On August 7and 8 of 2008 I attended a Leadership Summit at Willow Creek Church in Barrington with other members of the Correctional Staff of the Lake County Jail. The list of speakers included Chuck Colson, the founder of Prison Fellowship, and Catherine Rohr, the founder of Prison Entrepreneurship. As I walked into Willow Creek I turned to my Deputy Chief of the Lake County Jail, Patrick Firman, and said "I am going to spend a week in the Lake County Jail." I believe that because the idea came to me in church that it may have been divinely inspired.
I have four goals that I hope to achieve while staying in the Lake County Jail. However, I do not intend to rank the goals by their level of importance.
My first goal that I wish to discuss is my desire to find some additional introspection into our inmate programming. I will be remanding to the Lake County Jail after this press conference to spend the week from August 20, 2008 until August 27, 2008 in the Lake County Jail. I have not been accused of any crime nor have I committed any crime. I will be spending this time in the Lake County jail voluntarily. I believe that I can be a better Sheriff by having a better understanding of jail operations from the perspective of an inmate in the Lake County Jail. I believe that I will receive significant introspection from staying in the jail with the inmates for a week.
I believe that my experience in the jail will help me to better understand our existing programming as well as any possible unmet needs that exist in our inmate programming. I will spend significant periods of time in classrooms observing the programming. I will also spend significant periods of time in conversation with inmates while I attempt to learn more about their issues.
I am statutorily mandated to run the Lake County jail. I have hundreds of people in the jail at any given time and more than twelve thousand people that come through the jail in any given year. I am responsible for their safety. I hope to find insight into any possible safety issues as well.
Some people may say that a Sheriff or Law Enforcement Official should not care about the inmates in prison or jail. I do care about the inmates in the Lake County Jail and I will match my Law Enforcement credentials against almost anyone.
I was a prosecutor for approximately fifteen years at the county, state and federal levels. I chose to be a prosecutor because of a strong desire to help clean up the streets by making sure that offenders were brought to justice. I encountered significant financial hardship in prosecuting for so many years as I caddied on the weekends to pay my bills. I made those sacrifices quite easily because I loved putting bad guys in jail and I believed that in some way I was doing "God's work." I was consistently promoted and ultimately became a high level supervisor and achieved significant recognition for my superior work. I did not view jail overcrowding as a problem but as a goal. I still view my days as a prosecutor with great fondness and an unshakeable belief in the work of prosecutors everywhere. However, further experiences and maturity has allowed me to view jail overcrowding as a significant societal blight.
I also have a responsibility to the citizens of Lake County to help make them safer. We make the citizens of Lake County safer by vigorously investigating all crimes and making arrests whenever possible. We also make the citizens of Lake County safer by helping to reduce recidivism whenever possible. The biblical adage that we reap what we sow is very true in criminal justice. The State of Illinois has historically had one of the worst run prison systems in the nation. The Illinois Department of Correction has treated inmates like caged animals only to see them released back into their communities angrier and more bitter than they originally were. The street gangs that terrorize the citizens of Lake County and the rest of Illinois were created in the Illinois Department of Corrections.
We need to be proactive in the steps that we take to help reduce recidivism. The Lake County Jail in cooperation with the hundreds of free volunteers as well as the commitment of the Lake County Board has taken positive steps toward reducing recidivism. These steps are outlined in our programming brochures that are available for all members of the media.
My second goal in engaging in this period of voluntary incarceration is to bring attention to what we are doing in Lake County. I believe that we have the best run jail in the nation and I hope that the Illinois Department of Corrections will consider what we are doing as well as others that are involved in the Corrections. My staff and I have visited prisons in Illinois as well as the Angola prison in Louisiana. The Angola Prison was once the most violent prison in the nation and is now the most peaceful and best run prison in the nation. While working with my friend Manny Mill of Kononia House Ministries we have attempted to bring this vision to the Illinois Department of Corrections however we have had little success. We have modeled many things in the Lake County Jail from our experience at Angola Prison.
