Waste Watch: How Illinois aims to improve prison system through Life Skills Centers


The metal fences and thick barbed wire paint a realistic picture of what life inside of a prison is like. But, there's a different tone inside of the Kewanee Life Skills Re-Entry Center.

"It is the best thing that's ever happened as far as being incarcerated," said Cleveland Ratliff, an inmate serving his last few months of a 7-year sentence.

We found Ratliff studying algebra in the center's library. He chose to get his GED before he is released in less than a year.

"I have a lot of plans to drive semi-trucks, catch up with family and get my life back on track," Ratliff said. "This place is more free. A lot of opportunities."

The center is funded through the Illinois Department of Corrections. Inmates apply during the last few years or months of their sentence and get counseled, educated and prepared for life in the real world.

According to the Department of Corrections, it costs $181 per day, per inmate. It equates to about $14 million per year.

Assistant Warden Jennifer Parrack oversees programming.

"Everything from interpersonal skills to communications to financial literacy and keyboarding computer concepts," Parrack said. "Getting someone out of prison that is stable enough to get a good paying job and support their family is well worth it."

Inmate Jamie Lopez says his last facility only allowed him to use typewriters. He is serving his last few months of a 25-year murder sentence.

"Here, we get a chance to utilize computes," Lopez said. "Through Word, Excel, and spreadsheets. We have the opportunity to make our schedule each and everyday. That is getting us acclimated to the free world."

Inmates are thrust into real classroom and real environments. Our cameras captured inmates creating artwork to donate, while others like Walter Brown says he contributes by helping with building maintenance.

"It prepares you and gives you a sense of self-worth," Brown said. "A lot of that can get lose in an incarceration setting."

Warden Charles Johnson says cost aside, there's a need.

"I think it's very important that we invest the money and the opportunities into these people before we get them back into our society," Johnson said.

"We're paying the time for what we've done, we know that," Brown said. "But there has to be some way to redeem myself. A way to build us up so when we come back, we can be the fathers that we were intended to be."

A Life Skills Center in Murphysboro just opened in April 2018. The Department of Corrections says all facilities were re-designed after the state shut down a number of youth detention centers in our area.

According to the Governor's office, the move keeps state buildings operating and will save taxpayers $10 million.

In Gov. Bruce Rauner's 2019 state budget proposal, he's pushing to support Life Skills Re-entry centers with $26.4 million dollars. The State Department of Corrections says once their facilities grow in population, the cost per inmate will decrease.

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