Sheridan prison making a difference for its inmates


A medium-security prison in central Illinois had a radical idea: dedicate its facilities entirely to substance abuse issues. Does it make a difference?

When Joe Jumper needs a reminder of how his life has changed, he looks in two mirrors he keeps in his cell at the Sheridan Correctional Center.

“One mirror has a lot of cracks in it and one is clear. When I first came here, the one I looked at was the one with the cracks. When I see myself now, it’s a clear view. I don’t have those cracks anymore and it’s a good feeling,” said the 46-year-old Bloomington man.

Sentenced to prison on drug charges, Jumper is finishing a two-year stint at Sheridan, one of two Illinois prison facilities dedicated to helping prisoners with addictions. The other, Southwestern Correctional Center, uses the Sheridan model and a program for meth addicts.

“Since I’ve been here I’ve realized there’s a correct way to live and a wrong way to live. At this point in my life, it’s time to choose the correct way,” said Jumper, adamant that his fourth trip to prison will be his last.

Located on 270 sprawling acres in LaSalle County — 95 acres inside a fence — Sheridan currently houses 1,351 inmates, including 935 in its therapeutic program and 416 general population prisoners who are in or waiting to join a pre-treatment drug program. Admittance to Sheridan is voluntary for inmates screened by IDOC and excludes sex offenders and murderers.

The current recidivism rate for Illinois is 51.3 percent, meaning that slightly more than half return to prison within three years of their release. With studies showing that Sheridan parolees are 30 percent less likely than other inmates to return to prison for a new crime or parole violation, state corrections officials believe Sheridan’s program targeting inmates with sentences ranging from six to 24 months shows promising results.

“Investments made in the prison setting benefits everyone. What Sheridan is about is accountability and holding people responsible for their behavior. This is a new way to be tough on crime. It’s much easier for an inmate to just sit in prison,” said Deanne Benos, assistant director of the Department of Corrections.

Not just good inmates

Built in 1941 as a juvenile facility, Sheridan was converted to an adult facility in 1973 and closed during a 2002 state budget crunch. Two years later it reopened as a facility touted by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich as a model drug prison and re-entry program.

Sheridan Warden Michael Rothwell views the three hours a day inmates spend in treatment and the similar time spent on job skills as an investment in the communities the men will return to after Sheridan.

“The question is do you want an inmate to return to the community better off and more equipped to maintain employment and support their families or do you want someone to come back who’s going to be a drain on the resources of the community? What we do is prepare guys to be positive, contributing members of the community when they return,” said Rothwell.

Sheridan is about more than drug treatment, said Benos, the architect of the Sheridan program. Repairing family relationships and teaching life skills are part of the venture.

“It’s not enough to make a good inmate. The ultimate goal is to make them good citizens and neighbors,” said Benos.

The cost of putting an inmate through the Sheridan program is about $44,000, about twice the cost of housing prisoners in other facilities. Several community-based contractors provide educational, vocational and counseling services to Sheridan.

The warden is relieved that Sheridan’s programs have remained in place despite the state’s budget crisis.

Brian Boothe, 36, a drug offender from Bloomington knew he was in a different prison setting when he attended his first counseling session.

“It looks like a prison facility but what threw me for a loop was when somebody called me a ‘client.’ Just that respect alone woke me up,” said Boothe, who is set to be released later this year and is considering a career as a counselor.

Training for jobs

When 22-year-old Emmanuel Jones leaves Sheridan, he plans to use the training he has received in electrical work to find a job. His first stay in prison on drug charges will be his last, he said.

“A lot of people my age go to prison and don’t have the opportunity to come to a place like this and end up a lot worse,” said Jones, also of Bloomington.

An emphasis on what happens after prison is key to ending the cycle of addiction and incarceration, said Benneth Lee, a community liaison specialist with the Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities. Once a resident of the state’s prison system, Lee now serves as the TASC connection between prison and the commu-nity.

“I can make treatment make sense to them,” said Lee, who is among workers at the private agency who assist inmates after their release by connecting them to services.

The challenges ex-offenders face in the job market are addressed by staff with the Safer Foundation, a private agency that helps inmates create a career plan that includes training and re-entry goals.

For many inmates, Sheridan offers their first chance to use a computer, build a house and operate a welding machine. They may enter prison without job skills but they can leave as trained machinists and warehouse work-ers.

Sheridan Correctional Officer John Bundy said discipline is not an issue in the spacious facility where prisoners routinely handle power tools and other items considered out of bounds at other lock-ups.

“They enjoy learning these skills. They want to pick up the tools and do something,” said Bundy.

Since Sheridan opened, 56 percent of the inmates obtained employment while on parole and 86 percent of those were full-time jobs, said Rothwell.

Story Behind the Story: Reporter Edith Brady-Lunny shares her techniques and struggles while reporting this story.

This story was made possible by the support of Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College and H.F. Guggenheim Foundation and the generosity of the Pantagraph newspaper and staff. The story can also be found in its entirety at Pantagraph reporter Edith Brady-Lunny was a 2010 John Jay/H.F. Guggenheim Fellow. Contact Ms. Brady-Lunny at

Photo by Steve Smedley of The Pantagraph

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