Transitioning out of prison is hard. Freedom Institute is there to help.
The Grand Junction nonprofit serves former inmates in a wide swath of the Western Slope, and participants avoid returning to prison at a much higher rate than in Colorado as a whole
Debb Fache cuts the hair of an AmeriCorps Vista volunteer named Mari at the Freedom Institute in Grand Junction on April 29, 2022. Fache learned cosmetology skills while serving time in prison for drug offenses. (Sharon Sullivan for Colorado Newsline)
In 2008, after serving eight years in a Colorado prison for methamphetamine possession and forgery, Debb Fache was given a $100 debit card and bus ticket back to Grand Junction, where her case originated.
Parolees are released to where they were first arrested — unless they have friends or family elsewhere to take them in. Fache relapsed while on parole and was sentenced to an additional nine years in prison — this time for possession with intent to distribute.
“The only people I knew here were from my past,” Fache, 62, said. “It’s natural to reach out to the people you know.”
Ex-convicts face multiple challenges trying to transition from prison back into communities.
They face barriers to finding jobs, housing, ID cards, emotional support, and, in many cases, mental health care or substance abuse treatment. Some people also have financial obligations like legal fees and child support.
Fache said she found it challenging to make multiple mandated meetings each week — including self-help classes, submitting urinary analysis samples, visits to the parole office — while also applying for jobs and trying to survive. She said the stress of trying to find transportation to all of her appointments led to her using drugs, again. She’s not excusing her behavior, she’s quick to add, only explaining what led to her relapse.
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A lack of transportation is a huge issue for former inmates reentering society, said Kimberly Lindsey, who works for Freedom Institute, an organization in Grand Junction that offers case management, advocacy, and help with finding housing and jobs. Participants, who learn about the program while in prison, also gain job and leadership skills and receive crucial peer and emotional support.
Founded as a nonprofit in 2020 by Grand Junction resident Micah Espinoza, the Freedom Institute is funded by Work and Gain Education and Employment Skills, a reentry community grant program within the Colorado Department of Corrections.
WAGEES was created in 2014 when the state Legislature passed House Bill 14-1355 to provide funding to community-based organizations that support people returning from incarceration. Participants have a 10% recidivism rate while in the WAGEES program — significantly lower than the 50% recidivism rate reported by Colorado as a whole. The United States has some of the highest recidivism rates in the world.
The Freedom Institute currently serves those returning from prison. However, Mesa County will soon offer the WAGEES program to the Mesa County Jail population after it signs a contract with Freedom Institute within the next few weeks, said Mesa County Commissioner Janet Rowland. Freedom Institute is the only organization on the Western Slope offering the WAGEES program, she said.
Freedom Institute WAGEES participant Ricky Christenson said transportation is what he finds most difficult about being on parole. He’s currently trying to save money to buy a car.
“It’s frustrating. Buses go once an hour,” he said. “To get across town will take two-and-a-half hours that may take 10 minutes in a car. You get called in the morning to submit a (urinary analysis) and you have to take the bus. You have to leave work so the boss has to know. Or, you have to meet a parole officer during work hours so you can’t hide that from your employer. Some places the bus doesn’t go to. If you miss a UA that counts as a ‘positive.’ That’s just how it is.”
Transportation is worse for small towns such as around Garfield County where buses run only twice a day, said Lindsey.
With a house in Grand Junction and offices in Montrose and Rifle, the Freedom Institute serves 12 Colorado counties. It is part of a collective group of community and faith-based organizations that make up WAGEES community partners. Part of Freedom Institute’s goal is to change people’s perception of the formerly incarcerated, Espinoza said.
“These are people you’d love to have for neighbors, as an employee, even a family member,” Espinoza said. “They just made mistakes. We’re not about your past here. We’re about your future.”
Fache, who is currently on parole after completing her second prison term, works as a certified peer recovery coach for the Freedom Institute. She learned cosmetology in prison and gives free haircuts to staff members and WAGEES participants at the Freedom Institute house in downtown Grand Junction.
“Going to work is like coming home,” she said. “The humanity here is beyond anything I’ve experienced in my life. I’m in my 60s, and valuable. I’m starting over, have a career, helping people, making a difference in the world — in my 60s, because of the Freedom Institute.”
Recovering ‘out loud’
While he was finishing his sentence for drug possession at Mesa County Community Corrections in Grand Junction, Erik Borrell noticed that fellow inmates that he expected to see succeed outside of prison would “fall apart” after their release due to their inability to find housing. Borrell realized how fortunate he was to have supportive parents to stay with after he was released from prison.
Community Corrections inmates spend their nights at the halfway house, also referred to as COMCOR, while working outside jobs during the day. A third of workers’ earnings go toward room and board; a third goes to paying any outstanding bills such as child support; and a third is deposited into savings.
Some people leave COMCOR with thousands of dollars in savings, said Steve Erichsen, a 37-year-old former inmate who now works as the transitional housing director at Freedom Institute. However, landlords will often not rent to people with criminal records, Erichsen said.
Felons also have a hard time finding an employer who will hire them, said Borrell, who teaches recovery coaching and directs the Western Slope Recovery Network, an organization that offers resources for people trying to kick addictions. Borrell and Erichsen both work to try and remove the stigma of past incarceration with education and by demonstrating success in recovery.
“We try and change people’s opinions — that’s why we go ahead and use our names,” said Erichsen.
“We call it recover out loud,” said Borrell, 50.
Typically, before securing a job, housing or social security card, a person needs to first get an identification card, which can be difficult for various reasons, like not having a birth certificate, or transportation to the Department of Motor Vehicles office. Julie Mamo, transitional coordinator for the Mesa County’s Sheriff’s Office, helps people both in and out of jail obtain their IDs.
“It’s a huge problem if you can’t get an ID,” Mamo said. “How can you have a chance at success without an ID?”
The DMV operates a program to help Coloradans who normally do not have easy access to in-office driver’s license services by providing mobile DMV sites. Mamo said the Mesa County Jail will have a mobile DMV site by June or July.
“That will be a fantastic day — so many people are waiting,” Mamo said.
Addressing mental health, addictions
In March, the number of people booked into the Mesa County Jail averaged 431, with 457 people released to the community that month. The average daily jail population is 456, although it’s been as high as 700 inmates, said Mesa County Commissioner Janet Rowland. Mental health disorders and addiction to drugs or alcohol are common in the jail population, she said. During the height of the COVID pandemic, one individual was arrested on 19 occasions, while another person was booked into jail 10 or 11 times, she noted.
“It shows the revolving door of jail for some people,” Rowland said. “Forty-nine percent of people in jail are on some type of anti-psychotic medication. Jail is not where they belong.”
She said it’s not uncommon for a substance abuse offender to spend 45 days in jail for a probation violation. After detoxing in jail, once released, addicts often want to get into one of two inpatient treatment programs in Mesa County but find there’s a 30-day wait list, Rowland said. Some end up back in jail before they can begin treatment.
A Mesa County Behavioral Health Task Force is working to change that policy by allowing individuals to sign up for the wait list while they’re still in jail — to increase their chances of starting treatment immediately, upon release.
Mesa County also intends to end, or at least reduce, the “revolving door of jail,” after the Freedom Institute starts providing services for the county’s jail population.
“The state spends $35,000-$37,000 per year per inmate, whereas the WAGEES program spends $3,500 per person per year for its program,” Rowland said. “To me that makes more sense — it’s more humane, and it’s cheaper. We’re excited about doing that from jail.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 1:45 p.m. on May 21, 2022, to clarify the recidivism rate of participants in the WAGEES program.
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