Life After Prison: Kewanee Life Skills Re-Entry Center

KEWANEE, Ill. (WAND) - A first of its kind facility in the nation is open in Illinois to reduce the inmate recidivism rate.

The Kewanee Life Skills Re-Entry Center opened in February of last year at the site of a former juvenile prison.

Now its mission is simple and that's to help adult male inmates break the odds of returning behind bars after their release.

"It makes you start to question some of the decisions you made and the decisions that you will make when you go home..makes you want to become more responsible for your actions as a man," inmate Jovan Lumpkin. 

The inmates are selected through an application process that includes an essay and why they want to change.

There are three phases of required programming: financial literacy, computer skills and interpersonal skills.

Then cognitive behavioral classes include substance abuse education and successful parenting.

Then vocational training, like welding, computer science, art, cooking and gardening.

"That's what I feel makes this program so special, because people need a skill set going home ... because you are already looked at like your're a prisoner," Lumpkin said. 

For Jovan, his passion is cooking, with the hope to own a restaurant franchise. He gets out it in August after serving a sentence for burglary.

Each of the current 229 inmates have one to four years left on their sentences.

Inmates enjoy a liberal family visitation policy at Kewanee and look forward to the next day with dad event in August.

"It is like no other place," inmate Cortez Wraggs said. "I've been no other for a minute. I though I was somewhere else because I didn't know this would be offered in the state of Illinois (or) maybe another state. It's a breath of fresh air."

Cortez went to prison on a murder conviction at age 24. He's now 44. His discharge date is March 2020.

"It's been smooth because of the staff," Wraggs said. "They actually helped you when you in another environment. It's kind of like (you're looked) down upon but come here (and) everybody is cordial. It's amazing. I mean it's just something I didn't expect."

Outside is one of two large gardens where inmates have just started planting a variety of vegetables.

Last year, the garden grew enough food to donate 500 pounds of produce to the local food bank.

Then there is the art class with some impressive talent on display.

Some inmates have been working on a project for a local boys scout troop with a patriotic theme.

The warden sees this model is working because of what impresses him the most.

"How they are so dedicated to improving themselves (and) how they want to succeed," Charles Johnson said. "They don't want to come back. If we can give them the tools, I'm very excited about this, and I think a lot of these guys leaving Kewanee are going to be successful (and) do well."

There are 1,500 applications pending right now. There are a maximum of 600 spots available.

"In my last 2 months, I've been able to post my resume on line research what jobs are out there put resumes out and I couldn't do that anywhere else," said inmate Mark McGaughey.

"Just in the 3 months I have been here, I have learned so much of just what's going on in society," Wraggs said. "When I got here, I was like a dinosaur."

Inmates like Mason Hass say Kewanee is giving them the best chance of breaking the odds of recidivism.

Nearly half of those released from prison in Illinois return within three years, at a major cost to taxpayers.

"It's nice your actually treated as a person versus somebody who is in a cage like an animal," said inmate Jovan Lumpkin. 

The hope now is to stop the revolving door to prison.

 A similar re-entry center has just opened in Murphysboro and another for women offenders is planned for Logan Correctional Center by the Illinois Department of Corrections.