A program launched this year by the Illinois Department of Corrections transfers inmates with less than four years remaining on their sentence to a facility that provides life-skills training and job counseling. The sense of hope among participants is hard to miss, says a reporter who attended a recent “Day with Dad” weekend at the Kewanee Re-Entry Center.
When Roberto Tejeda leaves the Illinois Department of Corrections early next year, he’s determined to beat dismal odds: half of those released from prison will be behind bars again within three years.
Tejeda’s chances of being an exception to those recidivism statistics improved in February, when he was transferred to the newly opened Life Skills Re-Entry Center in Kewanee, IL, about an hour’s drive from Chicago.
The 42-year-old Chicago man, currently serving a four-year sentence for residential burglary, was among the first 60 inmates admitted to the program, which offers vocational and educational counseling for men with less than four years remaining on their sentences.
On a recent visit to the Center’s first “Day with Dad” event, The Pantagraph found them in a buoyant mood.
“This number,” said Tejeda, pointing to his IDOC prisoner identification badge as he took a break from playing with his children, “is due to be recycled.”
Tejeda, who is using the resources of the center to sharpen his computer, interpersonal and job interview skills, is optimistic that he will be able to rejoin his family, and go back to work at a granite supplier.
Anthony Williams, Kewanee’s warden, shares his optimism.
It’s time for thinking outside the box about how to help former inmates reenter society as productive civilians, says Williams, who served as assistant warden at Menard Correctional Center, the state’s maximum security facility in southern Illinois, before coming to Kewanee.
“What’s been done nationally and in Illinois doesn’t work,” he said, noting that as state and local governments reduce expenses incurred when the same offenders cycle through the criminal justice system, the state’s investment in re-entry services will pay off.
Andrew Mattingley is another determinedly optimistic Kewanee resident.
Currently serving a four-year sentence for residential burglary, Mattingley intends to return to Decatur, IL with a plan to support himself and his family as a commercial truck driver.
For his daughter Peytin Mattingley, who will enter sixth grade next year, that day couldn’t come soon enough.
“It might be on my birthday” in April, said the girl, her broad smile a mirror image of her father’s grin.
A Former Juvenile Prison
The sprawling facility on the outskirts of Kewanee formerly housed up to 300 juvenile offenders.
The youth prison closed in 2016 as part of the state’s move to reduce the number of children in state custody. With plans to double-bunk inmates, the population of the re-entry center — currently 89 inmates — will gradually increase to about 600 as new staff is hired.
To be accepted at Kewanee, inmates must complete an application with an essay that explains their reasons for wanting to come. Those who qualify are entered into a blind draw to choose who enters the program.
“It’s nice to know we’re helping these guys put together plans to be successful in the future,” said Allison Trigg, a teacher hired to teach Kewanee inmates the practical skills they will need after their release, including how to secure a job and housing and to handle their finances.
They even learn how to tie a tie.
For some inmates, success hinges on getting help for their complex needs that often were left unmet in the community. Mental health staff at Kewanee provide cognitive behavior therapy and other services.
“We tailor everything to what the population needs,” said Williams, noting that three inmates have been unsuccessful at Kewanee and were returned to their previous facility.
Kewanee is open to any inmate with four years or less left to serve, regardless of the crime that brought them to prison, said Williams.
“For me, everything else is trivial because they’re going home,” he said.
Inmates cited for a major rule violation within the previous six months of their application are ineligible.
Kewanee has the support of area churches and civic groups that have donated clothing, food for special events and hundreds of volunteer hours to mentor inmates.
“Henry (County) and the surrounding counties have really embraced us and the mission of this facility,” said Williams.
As the program evolves, the state plans to invite inmates with life sentences to apply for admission. Inmates ineligible for release could serve as mentors for others when they leave the program, said Williams.
Former participants are likely to be equally effective mentors.
One of them could be Rafael Ortiz, who spent more than half of his 38 years behind bars for a murder he committed when he was 18 while living in Chicago.
When he leaves Kewanee in about four months, Ortiz is looking forward to a fresh start in a new city where he plans to complete training to be a substance abuse counselor.
Ortiz, who now helps other inmates with job interview skills, said what’s special about Kewanee is the environment it creates.
“(You’re) around so many people who want to see you succeed,” he said.
This is an edited and slightly rewritten version of a story published this month in The Pantagraph by staff writer Edith Brady-Lunny, a former John Jay Criminal Justice Reporting Fellow. It’s part of a continuing series of stories on the challenges facing people after their release from prison. To read the original story, and the entire series, please click here. Readers’ comments are welcome. Follow Edith Brady-Lunny on Twitter: @pg_blunny