From jail architects to jail teachers in the era of mass incarcerations

The presidential debates confirmed that reducing America’s burgeoning incarceration rate is a bipartisan goal. “Three-strikes-and-you’re-out,” tougher drug sentencing even for non-violent drug crimes and mandatory sentencing guidelines have all added to the problem. Today, as presidential candidates from both parties repeat, America has the highest incarceration rate of any nation in the world.

The number of Americans incarcerated per 100,000 people is nearly 700 compared with 106 in Canada, 165 in China and 148 in England and Wales. Only North Korea, one of the world’s most secretive and repressive countries, is close to the U.S. rate of incarceration.

Countries with lower wage inequality have lower rates of incarceration and recidivism. Countries with the smallest gap between rich and poor have higher taxes, more social services and lower incarceration rates.

Well aware of these statistics are colleagues Ron Budzinski and James Matarelli. Both men are architects and over long careers they worked on jail design around the world.

Budzinski said over his 40-year career, he never once designed bars over the windows of any facility.

“People react to the environment they are put into,” he said. “I’ve never been a proponent of warehousing people. We designed facilities where the majority of people do not want to be, and they want to change. We tried to design to create the opportunity for change.”

Today, Budzinski works from the inside to create the opportunity for change. He and Matarelli, are volunteer teachers with the jobs partnership jail program directed by Cheryl Parks, Heaven’s View Fellowship Church, 602 W. Richmond St., Peoria. Parks is looking for more volunteer teachers, and when Budzinski and Matarelli came to her, she was able to speak with jail superintendent Brian Asbell about starting a class for men.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Budzinski and Matarelli checked in at the Peoria County Jail, surrendering their driver’s licenses for visitor tags. They buzzed through three clanging metal doors, walked down a wide, echoing corridor and entered an empty, windowless classroom.

As he organized class handouts, Budzinski commented that papers must not have any staples or paperclips.

Within a few minutes, six middle-aged men in prison jump suits and orange Crocs on their feet entered the room and slipped onto desk/chairs. During the next two hours, these men were intent, with their eyes on the instructors.

The jobs partnership program is a 12-week class using the Bible to reinforce essential job skills and traits.

The lesson this day was on integrity and attitude. Budzinski used the story of David and Goliath to underpin his lesson. Matarelli talked about Joseph and his coat of many colors.

For the most part, the class listened and spoke little, but two men recounted examples to reinforce the lesson.

In one case, a man spoke about an order from a guard delivered as though the guard was speaking to a child. “He had a bad attitude like he was talking with a kid, but I knew I had to show humility,” the man said. Others in the class nodded agreement.

In another case, a man talked about giving a “noodle” to another detainee. The reference was to a packet of Ramen noodles, and the recipient failed to pay back the noodle and additionally asked for a trade for a phone call. When the borrower was asked to return the two loans, his response was “you bothering me.”

The man in the class told the guy “I just want my noodle.” He told the class he avoided a confrontation, collected his noodle and “I left with a humble attitude.”

The class closed with a prayer.

Jail Superintendent Asbell said he approved the class because he believes detainees are interested in the material and benefit from it.

“Once they sign up for this program, they are committed. That’s what they need in the job world. We hope they are ready to make a life change,” he said.

“Jails are often warehouses. They are called correctional and rehab, but there is only so much we can do with budget limits, so programs that cost us nothing and work are a win-win.”

Asbell is hoping the program helps reduce recidivism rates which are now about 80 percent compared with a nationwide average of about 68 percent.

“ Our end goal is to work on our recidivism level. This program is for 20 to 25 detainees. If 50 percent continue (with the program) once they are released and get a job, those are people who will not reoffend,” he said.

Jail occupancy has gone down about 25 percent in recent years. According to statistics supplied by Asbell, the average daily population of the jail went from 495 in 2012 to 379 in 2014 and this year up to October 1 was 340.

Asbell said mental health issues are a major focus of jail resources due to the closing of Zeller Mental Health Center and termination of other community services for mental health.

The jail had specially trained “navigators” on hand to assist with enrollment during the rollout of the Affordable Care Act. Before the Affordable Care Act, the sheriff’s department was responsible for medical costs. Following implementation of ACA, the department can get some reimbursement for hospitalizations of at least 24 hours. ACA also means people can get continuity of care, Asbell said, noting that’s something his wife, a nurse, has stressed as an essential component of health care.

He expects to have another collaborative program starting soon to further help detainees with medical care and anticipates it will also reduce recidivism rates.

Clare Howard

Clare Howard is the editor of the Community Word. She can be reached at

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