In a dramatic move Lake County chief Mark Curran has sentenced himself to a weeklong stay in prison to find out conditions there firsthand. He entered the prison under his jurisdiction Wednesday.
"I believe that I can be a better sheriff by having a better understanding of jail operations from the perspective of an inmate," he said at a news conference. "Because the idea came to me in a church, I believe it is divinely inspired."
Curran, a Catholic, couched his reasoning for going to jail in terms of redemption and forgiveness. He often intersperses his public comments with religious terms.
"The biblical adage that we reap what we sow is very true in criminal justice," said Curran, 45, before exchanging his business suit for a prison jumpsuit at the Waukegan, Illinois, facility near Chicago.
He said he was attending a law-enforcement leadership conference at Willow Creek Community Church in Barrington when "a light bulb kind of went off in my head."
Curran, 45, a former prosecutor elected sheriff in 2006, has shown a strong interest in jail and correctional programs since being elected, including visiting the notorious Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana to gauge how faith-based education and counseling programs work there.
The sheriff blamed the Illinois Department of Corrections for allowing conditions that led gangs to gestate within the walls of its prisons. The state prison system "has treated inmates like caged animals, only to see them released back into their communities angrier and more bitter than they originally were," he said.
Curran said he intends to learn how to improve programs to help inmates succeed on the outside and draw attention to initiatives in the jail that might work at state prisons.
He says he has four goals he hopes to achieve by spending a week at the jail.
"My first goal that I wish to discuss is my desire to find some additional introspection into our inmate programming," he said. "I believe that I can be a better sheriff by having a better understanding of jail operations from the perspective of an inmate."
He said he will spend time in classrooms observing inmate programming, as well as spending "significant periods of time in conversation with inmates while I attempt to learn more about their issues."
Curran says his second goal 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."
His third goal "is to honor in some small way the volunteers that come in to the jail on a regular basis. Many of [the approximately 500] 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."
His fourth goal "is to draw attention to the need for rehabilitation programming and to awaken the collective consciousness of society," Curran said. "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."
"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," he said. I hope that hearts are softened, because people need second chances. Almost every inmate in this jail will be released and they will need jobs to support themselves.
The sheriff will spend his first three nights in one of the jail's dorm-style accommodations, according to jail officials. While other inmates in that area sleep in beds arranged in rows in a large room, the sheriff will have his own 6-by-8-foot cell. From there he will spend two nights in a general population cell that is one of several arranged around a day room where inmates play cards and watch television.
Curran also will spend a night in the maximum-security segregation unit and the jail's medical unit, he said. During the days he will participate in a substance abuse support group and also take classes for those taking GED tests - a group of tests enabling one to obtain certificate of proficiency in school-level academic skills.
Besides he will work in the kitchen and work on a road cleanup crew. He will eat with other inmates, he said, though jail food is not his "cup of tea."
The jail houses about 650 inmates, most awaiting trial; charges range from petty misdemeanors to sexual assault and murder. Curran said he had been assured by jail officials that he would not be in danger.
"Him being my boss, I wouldn't even allow this if I didn't think it was reasonably safe," said Jennifer Witherspoon, the sheriff's department chief of corrections.
Curran said he cleared most of his schedule for the week so he can stay in jail, though he will leave the jail for a few meetings. Undersheriff Charles Fagan will run the department in Curran's absence.
In a holding cell near where Curran was booked, several men stared through a layer of reinforced glass, quizzical looks on their faces as a throng of news media swarmed.
Personalizing issues to drum up media coverage is nothing new for Chicago-area public officials. In 1981 Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne famously moved into the notorious Cabrini-Green housing projects to highlight conditions there. More recently, 10th District Democratic House candidate Dan Seals in May sponsored a campaign event in which customers at a Lincolnshire gas station paid only $1.85 a gallon for 10 gallons of gas that was selling for $4.14 a gallon; he covered the difference and worked the pump, Chicago Tribune reports.