite the skepticism of some.

“I was told I was too old to be in law enforcement,” he said. “I took the challenge.”

Dennis, now 56, earned an associate degree with a major in law enforcement from Skagit Valley College, graduating with honors in 1995.

That same year he also completed training at Island County Sheriff’s Reserve Law Enforcement Officer Academy and the Firefighter Recruit Academy before going to work as a dispatcher for Island County. He also completed the Corrections Officers Academy at Washington State Criminal Justice Training Center, with academic, practical and overall cadet awards, and Washington State Parks Marine Law Enforcement training in 1996.

He then worked at the Island County Jail as a corrections officer until being selected by the Washington State Patrol as a trooper.

He was assigned to State Patrol’s Oak Harbor detachment and also worked in Skagit County.

The Island County jailer job opened up when former administrator J.D. Burns accepted a job as private security officer in Iraq. During his one-year leave of absence, Burns will provide training in modern police services. Upon his return, Burns will most likely enter the patrol division in the Island County Sheriff’s Office, according to Jan Smith, spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office.

While the sheriff’s office lost an experienced administrator in Burns, Hawley was enthusiastic in hiring Dennis.

“We feel fortunate that we could offer De this position; his talents and people skills are key,” Hawley said. “He is an advocate of accountability leadership — leading people and managing programs.”

From his cinderblock jailhouse office with no windows, barely larger than a cell, Dennis considers the challenges of his new job.

The jail was expanded to its current 58-inmate capacity in 1984, but it is bursting at the seams. The jail is seeing more female inmates who are trying to cope with situations such as domestic violence and drug abuse. There has been an increase in special-needs inmates, who require more money to attend to their medical, dental or mental needs. At the same time, the technology it takes to run the corrections center is falling behind the times.

“The biggest challenge is to keep costs down, and maintain the facility with a limited budget,” Dennis said.

Every inmate costs the county at least $66 per day. Annual operating costs to run the jail with a round-the-clock staff of 20 are about $1.5 million.

With the jail at capacity Dennis is looking at why inmates keep coming back.

He said 31 percent are repeat offenders, mostly 18- to 25-year-old white males.

“Most of them lack social skills,” he said. They may need help with anger management, alcohol or drug abuse, even parenting and money management.

“There’s nothing worse than releasing an inmate and watching them just stand there on the corner,” he said. “I have a lot of compassion for the prisoners.”

Some of them have nowhere else to go. He hopes to address that by offering life skills classes through the jail.

He also stresses that the jail is not for punishment of inmates, but for ensuring the safety and security of the inmates and the staff.

“We just carry out the sentences ordered by the court,” he said. “I can only incarcerate them and make sure they are safe.”

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