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Column

Kewanee home to upbeat prison

Inmates learn useful skills for employment

Jim Nowlan
Jim Nowlan

Years ago, I co-taught a college-credit course at the state prison in Galesburg. I can still hear the metal doors slamming behind me as I was processed in each time.

Staff and inmates all looked grim, all the time. Gangs ran the place. It was scary.

Downtown at the Amtrak station, passengers would cast furtive glances each morning at the several young men in the same gray sweats and tennies, carrying pitiful small bags with their belongings.

We knew who they were, and they knew we knew. Passengers kept their distance.

Welcome back to society, boys.

This past week, I visited the Kewanee Life Skills Re-Entry Center, also in central Illinois, opened this past February in a former juvenile justice facility.

Warden Anthony Williams tells me it is the only facility in the country focused on intensive efforts to transition inmates, all at medium to high risk of reoffending, back into society with real skills for doing so.

They are going to come out one way or another, Williams says. “Our mission is to cut down the number who come back to prison.”

In Illinois, 45 percent do so within 3 years.

When I was a young legislator back in the late 1960s, there were 6,000 inmates in Illinois state prisons. Today there are 44,000.

Kewanee is different from any of the several prisons I have visited over the years. Really different. Kewanee looks and acts almost like a small college campus.

Staff and students (inmates) say “hi” to one another as they pass in the gleaming bright, white corridors.

Inmates have their own alarm clocks and dine when they wish. The food is really good, inmates tell me. Should be: restaurant management is one of the skills offered at Kewanee.

As we walk by the kitchen, several offenders wave, “Hi, Warden Williams.” Williams waves back, with a big smile. That happens everywhere we go.

Later I visit with “Carmona,” an inmate who prefers his last name. A light-skinned African-American, Carmona learned gardening from books at another prison, but had never grown one.

Carmona said, in effect: “OK, Warden Williams, you say we have choices. Can I grow a garden out in the yard?”

Carmona worked at his large garden like a man possessed, morning until lights out, another inmate tells me.

“I grew 4,500 pounds of vegetables this year. We donated it to area food pantries,” Carmona says, busting his buttons with pride.

“I want to become a master gardener and teach a little boy back in my neighborhood to say: ‘Look at this big tomato! I grew it myself.’”

Inmates across Illinois’ two dozen prisons must apply to be transferred to Kewanee. They must have less than 5 years left to serve, be on their good behavior, and write an essay as to why Kewanee would reduce their likelihood of ever coming back.

There are 93 inmates now, going up to a max of 600 in a year or two. Employment, including guards, educators, other support personnel, will reach about 250, say Williams, when the center is at that max.

Current inmates range from 22 to their 60s in age, from scant education to college degrees. All have work jobs throughout the center – and then classes, and more classes, says an inmate.

Built just like inmates who bulk up in prison, Warden Williams has learned his corrections work on the job, no fancy degrees: Army artillery and MP for 8 years, until 2001. After that, Tony joined IDOC (bet readers can figure that out) as a correctional officer, moved up the ranks of Illinois prisons, became a nurse along the way (his wife’s a nurse), and opened Kewanee in February.

“We want this place to be as much like the outside as possible,” says Tony, as we hustle through corridors, looking in on computer-filled classrooms, inmates hard at work. “I love coming to work each day.”

We pass the art studio, where inmates recently built a 9-hole putt-putt course for Dad’s Day, when inmates’ children came for a day of play and a cookout. Some little ones and inmate fathers had never seen one another. The inmates were gratified.

Tony even created a “city council.” Each housing unit elects two aldermen, who vote on suggestions to take to the warden and his staff about how to make constructive changes.

Down the hall is Tony’s pride and joy – a menswear shop. All donated, used stuff, but nice.

Kewanee provides each inmate upon release with two outfits, one for street wear, and one complete suit, for interviewing. Inmates choose from a large selection.

I talked with inmate Roberto Tejeda, out of earshot of the bigwigs.

“They treat you like real people here,” says Roberto, who is learning computer skills. “It’s a shame you have to come to prison to learn how to get a job.”

If Tony Williams and staff – “the best I’ve ever worked with” – are a success at reducing recidivism rates, I’d say Tony has a real future in the corrections business.

Note to readers: Jim Nowlan of Toulon can be reached at jnowlan3@gmail.com.

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