New program brings job opportunities inside Peoria County Jail
In a little over a week, Jonathan Robinson's life starts again. But today, he's focusing on the preparations.
For around a month, he's been attending classes with the Elite Re-Entry program.
It's Friday morning, Feb. 17, and Robinson just finished his last conversation with a potential employer at the first ever Elite Outreach Re-Entry Job Fair inside the Peoria County Jail, where he's incarcerated.
“The conversations I had today, they’re very exciting and very articulate, you know?” Robinson said. “I loved them and that they’re all here for our support.”
The range of conversations Robinson can have at the fair is wide. Employers include O'Shea Builders, Natural Fiber Welding, Royal Publishing, and Mid-Illinois Construction, along with some educational opportunities from Illinois Central College.
Robinson plans on following up with some of the construction companies, goals he says will smooth out his upcoming transition.
“I don’t have to go out here and put in applications and resumes, they’re already here for me,” he said. “Only thing I have to do is show my certificate of completion from Elite for the jobs I interviewed with today and I have a job.”
Carl Cannon, CEO of Elite Community Outreach, has been running re-entry programs outside of prisons for around twenty years. But this is the first pilot program inside a prison. It brought ten men from the county jail to classes on behavior, job interviews, financial management and communication.
“This is the first opportunity we’ve ever had to do it in the jail, while they’re incarcerated. To have a, what would you call it? A captive audience,” said Cannon. “Where all the distractions, of families, of neighborhoods, of friends, they don’t exist.”
Cannon says the program wouldn't be possible without support from county law enforcement. Sheriff Chris Watkins is fully on board and says few things are as effective as employment at lowering the chances of returning to jail.
“So we want to set them up with the right tools when they get out of here, get them a job, so they’re not coming back here,” said Watkins. “Reoffending is a big deal, especially in Peoria County. A lot of these people that come through here, they’re repeat offenders right? So we have to stop that, to break that chain.”
Watkins says that programs like Elite Re-Entry and the job fair mean reduced crime in Peoria County as a whole.
Joshua Bowen says he's been out to the county jail multiple times, but never tried a program like Elite before.
“This is my first time I’ve signed up,” he said. “Actually I signed up for two programs and I completed another program during the same time I completed this program, so I’ve been going to school four nights a week. Truly amazing.”
Bowen says he's most likely to follow up with one of the manufacturing or construction companies. He says he's a "hands on type of guy" and can run heavy machinery, but hasn't exactly decided yet.
One thing is for sure though, he's coming out different.
“Just a mindset. My re-entry to the community, a new man, not the Joshua Bowen I was before,” he said. “I’ve been labeled a lot and I’ve had a rude awakening. I’m coming out a new man.”
Richard Rebholz, another job seeker from the Elite Re-Entry program at the fair, found an Illinois Central College course he's aiming for as soon as possible.
“As soon as I get out, there’s a deadline for the solar program at [Illinois Central College],” he said. “Which I need to enroll in, immediately, as soon as I get out.”
The job fair is the first time Rebholz had ever heard of the solar program, but as a capable carpenter, he sees a unique opportunity.
“It’s going to enhance my career in many directions,” he said. “Especially having a journeyman card already, it’s going to give me the ability to expand my knowledge and job opportunity.”
Another important part of making a job fair like Elite's possible: businesses that are willing to hire people during their re-entry.
Cannon says there's plenty of interest from the business community, but there are also practical reasons for it.
“There’s a lot of interest. Employers are short staffed, so entry level employees are what they’re looking for,” he said.
As Cannon points out, Elite Re-Entry graduates also have some of the traits employers are looking for from an entry level employee on day one. They’ve been taking classes on dressing for the workplace, communication and how to evaluate the standards and expectations of a new job.
Rebholz says he was using these traits, things he learned through Elite, during his interviews. He's also excited by the number of businesses willing to come out to the jail to recruit.
“To a lot of men that come into jail, you’re released and you don’t have anything to go to,” he said. “If you don’t have a plan, you have a plan to fail. This gives us, everyone, a chance to have a plan to stay out of jail and be a successful part of the community.”
For some of the men, like Robinson, Elite has made such an impact on their lives, they plan on giving back.
“My first day out is going to the Elite School,” he said. “Seeing if I can help out, for my first week.”
Robinson hopes to pass on a program providing a different path for the men exiting the Peoria County Jail.
Cannon says this re-entry class is meant to be the first of many. The first group was ten men, he hopes to have around fifteen for the second group starting sometime in March.