Peoria County inmates ready for new life after ELITE Re-entry program behind bars

Published: Feb. 17, 2023 at 6:30 PM CST
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PEORIA (25 News Now) - It’s an unusual sight for a job fair: striped jail pants and orange shoes paired with button-down shirts and ties, but the half-and-half outfits match the men caught in the middle between two identities.

Ten men are two weeks away from graduating as reformed inmates from the ELITE re-entry program in the Peoria County Jail, the first in the area to go behind bars. They’re spending their final months in jail breaking free from the label of “criminal” and emerging as new people.

Friday, eight companies offered interviews and jobs for the men, many hiring on the spot for when they are released from jail. O’Shea Builders, Natural Fiber Welding, Royal Publishing, Sedona Staffing, and Mid-Illinois Construction offered positions and interviews. Illinois Central College also offered classes and trade programs.

“I want to go to college, and succeed and graduate,” ELITE Re-entry inmate DeAngelo Criss said. He’s been in PCJ for 77 days. “I want to show anyone that it is possible.”

“Without something like this, we’re all going to go back into the same step we’ve done before,” Re-entry inmate Joshua Bowen said. “It’s giving everybody hope and the shot to reach something new.”

Bowen is looking for a fresh start. He’s interested in a construction job outside of Peoria, where he can fully start over in a new town with a fresh reputation.

ELITE isn’t just a name, the program itself is selective. Ten inmates were selected out of 300 total in the jail population. They were chosen based on their drive and desire to leave the jail as changed people.

“They have to want to do this,” Peoria County Sheriff Chris Watkins said. “If they don’t want to do this, we don’t want them in there... it’s hard to change right? But there are plenty of people in here that people outside: their kids their wife their mom and dad they’re counting on them to succeed.”

They’ll officially graduate from the program in two weeks. The re-entry runs six weeks in total. The inmates are taught job skills and get help acquiring basic necessities like an ID and GED to return to society. They’re also taught communication skills and manners. That social-emotional learning helps them be better role models outside the jail.

“To re-enter our community is to either be a part of the answer or part of the problem,” ELITE Outreach Inc. CEO Carl Cannon said. “We chose to purpose these men so they’re part of the answer.”

Watkins believes this program can reduce crime overall in Peoria as inmates move on from their crimes and become productive citizens. He’s also launching the program back-to-back so that groups of more inmates are ready to return to society every six weeks.

“For gentlemen like me in and out of being incarcerated the support system that they give you is amazing,” Criss said. “You realize you can elevate to the next level.”

This isn’t the first ELITE Re-entry program. ELITE has offered re-entry services for inmates once they leave jail, but Cannon said starting it inside helps them start good habits before going back out into the world.

“Some people have nothing to go back, and no plan when they get out of here,” Inmate and soon-to-be ELITE graduate Johnathan Robinson said. “Starting it inside helps. People have hope to get out when they get out.”

Many inmates said the program restored their hope and confidence in themselves.

“If anybody can stop me, only me can stop me,” Criss said. “I want to have a career for my family.”

For Watkins, seeing some of these men change for the better is personal. He said he’s arrested some of these inmates.

“I’ve told them I don’t want to see them back here, I want to see them in a store, I want to run into them when they’re working or on a service call,” he said.

To ensure success after leaving jail, case worker Angel Cruz will follow up with the men as they make their transition. Even with his watchful eye, the inmates seem confident that they’re done with jail, for good this time.

“Before I was trying, and this time I’m doing,” Bowen said. He was one of the inmates arrested by Watkins. “When I bump into Sheriff Watkins he will see a new man.”

Robinson echoed that confidence.

“He will see a whole different man,” he said. “He’ll see a very productive citizen and a great person that I was born to be.”