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City of Kewanee Hires Its First Convicted Felon

Susanna Kemerling
Project NOW Executive Director, Rev. Dwight Ford with Fully Free Representatives, Kewanee City Manager Gary Bradley, and Mario Crowder.

A northwestern Illinois city has taken another step toward welcoming citizens with felony convictions.

This month, Kewanee hired a new employee who just got out of prison.
A change in employment rules made it possible, and that might happen in the Quad Cities, too.
A year ago, Kewanee removed legal sanctions that barred it from hiring previously incarcerated people.

Susanna Kemerling
Mario Crowder, laborer for Kewanee Public Works

Last month, the city hired Mario Crowder because his felony conviction did not disqualify him. And he got the job over five other applicants thanks to his qualifications. Crowder now works as a truck driver and laborer in public works.

"I went through the Kewanee Life Skills Re-Entry Program, and took full advantage of the programs that they was offering: On-The-Job Training, Cognitive Thinking Programs, Interpersonal Skill Programs, Parenting Programs. That allow me to use those tools ad my efforts of changing and being successful. I am employed with the city of Kewanee. I embrace it everyday. New place for me."

The whole idea came from City Manager, Gary Bradley. With the Kewanee Life Skills Re-Entry Center in town, he saw the opportunity to hire former prisoners -- called "returning citizens" -- by changing the city's laws.

"The city of Kewanee believes that there is dignity and meaningful work, and that returning citizens can provide that meaningful contribution to their communities."

Bradley has been in contact with a Chicago group called the 'Fully Free Campaign.' And last week representatives held a press conference in Rock Island with Project NOW. Fully Free advocates for the rights of former inmates to prevent ‘permanently punishing’ them.
Marlon Chamberlain, Manager of Fully Free, says hundreds of laws are in place to bar them from health care, housing, and employment. And the discrimination impacts 3.3 million Illinois residents.

"A criminal record shouldn't follow anyone for life. And if this is truly the nation of opportunities for all, and second chances, then why are we continually punishing people after their debt has been paid."

Susanna Kemerling
Project Now, Executive Director Reverend Dwight Ford. Behind him is Fully Free's Fellow, Harry Pena.

Project NOW is a Community Action Agency that serves Henry and Rock Island counties, and is funded by taxpayers. Frequently, people who just got out of prison end up living in poverty because of legal barriers. And it's all too easy to go back to a life of crime.
Executive Director, Reverend Dwight Ford, says it's a caste system. And the community has both a moral and commonsense obligation to fix it.

"When individuals come out of incarceration, they have limited opportunities in housing education and employment. That means that they are going to need services from agency like mine. Our agency of course receives public dollars to be able to provide. What
I am pushing is either we can help individuals become apart of the tax contributing base, or they will be relegated to being tax burdens."

Project NOW and the Fully Free Campaign created a local group called the Justice Network about a year ago. And they meet monthly at Grace City Church in Rock Island. Greg Chambers from Fully Free says the goal is to change city ordinances and attitudes in the Quad Cities.

"If you are skeptical, if you are apathetic, don't just believe us, come walk with us. Join us. Hold hands with us. Stand on the steps of the State Capital with us. March with us."

Susanna Kemerling is WVIK Quad Cities NPR's 2022 Fellowship Host/Reporter. She graduated from Northern Illinois University for Media Studies in Communication and spent the last year working as a Teaching Assistant through the graduate program at NIU.