Chantell Jewell thinks now is the time to change the criminal justice system.
Jewell, the first Black woman to serve as the superintendent of the Milwaukee County House of Correction, is working on two new programs for residents of that facility in Franklin.
Jewell said the House of Correction is collaborating with community partners and other county offices to develop a Family Engagement Center where individuals enrolled in certain programs could participate in face-to-face family visits. Leaders also are planning to use a new “housing navigator” to help address the need for post-release housing before people leave the facility.
Jewell, 49, wants to use her new position to “create spaces for change” for individuals in the justice system.
Jewell, who has worked in various roles involving or at the periphery of the justice system for nearly three decades, said throughout her life in Milwaukee, she has seen the “devastating impacts” that mass incarceration has had on communities, adding there is “a need for change and reform within the criminal justice system.”
Breaking down barriers
Now that she’s the superintendent, Jewell said her approach to reform starts with trying to analyze how larger systems, like housing and employment, for example, work together to create barriers and how the House of Correction can help individuals overcome them.
County Executive David Crowley appointed Jewell to the role in October, the County Board approved her appointment in December, and Jewell was sworn in this January.
“Chantell is the right kind of leader for the House of Correction at a time when the county is focused on promoting racial equity, addressing disparities, reducing incarceration and promoting improved outcomes for residents across the board,” Crowley said in a statement after the board approved her appointment.
Stepping into her new role during a pandemic was a big concern, and ensuring the health and safety of those living and working in the facility has been her top priority, she said. COVID-19 cases in the facility spiked a few times last year, peaking at around 100 cases in April and to nearly 150 in November.
Currently, the facility has one confirmed case of COVID-19 among employees and one for residents, according to Milwaukee County’s COVID-19 Dashboard.
“I can never feel fully relieved as long as the virus is out there,” she said.
She supports Crowley’s plan for Milwaukee County to promote racial equity and become the healthiest county in Wisconsin. That effort was introduced in the 2021 county budget.
One part of the plan is the No Wrong Door approach, which aims to open communication and collaboration between different county services so individuals can get help addressing their needs no matter who or which department they contact for help.
The ultimate goal, Jewell said, is to reduce the number of times a person enters custody.
“Individuals are bigger than the mistakes they’ve made,” she said. “If we want our communities to shape up differently, we have to create opportunities for long-term change.”
‘The right person’
Mark Mertens, the administrator of the Milwaukee County Division of Youth and Family Services, worked with Jewell for about two years while she was a deputy administrator of the division. He said he was struck by how Jewell was able to use her past experiences to “understand and connect with the people being served.”
“She’s someone who can really transform the system into more of a healing place,” Mertens said. “She’s exactly the right person.”
Jewell grew up in Lapham Park and graduated from Riverside University High School in 1989. As a first-generation college student and young mother, Jewell went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and corrections from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a master’s in Business Administration from Cardinal Stritch University.
In the 1990s, Jewell began her career in youth justice, then worked as a probation and parole agent for about 20 years before moving to the re-entry department at Employ Milwaukee. Jewell briefly returned to work for Milwaukee County as a deputy administrator in the Department of Health and Human Services before applying for the superintendent position last year.
Jewell said these experiences have given her “a full-circle perspective” on the various pressures and obstacles those in the justice system face, and that is what fuels her work.
“My main concern is people,” Jewell said. “I care about what happens in my community.”
Outside of work, Jewell has a side-business, Chantell’s Cakery, which sells cakes and other desserts. She’s also the mother of three and grandmother of five children whom she calls “the sparkle of my eye.”
“Without the support of my family, I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish the things that I accomplished,” she said.
Her uncle, Rickey Jewell, said his niece makes him “very proud to be a Jewell.”
“She’s built to be where she is,” he said.