In Illinois’ Department of Corrections, there’s a prison so attractive that inmates write essays to get in. It’s only housing about 220 prisoners, but more than 1,500 have applied to get in. At the Kewanee Life Skills Re-Entry Center, inmates are free to walk where they please, take art classes, and even garden.
“I thought it was myth at first,” inmate Avonta Lowe said. “Officers there told me I hit a sweepstakes when I was transferring.”
The Kewanee Life Skills Re-Entry Center Prison is a bet. State officials believe that by dramatically increasing funding for job training and classes, they can break the cycle of reoffending that leads many to return to prison again and again. In Illinois, roughly half of all people released from state prisons return within three years — a phenomenon that costs the state billions of dollars. Advocates say Kewanee could save Illinois money in the long term, but in today’s state budget climate, its short-term prospects are less clear.
How Kewanee is different
Kewanee opened in February 2017 in Western Illinois, about 150 miles from Chicago. Like many other prisons, Kewanee is surrounded by multiple barbed wire fences. Inside, it's bright and airy, with inspirational slogans and cheerful murals lining the walls. It feels like cross between a middle school and a community college.
Kewanee only accepts accepts inmates with one to four years left on their sentence. All the prisoners are classified as having a medium to high risk of being sent back to prison. While that classification is not directly connected to the severity of their crime, Assistant Warden Jennifer Parrack said “a large portion” of Kewanee’s population has been convicted of things like murder, attempted murder, and armed robbery.
Inmates are mostly free to move around the facility, as long as they make it to their classes on time, Parrack said. Those classes include job training, life skills courses, and a class called “Coping Through Art.”
The freedom offered at Kewanee resonates with inmates.
“It’s almost a sense of trust,” said Lewis Loyd, who is serving time for attempted murder. “Us, as offenders, having responsibilities.”
Lowe, who was was convicted for forgery and theft, added: “It’s like walking on eggshells in other prisons because you never know what’s going to happen. … What this place does is it takes away — well for me — it took away my excuses … so now I have skills to go out there be a productive citizen.”
Breaking the cycle
Parrack said the transformations Lowe and Lloyd described are crucial to fulfilling Kewanee’s goal of keeping inmates from recidivism — committing crimes that will send them back to prison.” In Illinois prisons, about 50 percent of all inmates are behind bars again within three years of being released, according to a state report.
But the program is expensive. The state pays $181 per inmate per day at Kewanee, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections. The average cost at other prisons is just $72 per inmate per day.
But inmates who return to prison shortly after release also cost Illinois. A 2015 state report projected that recidivism would cost the state $16.7 billion by 2020.
“They are going home. It’s not our decision to release them,” Parrack said. “[It's our responsibility] to get them best prepared to re-enter society, and be successful members.”
Scaling this up will be difficult
Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration is betting Kewanee is a model worth investing in. The Department of Corrections recently opened a similar prison in downstate Murphysboro and it plans to open a similar program for women in the near future.
But there are about 41,000 inmates in the Illinois Department of Corrections, and right now, just 0.6 percent are housed in Kewanee-style prisons. Scaling up these programs up would require a major financial investment.
“Do I think it's worth investing in and creating facilities like this? Yes, I absolutely do,” said Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the prison watchdog group John Howard Association of Illinois. “Is it feasible with the dollars we have? Probably not.”
In April, some Illinois state legislators were surprised to find out that the Department of Corrections was requesting an additional $420 million just to make it through the year — that’s on top of its annual budget of over $1.4 billion.
Vollen-Katz said that fiscal reality makes rapid expansion of Kewanee-style prisons improbable, but she said it would ultimately be a prudent investment.
“I think in the long term you will see the savings, because you will see fewer people returning to prison,” she said.
Rauner spokeswoman Rachel Bold said in a statement that “by providing people with professional training that allows them to walk out of prison ready for a new career, and the life skills that will help them re-adjust to society, we can reduce recidivism and the overall prison population in Illinois — saving the taxpayers of this state money.”
However, she would not directly answer a WBEZ inquiry about potential plans to add Kewanee-style prisons and how the state’s budget situation could affect them.
Jordan Abudayyeh, a spokeswoman for Democratic gubernatorial nominee J.B. Pritzker, also endorsed Kewanee. In an email, she said “it’s a long-term investment in our state that will help lower future incarceration costs.”
Longtime prison worker: 'This is the right thing'
For Kewanee Warden Charles Johnson, embracing this prison model has been decades in the making. He spent two decades working at the maximum security Pontiac Correctional Center and has not always endorsed rehabilitation for inmates.
“I was probably, at one time, one of those listeners that would have said, ‘well they committed a crime, they deserve what they have coming,” Johnson said. “As I grew older and wiser and I see this program, I'm excited about it. And I think this is the right thing for the people of Illinois.”