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DANVILLE — In the day room of a housing wing at the Danville Correctional Center, 16 men sit in a circle, facing each other with no barriers between them.

It’s about to get real.

“How did you define success before you came to prison?” asks Michael Brawn, the group’s facilitator.

“A big wad of money,” one man answers.

“Cars, money, a big house,” says another.

When Brawn asks whether those measures have changed, several members nod.

“You start realizing that success, it’s not just materialistic,” one man offers. “It’s wisdom you learn and pass on to your family.”

“It’s accomplishing the goals you set for yourself,” another man says.

“It’s when you see the benefits of change,” adds another.

“How many people have reached goals in prison that you set for yourself?” Brawn asks. More than half raise their hand.

“How does that make you feel?” Brawn continues.

“Good,” a man answers, breaking into a grin.

The discussion unfolded recently on the first Building Block wing at the medium-security adult male prison, located on the eastern edge of Danville.

Launched in February 2018, Building Block is a new and innovative initiative with a mission “to create an environment that fosters positive changes through a series of mentor-driven programs that are founded on the core principles of respect, responsibility, ownership, community and empathy.”

The idea for it came from offenders.

Under the program, classes — including leadership skills, effective communication and anger management — and other opportunities for self-improvement take place right on the wing. The peer mentors on the wing are responsible for scheduling and leading classes, tutoring younger offenders and encouraging and supporting them, among other things.

The 112 offenders who live on the wing are held to a higher standard of behavior. They must make their bed every day, complete all homework assignments and follow other rules, or they can’t live on the wing.

The program has been so successful that it’s been expanded to three other wings at the Danville facility. And it now serves as a model for other prisons within the Illinois Department of Corrections.

“It’s building a sense of accountability and community among offenders, and transforming the culture of normal corrections practices,” Warden Victor Calloway said, adding that it benefits the offenders, prison staff and communities to which the offenders will return.

• • •

The idea grew out of discussions between the warden, clinical services staffers and offenders who served as peer educators, including Brawn and Renaldo Hudson. The staff had sought out their feedback on what programming was working and what wasn’t.

Brawn and Hudson shared that some offenders were sincere about wanting to change and were taking educational and self-improvement classes toward that. But the climate they returned to — much of which was created by pushback from other inmates — was counterproductive to those efforts.

“When you’re trying to make changes, one of the hardest things is to be accepted for who you’re trying to become,” Brawn said.

Hudson suggested creating a more conducive environment by filling a wing with people who wanted to change and providing mentors who could advise, assist and support them along the way.

“And we would all hold each other accountable,” Hudson said.

Kim Larson, the assistant warden of operations who was over programs at the time, was intrigued by the idea. She and other staff had noticed times when an offender got upset because a privilege was taken away and a peer educator stepped in, explained the rules and diffused the situation.

“They were already solving a lot of issues on the wing,” Larson said, adding that might be anything from personal hygiene to cell etiquette to respect.

“That’s one of the unique things: They actually listened to us,” Hudson said, adding Larson asked them to write a proposal. “We put a program together, and it pretty much took off.”

After months of collaboration and preparation from staff and offenders, Building Block was launched with six mentors and three classes at housing wing 4B, one of 16 wings in four housing units at the Danville facility, which has a little more than 1,700 offenders.

About every six months, it has expanded to another wing. Today, there are 448 participants, including about 30 mentors, on four wings.

“They all have their own vibe, depending on the makeup,” said John Peterson, a correctional counselor who oversees the program.

The original is the refocus wing; another is for veterans; another is for people dealing with substance abuse; and the newest, which opened in August, focuses on education.

“That’s so the guys get their GED,” Peterson said.

To be accepted, offenders must go through an application process and have a good discipline record with no recent infractions. To stay, they must take classes, which are offered seven days a week.

Felicia Adkins, assistant warden of programs, said some life skills classes — such as keys to success, conflict resolution and changing your thinking — are taught on every wing. Others — such as current events, constructive writing, the Constitution, a CDL class, movie discussion and book club — are chosen by the occupants.

“There’s a young men’s think tank, a veterans’ think tank,” Peterson said. “They even wrote a play and performed it for other offenders. They’re writing another play now.”

• • •

Participants must follow facility rules, including no talking during long line movements, no running to the phone and no being disrespectful to staff or each other.

“We’re also very strict about respecting different lifestyles,” Hudson said.

Participants are also expected to clean the wing.

“They take a lot of responsibility for where they live,” Peterson said. “You’ll see guys on their hands and knees, scrubbing. They take a lot of pride in it.”

That pride also can be seen in the artwork that livens up and personalizes the once-drab-looking walls, stairwells and areas over doorways throughout the wings, all done by the offenders who live there.

In 4D, the veterans’ wing, the walls are inscribed with Semper Fidelis, the U.S. Marine Corps motto, and motivational sayings that include “Your life does not get better by chance, it gets better by change” and “A bad attitude is like a flat tire. You can’t go anywhere until you change it.”

Across the hall in 4B, words like “unselfishness,” “courage” and “knowledge,” are painted on a stairwell. Decorating a back wall where offenders video conference with visitors is a colorful mural depicting four figures crossing the “Bridge of Change.”

The first figure, who is walking toward the bridge, wears a gray hoodie; the second, an orange jail jumpsuit; the third, the prison uniform of a blue shirt and blue slacks; and the last one, who has crossed the bridge, wears a graduation cap and gown and holds a diploma.

None of the figures have faces or arms.

“They didn’t want to assign color to the people,” said Greg Runyan, an executive assistant to the warden. That signifies “they’re all here doing this together.”

