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Published June 14 2013

Lock & lead: Women hold top positions in Cass and Clay jails

For Judy Tollefson and Julie Savat, work at the Cass and Clay county jails is more than housing inmates.

“We do so many things, and it’s not just feeding and watching inmates,” said Tollefson, jail administrator for Cass County. “There are a lot of heartbreaking things that we see.”

Her 30-year career, which included field work, investigations, social work and a number of years working at the jail, helped Tollefson develop the skills she uses to oversee the jail.

Savat, administrator for the Clay County Jail in Moorhead, didn’t necessarily plan to go into law enfourcement. But after 22 years with the Clay County Sheriff’s office and 18 years in her position as jail administrator, she’s more than settled in.

Both Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney and Clay County Chief Deputy Matt Siiro said there are no advantages or disadvantages to having female jail administrators. What makes the women effective in their positions are their personalities and leadership abilities.

“Julie is a very good manager and organizer and that job requires a lot of management and organizing,” Siiro said.

During the flood of 2009, officers were required to take on jobs for which they hadn’t necessarily been trained, and Savat was the first one to step up and volunteer to do whatever was necessary, he said. She served as the planning chief during that flood and all of the floods since, he said.

Laney said when he was elected sheriff six years ago, he quickly realized he had a rising star in Tollefson.

“She’s the all-around package when it comes to leadership,” he said. “She’s very kind, caring, considerate, but she’s very strong-willed, she’s got a strong backbone. She knows the appropriate times to do the appropriate things. She’s just a gem.”

Tollefson has always wanted to work in law enforcement. She started at the Cass County Sheriff’s Department in 1985, working part-time at the jail.

She spent 10 years working in warrants and investigations. Tollefson, who has a background in social work, also spent a few years working as a child abuse and neglect investigator for Cass County Social Services. Then she spent a few years in welfare fraud investigation before she went back to working at the jail, where she became administrator in 2011.

“I did my time in the field and am content to be back inside,” she said.

When she worked in investigations, the majority of her cases involved abuse. It was a taxing field to work in, but working as a child abuse and neglect investigator for social services was even harder emotionally, she said.

Now, serving as jail administrator, she says she’s found a perfect fit.

“We do more natural social work in this setting than people realize. We deal with people who are not at their best, who probably have some kind of chemical addiction, whether it’s alcohol or drugs, which causes all kinds of other issues in their lives.”

Savat didn’t plan on a career in law enforcement. She graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead with a degree in criminal justice and psychology, and when a job opportunity came up with the sheriff’s department, she decided to give it a try.

“My entire career at Clay County has been very good to me,” she said.

Tollefson and Savat are in charge of budget and personnel issues as well as making sure the jails stay current on policies and procedures.

The job is a challenging one.

Tollefson said watching inmates go through methamphetamine or alcohol withdrawal and working with people with mental illnesses can be especially difficult.

“You have to learn to focus on the things that are positive that come out of it,” Tollefson said.

The women have seen quite a few changes over the years, both said.

Mental health issues are becoming a bigger problem in their jails, they said.

“For years now the prevailing thought is that the communities can provide the services that people need. It’s very rare that people are hospitalized for any length of time and unfortunately people out in the community kind of fall through the cracks and jail is a safe place for them to be,” Tollefson said.

“In the last couple of years it’s gotten significantly worse,” Savat said. “It’s very difficult to deal with because we’re not really set up in a jail to handle people with mental health issues as severe as we’re seeing them.”

They’re dealing with issues like delusions, severe depression, and post-traumatic stress syndrome, she said.

The jails try to stabilize people and help them get medication.

In Clay County, a counselor comes in once a week and a psychiatrist visits with inmates over an interactive television system.

“There’s not a lot of programming available or counselors who can be with them on a regular basis,” Savat said. “We’ve done everything we can for them, but this isn’t the best environment for them.”

The Cass County jail has a full-time mental health coordinator because of the magnitude of the issue, Tollefson said.

“A lot of our people cycle through here,” she said. “They’re not just here one time and leave.”

It’s pretty common that people will arrive at the jail in tough shape because they’re not on their medications and haven’t gotten the help they need. They will stabilize in jail where they can go back on their medications and are fed regular meals. But then they leave and repeat the cycle, Tollefson said.

“It’s tough,” she said. “You hate to see it.”

The severity of crime has also worsened.

“When I started there were a lot of DWIs and drinking offenses and now we’re seeing a lot of felony drug charges, felony assaults and those kinds of higher level crimes,” Savat said. “It’s not just your weekenders who are rolling in here. It’s people who are going to stick around for a while.”

Juvenile crimes are a lot more violent than they used to be, too, with kids committing crimes like armed robbery, Tollefson said.

“They’re just a different caliber of offender,” she said.

But, as difficult as it is, the job can also be rewarding.

“If you can connect with somebody and help them understand what they’re doing that isn’t working in life when they’re on the outside and they leave and they’re in so much better shape, that’s really rewarding,” Tollefson said. “We’re problem-solvers. That’s what we do. And to see those little victories is really rewarding.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526