Sheriff Locks Himself Up to Know What It's Like

Standing 6 feet 5 inches in his jailhouse blues, with a square jaw and grey stubble, Mark Curran is the inmate in cell No. 2. He is also the sheriff.

He hasn't been charged with any crimes. But Curran, the sheriff of Lake County, Ill., wanted to know the feeling of being caged. So he sentenced himself to a week in lock-up, in Waukegan. "People who have never been in jail," he says wryly, "don't know what it's like to sit on the toilet in full view of everyone."

Lake County, the stretch of area north of Chicago to the Wisconsin border, is a land of extremes-- from the mansions of Lake Forest to the mean streets of Waukegan. The wealthy tend to be white, and the poor are usually African American or Latino. Inside the jail, the other inmates know who Curran is. Some act friendly when he says hello. Others turn away, or greet him with glares.

The sheriff says he understands the reaction, "I'm just another white guy—like the prosecutor, probably; like the person who sold him down the river; like the judge."

Curran, who in 2006 became the first Democrat in 28 years to be elected sheriff in Lake County, shrugs at critics who might accuse him of grandstanding. The 45-year-old career prosecutor, who ran as a Reagan Democrat, says he "couldn't care less about getting re-elected." Go ahead and call it a publicity stunt. "If I hadn't checked myself in[to] jail," he asks, "would I have a chance to talk to NEWSWEEK about the things that I think are important?"

This is what Curran, a devout Catholic, sees as important: telling broken people that they are loved and that they can heal, and teaching them to show their own children that they are loved, too.

In jails across America, he argues, inmates usually have one thing in common: They grew up without a loving father in their lives. And that's an experience which Curran, the son of a tough, old-school Irish-Catholic father, who believed that men shouldn't cry or show emotions, can relate to. Curran's dad was a man who did not hug his son, but rather he slapped him around for misbehaving, Curran says.

Not until his father died, four-years ago, did Curran truly realize how strongly the experience of growing up with an emotionally cold father affected him. On the day his father died, Curran said he was struck by a powerful feeling.

"I was pissed," he says. "I was still waiting for an apology. And now I knew I would never get one."

To help inmates who faced similar upbringings, and to break the cycle of neglect and crime, Curran has started the Malachi project at the jail, which includes Bible-reading and discussions on parenting. The program requires inmates to write their children every week.

As any politician knows, there isn't much sympathy for thieves, rapists and murderers. "But how about their children?" the sheriff asks. "Are you so hard-hearted that you don't care about the children?"

Despite his deep religious faith, which shapes his anti-death penalty views, Curran doesn't come across as a meek choirboy. His language can be salty. He mentions that he "used to drink," and says that he's not worried about some inmate trying to make a name for himself by picking a fight with the sheriff. "I'm a big enough guy, I'll take a swing," he says.

He takes the same meals as the others, "The food is awful—I'm not going to lie about that." But Curran, who will be "released" on Wednesday, knows it is absurd to compare the experience of an ordinary inmate, typically an impoverished, poorly educated man, with his voluntary incarceration as a high-profile local politician, "Who are we kidding? I'm being paid a salary of nearly $140,000 to sit in here."

While Curran sat in his cell, where someone had scratched a gang symbol on a shelf, some other inmates were gathered in open spaces in the "pods," watching television or playing cards.

One of them, Henry Bell, 29, scoffed at "special treatment" for the sheriff, saying the guards made sure his cell was clean and in tip-top shape. "Can't you smell the fresh paint?" said Bell, shaking his head.

Still, another inmate, Jamie Harris, 47, says he's learned something from his latest stint in the Waukegan jail. Harris, a father of 11, says he promises to stay straight this time. He also vows to show his children that he loves them.