“We don’t want to confuse anyone. It’s not an honors dorm,” Hudson said of the wings. “It’s still a wing full of men in prison. A lot of guys have gotten into trouble. They still have fights over the phone. They still get tickets for not being in compliance.”

Participants can and have been removed from the program for different reasons. There’s zero tolerance for offenses such as fighting or sexual misconduct.

“Some guys pull themselves,” said Lt. Charles Campbell, head of internal affairs. “They’re not ready to change.”

Hudson and other organizers knew that the program would need buy-in from staff to work — and that some would be more reluctant than others for good reason. That’s why Hudson requested “the hardest” correctional officers to work the wing.

“We needed them to come in and not be afraid to enforce the rules,” he said. “We knew if we got them and … things worked like they were supposed to, they would become our strongest allies.”

• • •

Campbell, a longtime correctional officer, admitted he was apprehensive at first.

But, “it’s working, and it’s making a difference,” he said, adding “what these guys have pulled off is hard. They’ve had to deal with a lot of peer pressure.”

Other signs of success, Peterson said: “We’ve seen huge increases in their (Test of Adult Basic Education) scores.” At the same time, infractions and grievances are down.

Larson said there’s been no additional cost to run the program. Materials for classes, art supplies and items like a TV and microwaves have been donated by churches, groups or individuals in the community, who have heard about the program through word-of-mouth.

The Second Church of Christ in Danville started its partnership with the prison in 2017, when it hosted the Global Leadership Summit for community leaders and citizens at its church, which is just up the road, and set up a live feed at the prison so that 200 or so offenders could be involved. Since then, the church has also taken its Celebrate Recovery program to the prison and donated paint, other art supplies and books.

“No. 1, these people are of value, especially in God’s eyes, and we want to invest in them from that standpoint,” said Dale DeNeal, the church’s executive minister.

No. 2, “prison is supposed to be about corrections and helping other people change,” DeNeal said, adding that the program gives the participants hope and shows them “my past doesn’t have to define my future.

“So we see ourselves as a partner,” he continued. “We want to be a positive part of that process and will serve however we can.”

Pastor Thomas Miller, senior minister at New Life Church of Faith in Danville and a volunteer chaplain at the prison for the past 33 years, also feels that supporting the program is a wise investment. His church has donated GED study guides and copy paper.

“Many of them were very young and immature when they went into the system. For many of them, all they knew was gang life and crime,” he said, adding that some may be learning for the first time that they are intelligent and can be successful.

“It’s also preparing them for when they come back into society,” Miller said. “They’re getting knowledge and life skills they need to cope and become productive citizens.”

• • •

After the Building Block Basics class wraps, Brawn, Hudson and facilitator Darrell Miller meet in the chapel to talk about how the program is changing lives, including their own.

Miller, who’s serving a 12-year sentence for aggravated battery with a firearm, said that before his incarceration, he only knew a life “of chaos” in Chicago. He got swept up in the wrong crowd, lived by the street code and ended up shooting and injuring three people.

“I was one of those individuals who didn’t have a heart for people. … When I got my sentence, I knew I wanted to do something different,” said Miller, who desired to change not only for himself, but for his young son. The program “has given me a different thought process and the tools to deal with situations … and succeed.”

Brawn is wrapping up a 20-year sentence for the attempted murder of his ex-girlfriend. He said much of that stemmed from substance abuse.

Now, “I can recognize my triggers … and set boundaries,” continued Brawn, who became a certified addictions professional behind bars.

In Building Block, he started a domestic violence class and shares his story “to help other people not become that.” He’s excited when he sees his peers tap into a talent or develop a skill such as creating art, leading groups or mentoring peers, that they didn’t know they had.

“This program is unique in that we’ve created a program that allows the peers, each of us, to have a voice in our change,” Brawn said. “There’s a sense of empowerment that comes by having a voice.”

He hopes the program is also creating a culture where participants say, “I’m not just going to follow the rules; I’m going to connect that to something bigger.” He said that’s when true change comes about, and they will use that to guide them to make good decisions in prison — and when they’re released and go back home.

When he’s released in 2022, Brawn hopes to assist other newly released people or those struggling with substance abuse.

“Who better than me to help them?” he said.

• • •

Hudson has been incarcerated for 36 years for robbing and killing an elderly man and then setting his apartment on fire to cover up the crime. He spent years on death row before all Illinois death sentences were commuted to life terms in 2003.

It took years for Hudson, whose childhood was filled with violence and trauma, to trust someone — a warden who befriended him — to deal with his brokenness and to realize he could turn his life around and be successful, even behind bars.

“I’m a lifer. I recognize I could die in prison. But regardless of your sentence, you can have a purpose,” said Hudson, who earned a GED, associate degree and bachelor’s degree in Christian studies and also became a certified addictions professional.

“I’m committed to helping people,” said Hudson, who tries to target the “problem guys. I remember when I was the one no one wanted to be around.

“I have yet to meet someone who was worse than me,” he continued with a laugh. “So it’s hard to make excuses to me. You’re here. Do something with the opportunity you have.”

Earlier this year, local staff and offenders gave a presentation to members of IDOC’s statewide Programs Committee, who came to Danville to see Building Block in action. The committee approved the program for statewide use in March, and it’s already been implemented at the Illinois River Correctional Center in Canton.

The mentors are proud that something they helped create is helping other offenders, staff and prisons. They hope it spreads throughout the state and even farther. They also hope to see “this whole prison be Building Block,” Hudson said, referring to Danville. He knows it won’t be easy to bring everyone onboard, but is confident it will happen someday.

“That we’ve been able to launch four wings speaks to a huge commitment by the department and a progressiveness on where corrections can go and that we’re winning in the process to break the cycle of criminal and addictive thinking.”

News-Gazette