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Our Neighbors: Long-time jail administrator is hanging up her keys

Deb Zauhar and family gather last year at daughter Christina's graduation from Hamline Law School. Shown here (from left) are Deb's sister, Margaret Buyatt, father Dale Erickson, Christina Zauhar Anderson, mother Shirley Erickson, Deb and daughter Nicole Zauhar. Contributed Photo1 / 2
Carlton County Jail Administrator Deb Zauhar spends a little family time with daughter Nicole. Zauhar will be retiring soon after more than 30 years with the county. Contributed Photo2 / 2

When Debora Zauhar started her job as jail administrator at the Carlton County Jail in 1983, data management wasn't done in the digital realm, as it is now.

"Until we started utilizing computers for our data management," Zauhar said, "we used huge leather-bound register books which required the entry of statistical information."

As Zauhar is able to demonstrate in so many ways, things at the jail have certainly changed in the 30-plus years since she was hired by Sheriff Terry Twomey, and they'll continue to change after her retirement, which is right around the corner.

Zauhar has been witness to so much in her three decades as jail administrator. It's a job that she was born into, really.

"I come from a law-enforcement family," she said. "My father is a retired Duluth police sergeant, and I have a few relatives in law enforcement, also. So, when I graduated from [Duluth Central] high school, I decided I would pursue a degree in sociology with a criminology concentration, and I attended the University of Minnesota-Duluth."

For her, the path she ended up on was the one she set out to walk. There were no dalliances with, say, forestry or the foodservice industry. It wasn't as if she was pushed into the family business, though.

"My parents did not want me to go into law enforcement or corrections," Zauhar admitted. "They wanted me to pursue something else. But this is where my passion and interest was, so my parents supported my endeavors and assisted financially in helping me attain my college degree. "

Was this her version of rebelling? "No," Zauhar said with a laugh. "Just my independence."

Zauhar did her internship at the Saint Louis County Courthouse in Duluth, in the probation department. "That's where I really wanted to be," she said.

After applying for jobs in Duluth and meeting dead ends, "I noticed that the Carlton County Jail was looking to hire some additional corrections officers --back then, they called them 'jailers.'"

At the time, Zauhar noted, there was only one other female employee at the jail, and she took care of "most of the clerical requirements and dispatch." In a sense, then, Zauhar was a trailblazer. "Yeah, a little bit," she said. "I wasn't the first female working in the jail, but I was the second. It was male-dominated. Because there were more female inmates being housed, the Department of Corrections said that you have to have female staff, as well. So then they started hiring an equal amount of females to match the male corrections officers."

"In 1987, there was only one other female jail administrator out of 87 counties in Minnesota," Zauhar said. "It was very much a man's world. And today, about half of all Minnesota jails are operated by female administrators. The number of female sergeants and supervisors has also grown."

It wasn't her first job, but it was her first job with such responsibility.

"I had worked myself through college," Zauhar said. "But this was my first real career job, yes."

Given that people tend to change jobs numerous times throughout their lives, why did Zauhar stay at the jail for 30 years? And did she know right off the bat that she would want to stay there for so long?

"I knew I did not want to work in patrol, or in the field," she said. "I knew this was my general area of interest, for sure. I started out as a jailer in July of 1983, and in 1987, I was promoted to jail sergeant. Shortly thereafter, they advanced the title to jail administrator."

So, while her job title didn't change much, the job changed around her drastically as time went on, especially through the rise of the personal-computer era.

"The reason I stayed was, it was a busy time of technological advancements and the professionalism of corrections officers," Zauhar said. "There were a lot of challenges.

"We started out working with just paper and pencil when we booked people and released them," Zauhar said. Today, the system is markedly different. "We have all the digital equipment to process inmates and provide for a safe, secure, humane and healthy environment."

The jail population has changed with the decades just as much as the technology to keep track of them has, Zauhar said.

"Years ago, our inmate numbers were very low, and now we're at the point of being very overcrowded."

She says that recent efforts to reduce overcrowding have started to address the issue.

"When I started out at the Carlton County Jail, on average, we would have between 20 and 25 inmates, as a daily population," Zauhar said. "And now, we are averaging 46 inmates, and that's not counting the ones that are boarded out [to other jails]." The jail's maximum bed capacity is 48, hence the boarding.

The change in numbers over the years is a complicated issue to address, said Zauhar.

