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Change in political temperature brings chance for change for Erie County inmates

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Jacob Winkowski Project Blue

Jacob Winkowski carries a bundle of shingles to the roof of a house at a job in Franklinville. Winkowski was enrolled in Project Blue, a reintegration program that helps keep inmates from returning to jail when they are released. After being released in June and enrolled in a roofing program, he now works for a roofing contractor.

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DeMario Baines has been at the Erie County Correctional Facility since the fall, awaiting a court appearance on criminal weapons possession charges. When he learned his grandmother died last month, he thought about his chronically ill mother being left alone.

She lost two brothers to a car accident and illness. One disappeared. His body later turned up behind someone's house. And now Baines, her son, was in jail.

So when a transition specialist with Project Blue asked Baines how she could help him get back on his feet, he had a request.

"Can you please call my mom and see if she's OK?" he asked.  

Jacob Winkowski, meanwhile, has been out of jail since June. For months, he didn't want anything while incarcerated from what he thought of as a do-good program. But the community reintegration officer for his unit kept checking in on him, chatting about the Bills or asking to see pictures of his son. Finally, Winkowski decided to make a request.

Now, the recently released Buffalo resident has a place to live, new tools and roofing certification. He spends his days fixing houses one roof at a time, earning $20 an hour.

"I'm the happiest I've ever been in a long time," he said.

What links these two men is their participation in Erie County programs designed to keep them from returning to jail. More money, resources and political capital is being put toward reintegration. It has been decades since the sheriff, County Legislature and county administration have seemed so like-minded in their desire to invest in jail programs that give inmates the tools to succeed on the outside.

Jacob Winkowski Project Blue

Jacob Winkowski at a roofing job at a house in Franklinville, Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022. Winkowski was enrolled in Project Blue, a reintegration program that helps keep inmates from returning to jail. Now that he's employed, he says he feels happier than he's ever been even though the work can be tough.

Barriers to change

Winkowski, 32, has been in and out of jail a dozen times for theft, burglary and drug charges. He had repeatedly stolen from his family to support his addiction. He slept under overpasses and in port-a-potties.

But during his last jail stay, he finally talked with a transition specialist because he was facing homelessness upon his release and knew he would head straight to a drug dealer.

"If I use, jail is going to come," he said.

His request jump-started a conversation that eventually got him not only a place to sleep, but also enrollment in a four-day roofing certification program. Before the training program was over, he was offered a job. Now he spends his weekdays working for a roofing contractor and his weekends playing football and Pokemon with his 7-year-old son.

He came home late Friday feeling cold and tired after lugging 80 pounds of shingles up and down a ladder all day. But he holds his head up. His family doubted he would get this far.

"To prove them wrong, you have no idea how gratifying it is," he said.

Though Winkowski has been out of jail for several months, he still calls his transition specialist when he needs help. That has been integral to his success so far.

But Project Blue wasn't always around and it wasn't always open to everyone.

It was only a few years ago that inmates were released from Erie County jails with nothing but the possessions they had when they went in. If they were released without a place to live and without access to further counseling or work connections, that was their problem.

But the fact that eight out of 10 released inmates eventually returned to jail was the county's problem.

A 2018 study showed Erie County was poorly equipped to help anyone stay out of the criminal justice system upon release. In the years since, advocates have focused on reintegrating incarcerated people back into society, to keep them on the right side of those jail bars.

In 2019, Legislature Chairwoman April Baskin pushed to restructure and relaunch the Correction Specialists Advisory Board, with support from the Sheriff's Office. The previously inactive board went from being primarily a soap box for complaints by citizens and activists, to a working group of members with backgrounds in social justice, probation and mental health who partnered with the Sheriff's Office and made recommendations.

Other agencies and providers also worked with the Sheriff's Office to address recidivism rates, which measure the likelihood that people convicted of crimes will return to jail or prison.

But even then there were problems. The Democratic-controlled Erie County Legislature had an adversarial relationship with the Sheriff's Office when it was run by Timothy Howard. Funding for things the sheriff wanted, like Tasers and a full-time SWAT team, were denied, while things that Legislature Democrats wanted the sheriff to invest in, like certain addiction treatment programs and body cameras, were low priorities for Howard and his staff. 

That's not to say there weren't efforts to expand educational, health or rehabilitative services in county jails, but coordination was lacking. In 2020, the County Legislature gave the Mental Health Department and Sheriff's Office $1 million to establish a medication-assisted drug treatment program that the Sheriff's Office never asked for and was slow to spend. That program is only now starting to pick up steam.

