Changing the Culture of Corrections, Kewanee Youth Center Opens with New Purpose

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The Kewanee Youth Center is open again, this time with a new purpose.

The state almost abandoned the center due to a lack of need for that type of juvenile facility.

The first difference is the new name, the Kewanee Life Skills Re-Entry Program. 46% of offenders in Illinois will return to prison within 3 years. The facility is part of Governor Rauner’s plan to restructure the criminal justice system and reduce that number. What’s going on inside those walls lives up to the name.

“For the last 27 years I have been in and out of the Department of Corrections.” Offender, Sean Hewitt, said.

But, Hewitt from Dixon, Illinois, is hoping this time, his sixth behind bars, is his last.

“In other institutions it’s all about rules and consequences for not obeying rules here it’s more of a personal relationship where they’re actually is a belief in us as being productive members of society when we leave here rather than just housing us like cattle.” Hewitt explained.

Each of those times in other institutions didn’t change Hewitt’s drug and alcohol use or the crime that ultimately came with it.

“Getting out being an ex-convict and not being the man that I felt I should have been in life really weighed on me emotionally. I lost my parental rights.” Hewitt explained, as he held back tears.

But now he and 59 others are the first to get a second chance and learn the life skills to get them there.

“These individuals can come into society and be ready to succeed, not on their own thrown out and expected to find their own way with no support.” Governor Rauner said.

Offenders with less than 5 years on their sentence can apply to be here. They walk around freely, shoot hoops, and go to class, all on their own terms. Offenders are called on by name and are given the tools they need to be successful outside of prison.

“Instead of warehousing, we’re changing people’s lives, we’re changing the culture within corrections.  We’re changing the lives for these guys for whenever they’re going out and they’re around my family, your family.” Kewanee Life Skills Re-Entry Center’s Warden, Anthony Williams said.

Hewitt plans to put tools in action to follow a passion he’s discovered here, construction work.

“The system before I felt held me back and kept me enclosed in a box of being this convict or ex-convict where here I believe it encourages us to know we have value in life and move past this.” Hewitt said.

The facility opened its doors in February and can hold up to 650 offenders. It’s the first of its kind in the country, with a focus on medium and high risk inmates.

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