HOTSEAT- A separate peace: Why jailer Matthews feels house proud

Ron Matthews

Early January finds gold garland strung around Ronald Matthews' desk and gold balls hanging from the office ceiling. Once the Christmas decorations come down, he'll go with an Easter theme; and then red, white, and blue will carry him from Memorial Day through the summer. He points to art adorning the walls and mentions it's by inmates, students in the art classes that are one of 25 programs he's inaugurated since taking over as superintendent of the Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail three years ago. 

It quickly becomes apparent: this isn't your father's big house.

Matthews was driving a truck to his new house in Smithfield when he got the offer to head up the jail here. "I lived in my dream house for 45 days," he says wistfully. 

A beach man, Matthews may be one of the few newcomers who don't swoon over this area's beauty. He grew up around Baltimore, and following 20 years in the Air Force, worked in jails in the Tidewater area for 14 years. "I'm not crazy about the mountains," he admits.

What he does like is changing the old "warehouse mentality" of the penal system and tackling recidivism with classes in the culinary arts, carpentry, and first aid– "Things that build self-esteem and confidence," he explains. And job skills. And even life skills.

For inmates who want to participate in the work program outside the jail, two things are mandatory: if they don't have their high school diploma, they must enroll for a G.E.D., and they have to complete a re-entry program to learn about how their crimes impact victims, how to do job interviews, and how to maintain basic health and hygiene– "all the things we learned growing up," notes Matthews.

When he started working in jails as a sheriff's deputy 14 years ago, he met someone who brought a comedian into the jail every Friday, and it was the most popular activity for the inmates. 

"I realized anything is possible," he says. "I didn't take anything off the table."

That was his strategy when he came to Charlottesville. He didn't change anything the first six months he was here, feeling that he had to persuade both inmates and employees to try new ways of doing time one step at a time.

 Since he started in June 2004, assaults between inmates have decreased 90 percent, and the assault rate on officers went from once or twice a month to once or twice a year.

One of those officer assaults happened two months after he started. Four inmates, after unsuccessfully trying to break a reinforced window, took two guards hostage. The four-hour standoff ended with the intervention of other inmates.

On a stroll through the jail, he mentions that once an employee is taken hostage, he loses whatever job authority he has in the jail, and that includes him. And if visitors are taken hostage? "I'd let them have you and try to get out," he says to a photographer– who isn't sure if he's kidding.

The hardest part of the job for Matthews is disciplining employees, and he's in charge of 154 at the jail. "I had to put one individual in jail for having sexual contact with an inmate," he says. "In this profession, we're held to a higher standard." 

Running a jail is a 24-7 business, and that means the staff doesn't get snow days. When bad weather is forecast, employees may be spending the night at the Holiday Inn. "We expect people to be at work," says Matthews simply.

His own motivational saying? "You'll be surprised what you can accomplish if you're not worried about who gets credit."

 Age: 56

Why here? I was meant to be here.

 What's worst about living here? Cost of housing

 Favorite hangout? Any golf course 

Most overrated virtue? Loyalty

 People would be surprised to know: I didn't graduate from high school until I was 23 years old.

 What would you change about yourself? I'd have perfect vision and get rid of my glasses.

 Proudest accomplishment? Graduating from college at the age of 52 and retiring from the USAF after 20 years

 People find most annoying about you: You'd have to ask them.

 Whom do you admire? Tom Joyner

 Favorite book? Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

 Subject that causes you to rant? The war in Iraq

 Biggest 21st-century thrill? HD TV

 Biggest 21st-century creep out? Internet spam

 What do you drive? 2001 Mercedes Benz C240

 In your car CD player right now: Unplugged by Maxwell

 Next journey? To California and Hawaii

 Most trouble you've ever gotten in? Forgetting to register for the draft in 1969

 Regret: Not having more children

 Favorite comfort food: Nathan's hot dogs

 Always in your refrigerator: Bottled water

 Must-see TV: Cops

 Describe a perfect day. Waking up at noon

 Walter Mitty fantasy: Race car driver

 Who'd play you in the movie? Don Cheadle

 Most embarrassing moment? I went to a meeting in James City County. After sitting there waiting for everyone to show up, I realized the meeting was in Portsmouth. 

Best advice you ever got? If you don't want it repeated, don't say it.

 Favorite bumper sticker? Has not been printed yet, but it would say, "If you are in that much of a hurry, then you should have gotten here first."