"There was just so much resistance to even me just asking questions," said, Baskin, who has focused heavily on police and jail reform issues. "That kind of resistance just doesn’t happen anymore."

New focus

Since Sheriff John Garcia won election last year, communication and coordination between county government branches have improved. Democratic county legislators who once met Republican Sheriff Howard with disapproval now greet Republican Sheriff Garcia warmly. And Democratic County Executive Mark Poloncarz has hinted at plans to invest more in Sheriff's Office staffing.

"We celebrate when the sheriff is walking in now," Baskin said. "It’s still a politically partisan divide there, but the people are different."

"The relationship has been really fantastic," agreed Garcia. "April Baskin has her jails-to-jobs vision, which is perfect because it goes hand-in-hand with what we want to do."

The county administration and County Legislature's interest in expanded programming for inmates dovetails well with Garcia's desire to improve jail staffing and address chronic overtime and burnout among corrections officers and jail deputies.

Since the changeover, multiple partnerships related to social "re-entry" programs have either been conceived or taken off:

• Project Blue is no longer limited to certain inmates at the downtown Holding Center. It has expanded to all incarcerated people at both the Holding Center and Correctional Facility in Alden. The Legislature last month approved spending up to $750,000 to contract with Peaceprints to expand the Project Blue program through the end of next year. That and other grant money will enable Peaceprints to grow its staff and expand capacity.

Project Blue assists with transition services, including housing, employment, public benefits and reissuance of identification paperwork for those in jail until up to one-year post-release. Inmates who participate in the program are roughly 75% less likely to return to jail.

Jacob Winkowski Project Blue

Jacob Winkowski cleans up debris from a roofing job at a house in Franklinville Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022. A transition specialist with Project Blue helped Winkowski, a former jail inmate, enroll in a roofing certification program that helped him land a job. 

• The Erie County Corrections Specialist Advisory Board has presented the framework for a new "Former Detainee to Employee" employment program that would create a direct pipeline for those incarcerated in county jail to get the job training they need and access to jobs in fields that are experiencing chronic labor shortages. Though the program is at a conceptual stage, work has begun to secure commitments from outside employers to work with and hire people leaving jail.

• The position of "chief of community reintegration" was created this year and staffed by former jails Superintendent Thomas Diina, who is now in regular talks with community partners about expanding education and job training opportunities to both inmates and recently released individuals.

Discussions are ongoing with SUNY Buffalo State, SUNY Erie Community College and private businesses to start new job training programs. The Sheriff's Office is also lobbying for the ongoing support of a jail-based community reintegration officer. 

"We have a captive audience," Diina said. "This is the time to get folks engaged, not when they're leaving on a Friday night after getting bailed out or getting released by a judge. We want to engage them at Day One, provide substantive programming while they're in custody and then prepare them to leave."

Project Blue

Baines has learned a fundamental truth after being a jailhouse resident on many occasions, especially as a younger man.

"When you’re in jail, you can make a million promises to yourself," he said. "But being on the outside, it’s a whole other story."

With the benefit of maturity, he managed to go seven years between visits to the county jail before landing back inside this year. In between, he took college courses, traveled and worked. But since the fall, he's been stuck at the Correctional Facility.

Now age 44, he's learned not to be shy about asking for help. Not only did he sign up with Project Blue as soon as it was offered, but he became an evangelist for the program among other inmates. He said he was impressed his transition specialist kept following up with him and was willing to call his mother.

At one point, Baines asked if she could see if his credit card was still being automatically billed by Delta Sonic for Unlimited Super Kiss washes.

"That was a new one," said Christie Cleaver, who works with Baines.

Both she and others with Project Blue say word-of-mouth is the greatest marketing tool the program has, though they do make presentations. Anyone who participates must volunteer.

Baines said it's tough for those in jail to ask for help. And inmates have heard empty promises and been abandoned before.

"A lot of these guys are afraid, let's be real," he said. 

Lindsey Allen, director of community programs for Peaceprints and supervisor for Project Blue said there's a reason why participants in Project Blue have a recidivism rate of about 10%, compared with 80% for the general inmate population.  

"We aren’t just going to say we’re going to help you," she said. "We actually will help you."

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I use the Erie County government beat to find issues and stories that tell us something important about how we live. An alumna of the Columbia Journalism School and Buffalo News staff reporter since 2000, I can be reached at stan@buffnews.com

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