From inmates to students, Kewanee Life Skills Re-Entry celebrates graduation for 60+ men

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Ready for the first day of the rest of their lives.

That’s what Thursday is providing for inmates at a prison with a different approach and focus.

In the largest graduation ceremony at Kewanee Life Skills Re-Entry Center, they recognize more than 60 current and former inmates.

It’s allowing the men to celebrate the ability to call themselves college grads or G-E-D recipients.

Through a partnership with Lake Land College south of Champaign, it’s helping the center give inmates opportunities like no other prison to improve their odds of not reoffending.

Since opening the prison two years ago that’s been the primary goal, which is is why a melody Pomp and Circumstance is playing in one of the most unlikely places, but it’s a theme song for these students looking to do and be better.

Associates Degree graduate Robert Beard said, “The first in my immediate family to have a college degree.”

Inside Kewanee Life Skills Re-Entry Center, Robert Beard is making the most of his time.

He’s hitting all the right notes on electric guitar, but Thursday was an especially big day. His newest achievement is an Associates Degree.

Beard said, “It makes me feel like I still have a chance. Like I’m not just going out there and hoping or going right back in with the same attitude I had before.”

Six years into his sentence.

Beard said, “The reason that I’ve here today is because of burglaries because of a heroin addiction.”

He’s found a support system to stay clean and enrolled in opportunities to learn. 

A little roll of paper is a sign of hope and better days to come.

Beard said, “Education is a stepping stone to want to do more when you get outside of these fences.”

So eight months in at Kewanee and another year to go, he’s already planning for when freedom comes.

“Ultimate goal is a four-year degree for structural engineering,” he said, 

And he’s far from alone.

Beard said, “You’re getting into study groups with other guys that are serious about their education, that are serious about getting back out there.”

And back out there is where Lewis Lloyd will soon be.

GED and manufacturing certificate graduate Lewis Lloyd said, “Tens days left.”

He’s stepping to the podium to give one of the commencement addresses, earning not only he GED but a manufacturing certificate.

Lloyd said, “Changing my life around, I got ahead start. You know I’m better off than some, worse than others but at the end of the day, it’s all about the choices I make.”

And this choice to learn is being applauded by staff, parents, spouses and children.

“Showing the world that anything is possible. That just because we’re incarcerated doesn’t mean that we don’t have a future. You know, we going to be alright,” said Lloyd. 
This is an achievement that no one can take away and open the doors to more possibilities to a fresh start.
“I didn’t have a high school diploma, I really didn’t care about getting it, but once I came to Kewanee, things changed for me. The people here care about you, and they look out, and they want to further your education,” said Llyod.
While also saying it’s making amends and paying their debt to society.
Beard said, “It takes that stereotype that you hear, that pictures what inmates are and gives them like a different perspective of what they really want to do with their lives.”
Beard said this isn’t just about himself but his wife and three kids above all.
Beard “Hope to get back into building homes and structures and just be stable. Be with my family.”

With this Graduation March propelling him into the first day of the rest of his life.

The men told Local 4 News while to some people these degrees might not sound like a lot, these are opportunities they didn’t have at other facilities or might not have even considered without the support of staff at the Re-Entry Center.

To be allowed as inmates at the center, the men need to write an essay about why they want to come to Kewanee and how they’re looking for a change. 

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