Illinois Department of Corrections cancels Kewanee Life Skills Center expansion

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In this file folder, offenders at Kewanee's Life Skills Re-Entry Center congratulate each other after completing an entrepreneur training program.

The Illinois Department of Corrections won’t be expanding Kewanee’s Life Skills Re-Entry Center after all.

An IDOC spokeswoman confirmed Thursday that it had dropped its plans to significantly expand the prison facility’s footprint through the use of 46 acres purchased by the city for $146,000 in 2019.

More:IDOT"s Kewanee prison expansion in limbo

"Because IDOC’s prison population has declined 25.8% since March 2020, we have suspended expansion plans for Kewanee for the foreseeable future," said IDOC’s Lindsey Hess in a statement to the Star Courier.

State prison officials announced the intention to expand the facility in 2017 and said it would bring new jobs and millions of dollars in infrastructure upgrades. The idea was to make Kewanee the centerpiece of a new approach to incarceration that focused more on preparing inmates for release and reducing the state’s high recidivism rate.

“We are changing how we do corrections, and we’re bringing it in and putting it in one place,” said then-warden Anthony Williams. "There will be a significant number of new jobs coming to Kewanee under this plan, security and non-security. They will be good-paying, permanent jobs.“

Last spring, IDOC and city officials celebrated the fact that around $3 million in initial funding for the Kewanee expansion had been included in the state appropriations list, and that the project was moving forward.

But a spokesman for then-State Sen. Chuck Weaver’s told the Star Courier in September that it was alive, but looking less likely.

“The question now is whether the money will come,” said Matt Puckett, an aide to 37th Dist. Sen. Chuck Weaver, who has been an advocate for the Kewanee expansion. “It’s on a list with a lot of projects — and a lot of projects haven’t been funded.”

Mayor Gary Moore said IDOC officials had not contacted the city about the project’s demise and he is still holding out hope that it would still be in the state’s long-range plans.

"I’ve never been contacted by anyone to say it’s officially off the table," he said. "I don’t think it’s completely out of the realm of possibility, just maybe not in the short term. I’m an optimist and I’m not giving up hope yet."

He said he continues to highlight the Kewanee facility with elected officials and recently hosted new State Sen. Win Stoller for a tour.

"He’s way high on this prison," Moore said. "It’s really impressive what they are doing out there."

City Manager Gary Bradley said that while the city hadn’t received official notification that the expansion plan was off, he had noticed that the state’s interest was waning and worried IDOC’s focus had changed.

He said that while the news is disappointing, it’s not the end of the road for the development of Kewanee’s Kentville Road property, purchased from the Kewanee Economic Development Corporation as part of the expected expansion agreement with the prison.

For one thing, he said, the Life Skills Center is still operating, and the city has land that can be developed.

"We never gave (IDOC) the land, we were planning to give it to them," he said. "It’s open and employing people and it’s way better than where it was five years ago when it was getting ready to close."

And while he’s hopeful that the prison will eventually expand naturally and add more jobs, he thinks the land the city purchased from KEDC can be commercially developed and still contribute to the area’s economic base.

The city recently agreed to sell a five-acre tract of that land to a cannabis-grow operation to set up operations in the industrial park, near the prison and on land the state had planned to purchase for the expansion. The grow operation could create as many as 80 jobs.

"We’re playing the long game with it," Bradley said of the property. "We’re interested in seeing economic development happen on that land, whether it’s the state or not. If those plans don’t work out, we’ll still seek job growth and an increase in our property tax base by marketing it to other businesses."

Moore said the city continues to have a good relationship with the prison’s operators and that officials have used inmate labor for several setup and cleanup projects over the years.

He said that’s why the city council recently changed rules it had against hiring employees with a felony conviction in their past. He said anyone who proves they are willing to rehabilitate themselves deserves a second chance.

"I thought it would be hypocritical to use their labor when it’s free and then not be willing to pay them for it when they get out," Moore said.

The city is exploring a work-release partnership with the center.

"There are jobs that someone can perform that a felony wouldn’t preclude them from doing," Bradley said.

Hess said IDOC has not abandoned its plan to revamp the state’s prison system, but that it had spread the concept out to other facilities instead of making Kewanee the only spoke in the wheel.

"It is important to note that the Department is converting several correctional centers into mission-driven facilities," she said. Jacksonville, Murphysboro and Stateville will follow the Life Skills model and Lincoln Correctional Center is already housing individuals who are less than 1.5 years from release.

"This structure allows the Department to tailor its programming and treatment to ensure individuals nearing their release date have the skills, knowledge and confidence to reenter their communities successfully," she said.

Bradley said the city will continue to work with IDOC wherever there are opportunities.

"I still think this (Life Skills) concept is a good concept," he said. "It’s in the long-term best interest of the taxpayers and the inmates. We’re going to continue to work with Department of Corrections staff locally and in Springfield to assist them."

via Kewanee Star Courier

November 1, 2021 at 08:31AM

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