Prison for a fresh start sees seven men graduate with welding training

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Graduation day for seven inmates at Kewanee's Life Skills Center

There is nothing but smiles for seven men at the Kewanee Life Skills Re-entry Center.

They are preparing for a future that with the help of the prison looks to leave this place far behind.

Illinois’s Department of Corrections Director congratulated inmates at the Center who learned their welding certificate after completing a program offered by the prison through Black Hawk College.

Director John Baldwin told Local 4 News facilities like Kewanee keep people from coming back to the system.

It’s doing that by making sure they have employment opportunities and the skills they need to succeed. 

Life Skills inmate Tyrone Young said, “Even though we make mistakes, we still can redeem ourself.”

The future is a whole lot brighter.

Life Skills inmate Curtis Lake “I’m now able to go out there and be current in welding and be able to get a decent job that will support myself. It’s life-changing.”

After completing a 140-hour program, the seven men earned their welding certificate, and it comes just in time for Curtis Lake.

“19 days left before I parole out,” said Lake.

He is completing a decade behind bars.

Lake said, “This is my sixth incarceration. I’ve been in and out of prison over and over again repeated because of drug and alcohol addiction.”

Lake said he was a welder before he did this stint, but through the program, he’s not just getting a refresher but expanding his knowledge.

“I’ve been incarcerated for ten years, so I haven’t done any welding for ten years so that’s great and not only that but they provided me with all the welding equipment. The helmets, the welding jackets, the boots, the gloves that I need so I have everything to walk on the job and be a welder,” said Lake. 

But when he leaves, this time Lake said he wouldn’t be coming back because he doesn’t just have the tools for a job but sobriety.

He told Local 4 News the AA and NA programs have helped him clean up and credits the volunteers who come in to help run the program, provide sponsorship and build connects for the recovery to continues they leave.

It all leaves him ready for the fresh start and reconnecting with his six children and their kids. 

Lake said, “Just be a father and grandpa again to them and go out and get a good job.

It’s the same hope of Tyrone Young.

Young said, “I was always incarcerated since 17.”

He is now looking toward June when he goes home after what Young said is his fourth incarceration. 
And it’s not just the prospects of a job that Young says will keep him out…but also his three-year-old girl.

Young said, “This is the first time having a child [while incarcerated] and it’s not really about me no more. Also, my brother had got killed back in 2014, and I’ve got to take care of his kid.”

It’s the hands-on touch of the Life Skills Center’s staff and volunteers the men said is proof that with support people can change. 

“Once you commit so many crimes and do so many things, ‘oh you’re this person, you’re that type. You’re never going to be nothing,'” said Young. “But the people here, they change all that. They treat you like a human being and make you find yourself, and that’s the biggest thing about it. “

That’s why he and other inmates are advocating to maintain and keep this program going.

“It’s a personal gain, and it’s very emotions,” said Young. 

There’s already a range of programs through the center.

In addition to job training and education, there’s assistance in applying for jobs.

Inmates also have access to mental health care and addiction recovery. 

Lake also told Local 4 News one thing he values modern computers they have access to that will help him leave with knowledge of technology.

For Young, he said he’s benefited from the arts program. 

Director Baldwin said Illinois has seen its recidivism rate drop from one of the highest in the country.

It’s down 10 percent from about five years ago to roughly 39 percent.

He said expanding these programs at Kewanee is key to help that rate come in line with neighboring states in the 20 percent range.

One of the hopes is IDOC will see additional funding from the state to expand Kewanee. 

“This facility has room for 300 more people. We want to make sure we get funding for that, maybe not this year but maybe next year. There’s land to expand to our west that has opportunities for all sort of high-level skill learning centers,” said Director Baldwin.

As of Feb. 1, there were 278 inmates at Kewanee.

Director Baldwin also told Local 4 News he would like to see the college offers grow to give inmates more options and find the course of study that best suits them.

He said there is on-going research into the long-term impact of Kewanee’s Life Skills Center on those who have left there.

For inmates to come, they have to write a letter about what they hope to gain. Director Baldwin said that have a stack of those letters coming in from inmates.

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