Officials angling for the expansion of the Kewanee Life Skills Re-Entry Center haven’t given up hope but are worried the pandemic has at least temporarily pushed the project beyond reach.
A groundswell of support for the expansion — all centered on a transformational approach to incarceration that provides advanced on-site skills training for soon-to-be-released offenders — started with a 2017 visit from Gov. Bruce Rauner and culminated last spring with new Gov. J.B. Pritzker including $2.9 million in the state’s capital appropriations list.
For a variety of reasons, local officials say, that money — and another $1 million appropriated for the re-entry center in this spring’s budget — first made the list 14 months ago but continues to exist on paper only.
"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."
The project is competing with a backlog of highway and infrastructure work around the state that piled up during the budget impasse that occurred during Rauner’s tenure. Kewanee’s prison project is competing with other high-profile projects like the reconditioning of the Quincy Veteran’s Home.
"There’s a lot of work that’s being conducted," he said, "but (state) revenue is down and we’re already behind on things."
He said another factor in the project’s is that it comes at a time of unprecedented pressures on local and state revenue streams because of the pandemic.
Making it even more of a competitive slog is the fact the Kewanee project is "bundled" with work projects at the other state prisons.
"There are dozens of construction projects for corrections facilities around the state," he said. "Corrections has a laundry list of projects that are on that list. And it’s not just small things."
HB64, approved this spring and including both Kewanee appropriations, allows for the first phase of the proposed expansion to start. The project budget has earmarks for for roof and lock replacement, with the rest of the funding slated for "general improvements" that could be used to start the first expansion phase.
"We’re just waiting for them (Illinois Capital Development Board) to prioritize the projects and provide the money," he said. "They are the clearinghouse and they have to approve everything.
Meanwhile, Kewanee leaders are concerned not only about the promised short- and long-term jobs promised, and the expected community partnerships, but about the $146,000 it spent to buy 46 acres adjacent to the Kentville Road facility.
That land was purchased so it could be deeded to the state after IDOC officials announced their expansion plans for the Kewanee facility.
"We are changing how we do corrections, and we’re bringing it in and putting it in one place," former warden Anthony Williams said at the time. "It’s a whole new look, and so far, we’ve had very good success. We have multiple options that we are considering, multiple uses, but it’s not necessarily a fast process."
Last year, IDOC spokeswoman Lindsey Hess said plans were continuing forward for the expansion and confirmed that it would be the centerpiece for a change in direction for Illinois prisons.
"Giving offenders the skills to transform their lives is critical to improving outcomes and reducing Illinois’ recidivism rate," she said. "As a model for the nation, we intend to fill the facility to capacity and continue expanding life skills programming."
"My fear is that it is going to slip through our fingers," said Kewanee Mayor Gary Moore. "I’m still hoping, and we still have to be persistent, but I know people are wondering, ‘Is anything going to happen?’"
The mayor said city officials continue to push for the expansion work with Weaver and other local representatives. He said he has even urged those representatives to use district funds at their disposal to support the project.
"It’s been delayed for too long — but every little bit helps," he said. "We’re not giving up."
Puckett said Sen. Weaver has been working with IDOC and Capital Board officials and reminding them of the importance of the project not only for the region, but for the state’s efforts to reduce inmate recidivism.
"We’ve had this issue on our radar since the process began," he said.