The Lake County Jail is accredited by the American Correctional Association Commission on Accreditation for Corrections, and the National Commission on Correctional Health Care. Less than 3 percent of all jails meet these accreditations that substantiate that the Lake County Jail has the highest standards for jail operations within the United States. The direct supervision style of the Lake County Jail and the professionalism of the staff create an orderly atmosphere unlike any other correctional setting.
The Lake County Jail is extremely safe. Reports indicate that there have only been 3 deliberate attacks by an inmate on an officer within the past 18 years and there has never been an attack of an inmate on a programming volunteer.
My third goal in serving a week in the Lake County is to honor in some small way the volunteers that come in to the jail on a regular basis. I had dinner last week with Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricoupa County Arizona and Sheriff Joe told me that he had approximately 500 hundred volunteers coming into his jail, which is the fourth largest jail in the country, and I was able to tell him that is roughly the same number of volunteers that we have coming into the Lake County Jail. Many of these people have enjoyed tremendous success in the private and public sectors yet they choose to come into the Lake County Jail for little to no money and no recognition. They choose to come to the Lake County Jail to minister to the people that many in society have forgotten or would rather spit on than choose to help. They choose to love these people that desperately need love. I will wear the inmate clothing and sleep in the jail in part to honor these servants as I am so humbled to serve in their presence. .
My fourth and final goal is to draw attention to the need for rehabilitation programming and to awaken the collective consciousness of society. I still believe in locking up the real bad guys forever. However, the reality is that according to recent studies virtually every person incarcerated in a jail in this country and approximately 97 percent of those incarcerated in prisons will eventually be released. Three-quarters of those returning home have a history of substance abuse; two-thirds have no high school diploma. More than a third of jail inmates report having some physical or mental disability, with a rate of serious mental illness which is two to four times higher than the rate among the general population. Fifty-five percent of re-entering adults have children under the age of 18. The national recidivism rate is 67 percent which means that 67 percent will return to jail or prison within 3 years from the time of release. We are attempting to improve upon those numbers in Lake County.
Our jail houses violent murderers and rapists however we also house people that have been down on their luck and made mistakes. I had lunch last week with Catherine Rohr, the Chief Executive Officer of Prison Entrepreneurship, and she estimated that 1 in 15 Americans will be incarcerated at some point in time. The Pew study indicates that approximately 1 in 100 Americans is currently incarcerated. I may be housing some bad people in the Lake County Jail however I am also housing people that have made mistakes. I believe that everyone should be treated with respect. I hope that by wearing the inmate clothing and sleeping in the jail that it will help us to collectively recognize the words of Jesus Christ who said, "When I was in prison you visited me."
A higher percentage of people in Lake County have softened their hearts and dropped their pride and arrogance and have visited these inmates than in any other county that I am aware of. In Lake County we have embraced the scriptural mandate to love our neighbor. Your neighbor must be everyone if we are truly going to see peace on earth. In eyes of society I may be Sheriff but in God's eyes I am no better than anyone else.
I hope that my wearing inmate clothing and sleeping in the jail does draw attention to what we are doing here in Lake County because it is truly special. I hope that hearts are softened because people need second chances. As I stated earlier almost every inmate in this jail will be released and they will need jobs to support themselves. Employers that thumb their noses at someone simply because they have a criminal record are not making moral decisions and they are not helping society to reduce recidivism.
Inmate Programming is fiscally responsible because it helps save the taxpayer the expense of future incarceration. Inmate programming is also designed to ensure that there are no future victims which is the strongest argument of all.
I hope that if there are other churches, synagogues, mosques, or social agencies that want to help people in jail that they may consider doing so. I hope that the Illinois Department of Corrections is able to see what we are doing and works to make the desperately needed changes. The wrongdoers must pay their debt to society yet the rest of us can make society better by remembering that it only grace that separates us from the wrongdoers.