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Lake Land College’s Department of Corrections students give back to community through construction program

Fifteen inmates at the Taylorville Correctional Center (CC) have been earning titles they aren’t necessarily used to. Instead of inmate, felon or offender, these men now enjoy titles like philanthropist, humanitarian, and perhaps, most importantly, student. This is because they recently completed construction of the 200th house donated to Habitat for Humanity by the Taylorville CC, a milestone achievement. 

Led by instructor Dave Sharp, students in Lake Land College’s Construction Trades Program at the Taylorville CC construct house frames on the correctional center’s property. The frames are then disassembled and transported to the final construction site, and upon completion, the house is donated to a low-income family. Donation of the houses is made possible through a partnership between the Illinois Department of Corrections, Lutheran Social Services of Illinois and Habitat for Humanity. 

According to Jennifer Billingsley, dean of the correctional center programs at Lake Land, this class offers students at the Taylorville CC practical hands-on training and a way to give back to communities in central Illinois. 

“The program and this class especially, provide these students practical, hands-on skills that will help them find work after they are released,” said Billingsley. “But more than that, they have the opportunity to connect with something good. They know they are helping a child or family a lot like their own, and that has such a positive effect.” 

The Construction Trades Program is a nine-month career prep program where students study a variety of topics including blue print reading, basic carpentry, plumbing, residential wiring, painting and refinishing, basic masonry and vocational technical math. Upon completion of the voluntary program, the students receive an academic certificate and work-ready credentials. 

To be eligible for the program, students must have a GED or high school diploma and score a minimum of 8.0 on the TABE test, an Illinois Department of Corrections exam. 

According to student William Calbert, Champaign, he enrolled in the course to make himself more marketable after his release date.

“As a felon, we already have so many hurdles to cross once we’re out and looking for work,” explained Calbert. “Having these skills, an official transcript from college and an accredited certificate will hopefully give me the boost I need to land a job.”

Calbert also said that this program has helped him build a work ethic he didn’t think was possible inside the walls of the penitentiary.

“In a way, it’s like I work a 40-hour work week,” explained Calbert. “Staying occupied while I’ve been in here has helped me cope with stress and has taught me a lot about myself.”  

Likewise for Randall Behner of Decatur, who will be released in October, completing this program not only offers him a way to learn a variety of skills, but it gives him a chance to move on from his past. 

“Knowing that I am helping others by building these houses is a way for me to give back,” said Behner. “This is a stepping stone for me to become a positive influence on society. I’ve learned so many things about myself during my time here, and now, it’s time for me to look forward and move on. I’m looking very forward to becoming a positive influence for those around me once I go home.” 

According to Sharp, he sees a lot of changes in his students from the onset of the program to when they complete it. 

“The biggest change I see in these guys is increased self-confidence,” explained Sharp. “Many of them have not received formal education beyond high school or trained for a vocational skill. In fact, many of them haven’t been encouraged to learn, grow and improve themselves for a long time.”

To further the educational experience for his students, Sharp assigns four students, who have already completed the program, to be teacher’s aides. The role of the teacher’s aide is to supervise the work groups, offer assistance to students and lead the construction process.

“I’ve set the class up so that students who are highly skilled in the construction processes, but also display leadership skills, have the opportunity to develop those skills more fully,” said Sharp. “Essentially, they serve as foremen on the construction site, and this gives the teacher’s aides a chance to add a supervisory role to their resumes.”   

The Illinois Department of Corrections operates 25 prisons throughout Illinois and the agency is committed to operating a safe and secure prison system with successful reentry of inmates into society, which helps reduce recidivism. Lake Land College provides educational opportunities like the Construction Trades Program to 17 correctional centers throughout the state. Other programs include horticulture, food services, custodial maintenance and career technology. 

To learn more about the educational classes offered in the Department of Corrections through Lake Land College, contact Billingsley at (217) 540-3588. 


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