PEORIA, Ill. – A new program in Peoria County aims to change the relationship between police officers and men behind bars. The officers that launched the initiative believe it is impacting lives — and not just of the inmates.
Breaking Boundaries is the brainchild of Peoria Police Officer Daniel Duncan and Angel Cruz, community outreach coordinator for the city of Peoria.
The duo invites current and former police officers, along with members of the Peoria County Sheriff’s Department, for a two-hour discussion with a group of selected detainees.
“We talk about life,” said program coordinator Angel Cruz. “Their definition of life.”
At any point, the conversation can switch from trauma to jokes, and the topic always circles back to becoming better men. Upon introduction, every person — men in blue and men in stripes — shares about himself and their journey.
In this group, the men do not discuss their cases and are not called “inmates.” Duncan and Cruz want to challenge the narrative that the relationship between police and detainees cannot be positive.
“It’s looking past the stripes, looking past the number and acknowledging each individual as the men that they are,” Cruz said.
“It’s not justifying the thing’s that they’ve done,” said Duncan. “But they’re humans.” The Peoria native recalls one man telling him it’s changed his perspective of the police.
“They’re not going to be locked up forever,” said Duncan, a 20-year-veteran of the department. “I think if they can see us in a different way, the results are going to be positive all around.”
Gene German, of Peoria, is one of the detainees involved in the program. He grew up with the concept that he should not trust the police. Duncan has arrested and issued citations to German on multiple occasions. They’re interactions started rocky, but has blossomed over the course of dialogue.
“Gene wouldn’t even look at me,” said Duncan about the pair’s initial interactions when the program began. “Gene would turn to the side, and he wanted nothing to do with me because of our past encounters on the street.”
“There were days I felt like [Duncan] was my arch enemy,” said German, who’s been in the jail for several months. “But at the end of the day, we started building a little relationship. He’s a pretty good dude. I can give him a fair shot you know.”
German says he genuinely believes Cruz and Duncan want to help him.
The men must apply, complete and graduate from a seven-week re-entry program offered in order to be eligible for Breaking Boundaries. All of the detainees also participate in programs offered by faith-based, Jobs Partnership, which is supported by volunteers.
Adam Ware has been inside the jail since February for a federal case. He says he’s thankful for opportunities he’s received over several months.
“I definitely feel like it’s a good thing, and it’s needed for me,” said Ware, of Peoria. “I’m seriously here because I’m trying to get to the root of a few different situations.”
Ware looks forward to conversations with Duncan, Cruz and the other men and says the group provides necessary accountability.
“This class, these programs are definitely putting guys in the right position, but you gotta want it,” he said.
Depending on their case, most of the men do not know if or when they will return to society. Many people in the jail’s programs, including the men in Breaking Boundaries, await trial or sentencing for criminal charges, which could land them in prison.
Still, Peoria County Sheriff Brian Asbell wants to provide the men and women in the jail with the resources to improve their lives and prepare for life after incarceration.
“It is predictable that if they are released and we do not give an opportunity to these individuals, they are going to fall back into their crimes of survival,” said Asbell.
Breaking Boundaries is one of multiple programs offered at the Peoria County Jail. Asbell believes the opportunities are proving effective at reducing the rate of recidivism.
According to the National Institute of Justice, recidivism is measured by criminal acts that result rearrests, conviction or return to prison with or without a new sentence during a three-year period following the person’s release.
From October 2015 to September 2018, nearly 70 percent of people booked into the Peoria County Jail fell under that category. However, since Peoria County Jail started offering these programs, Asbell says participants have been 18 percent less likely to return.
“Even from an economic standpoint, it’s a plus,” said Asbell. “That’s less of your dollars for three hots and a cot in a county jail. That money could be going to schools, roads and other infrastructure needs.”
Cruz says careful consideration went into the name of Breaking Boundaries. The Chicago native says he battled addiction for years and later became homeless, until a support group, Teen Challenge, helped him face his addiction and remnants of an abusive household.
“When we’re talking about boundaries, what’s breaking boundaries?” asked Cruz. “We are genuinely listening. So we’re not talking at these men. We’re talking to them, so we can empathize because we’ve been there too.”
But Duncan is clear: this program is not only about helping the inmates. It’s also about the police. He says it has changed the way he thinks about his job.
“This interaction with them right next to me has broken those barriers that they’re just criminal. They just broke the law. They don’t want to do better and that’s why they keeping coming back to jail and recidivism rates are so high.” said Duncan. “Having that relationship with some of these men now and hearing in the struggles in their lives day-in and day-out, it gives me more of an understanding. [It’s challenged me] to say ‘What am I doing to help these men more?'”
Duncan recruited his father and former Peoria Police Officer, Chris, to join the group, and is inviting current officers, as well.
“It’s thinking outside the box. It’s doing something totally different by bringing those local law enforcement officers in and having that open dialogue with the men while they’re in here,” said Duncan. “You’re going to have more positive outcomes when they are out on the streets.”
Meanwhile, Asbell says the jail is currently hiring a case management position to work with men and women upon their release. That position should be staffed by January 2020 and will be funded by an inmate benefit fund that comes from the commissary system. The money, which does not include tax dollars, should sustain the position for the several years.