"There's a lot of variables that go into that. We have very good, aggressive officers that investigate and pursue criminal activity, and we have some drug task forces. So there's a lot of focus groups that are communicating and arresting people a lot quicker than they had in years past." In addition, "we have a freeway -- Interstate 35 -- that goes through Carlton County, and that results in a lot of non-local offenders."

The "obvious" reason for the uptick, Zauhar said, is that "we have a huge drug and alcohol abuse epidemic, here. With the abuse of drugs comes the burglaries and the robberies to try to pay for their habits."

Zauhar said the inmates themselves have changed, and so has the way the system views them.

"The inmates that we are receiving now are so much more complex and high risk and needy in a lot of areas. Mental-health issues are the most extreme. Physical health. That's probably the most dramatic difference -- the complexity of the problems we have to deal with, with the inmates of today, in comparison to the inmates of years ago."

In general, it seems Zauhar just generally has more on her plate than she used to. "Oh my gosh," she said, "for sure."

"Every year, laws are passed that require the jail staff to do more and more, and we don't receive additional funding for that," she said. "We don't receive additional staffing for those requirements."

Zauhar said that in the early days of her career, simplicity was more common.

"Back then, things were very basic," she said. "You made your well-being checks, your formal head counts. You took care of daily needs such as food, shelter, and clothing. But now, there are so many more programmatic requirements, mostly operational."

But she's not complaining, necessarily. Zauhar appreciates and understands that the jail has a responsibility to uphold the rights of the inmates.

"The jail, for the sheriff's office, is the highest area of liability," Zauhar said. "And when someone comes into our facility, because of their human rights and expectations for their health and welfare as well as due process of law, there are so many requirements that the jail staff has to operate under at the highest degree of competence. We have to make sure we are on trend and our training is up to date, and that we have the best equipment that we can, and that we're meeting all federal and state requirements to make sure that the inmate and the public is kept safe as well as secure."

As jail administrator, Zauhar's duties also involved plenty of other aspects: policy and procedures; the monitoring and implementation of the annual budget; supervision of a staff of 15; advancement and maintenance of inspections by fire, sanitation, dietary, and emergency health and safety; and review of systems and records; and authorization of the use of force, chemical agents, and other security equipment, among other things.

A typical Monday-through-Friday workweek for Zauhar included a lot of steps.

"I come in to the secure perimeter of the jail, and I review the files of all the new inmates," she explained. "I ensure that staff are maintaining their job posts and their duties and tasks. I look at the head count" -- a priority in the age of overcrowding -- "and then I would pay attention to the court schedule, and any transports." This is all in addition to "meetings, policies, projects, assignments" and much more. As Zauhar puts it: "you have to wear many hats. My family was very understanding of the long hours, phone calls, and emergency reporting in to work over the years."

Looking back at the last three decades, the departing Zauhar remembers certain periods of time as being particularly memorable, due to the high levels of alert she and her staff maintained.

"Probably the highest stress level and the most heart-wrenching situations," Zauhar said, "were the abduction and homicide of Paul Antonich in Duluth, and the search for Katie Poirer and the subsequent arrest of Donald Blom. Those were high-risk, high-profile times for us. I'm proud of the job that all of our staff did."

The shooting of an officer comes to Zauhar's mind, too. "We had a deputy shot and killed years ago, in Moose Lake. Erv Clemons. Obviously, that was very sad for all of us, and we try to keep his memory alive. We still have contact with his family, and we attend a law-enforcement memorial service, every year. Those are some of the hard times."

And, of course, there had to be plenty of positives for Zauhar to stay in her position as long as she did.

"The camaraderie between your colleagues, when you work in a small department, I think you become close," she said. "Close-knit with each other. Especially if you're in corrections and law enforcement -- that's like your second family."

So, the question at this point is: why retire now?

"Hmmm," Zauhar said. "Let's see. Now's the time, because 30 years is a very long time. It's a young person's field. I just felt I had contributed and advanced the professionalism of corrections to the point where I was satisfied, and there are new people coming in."

Zauhar said that her replacement, Paul Coughlin, is "very energetic," and that he's "done a lot of research and has a lot of ideas for taking the jail and its staff to the next level."

The 30-year veteran jail administrator is still only 55, and she plans to work elsewhere, somewhere "yet to be determined." One thing's for sure: she's not planning on taking it too easy, whatever she does.

"I feel like I'm a young, active retiree," Deb Zauhar says. "And I still have contributions to make."