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Thanks to help from Project Blue, inmate believes latest jail stint will be his last

Buffalo News - 5/1/2022

May 2—John Fenner is in jail again. But he believes this time will be his last.

In November, Fenner ended up in the Erie County Holding Center after scuffling with police officers who were trying to arrest him. He was offered the opportunity to participate in a pilot program called Project Blue operated by the Erie County Sheriff's Office with Peaceprints of WNY to help people transition from incarceration to the community — and then stay out of the criminal justice system.

Project Blue pairs inmates with counselors who work with them on everything from mental health and substance abuse to eventually finding housing and employment once they are released.

Last week, the Sheriff's Office announced that the program is expanding so that it can include everyone being held at the Holding Center, in a bid to keep people out of jail.

The Sheriff's Office Jail Management Division has been working to reduce their high recidivism rate. A 2018 assessment by the Council of State Governments Justice Center found that in 2016, 81.6% of people who were booked at Erie County's jail had previous involvement in the jail system, worse than the national average of 67%. The 2018 report also found one in five who were booked at the county jail were likely to return to jail four or more times within three years.

But for Project Blue participants, the recidivism rate so far is dramatically lower — just 10%.

Fenner signed up and he believes he's learning the skills he needs to get his life back on track.

"I spent my whole life right where I am right now," he said in a phone interview from the Holding Center in downtown Buffalo. "It's kind of pathetic ... Now I want to live a simple, clean and sober life."

Fenner, 46, recently graduated from a Project Blue workshop called Ready, Set, Work — a one week, 20-hour program that prepares incarcerated people for reentering the workforce. They learn how to look for jobs, including ways to find employers who are open to hiring people with prior records, as well as how to fill out applications, how to handle an interview, what to wear and how to keep a job.

"They really focused on not giving up," Fenner said of the workshop. "That you can't expect to get out of jail and the first day to land a job. That's not reality ... but if you continue to look for work and you're consistent and adamant, you will."

The workshop brought in speakers, including those who had spent time in the criminal justice system. Fenner said he was especially inspired by one speaker who spent 10 years in prison before starting a painting business. "He got out of jail and he owns his own business," he said. "He gives you hope."

Fenner acknowledged that it has taken him a long time to get to a point where he's ready to take control of his life.

He grew up in Arcade and graduated from Pioneer High School. He used to work as a truck driver and was a certified milk inspector. He also had a two-year degree in welding. He had a supportive family and a daughter.

He also has an addiction to cocaine.

"I've been battling addiction for over 25 years," he said.

Fenner spoke frankly about his substance use disorder, his mental health and his criminal history. He said that his counseling in jail has taught him "rigorous honesty."

"If you want to get your life together, you don't mind your name and your face being out there," he said.

Fenner said he has been through rehab and had periods of sobriety but he would always relapse.

In the fall, Fenner said he was supposed to drive a truck to Ohio to pick up a load. "I never made it past Buffalo," he said. Fenner said he parked the truck on Niagara Street, called his boss and told him he had relapsed. Then he took all of his belongings and ended up living on the street — by the train tracks that cross Delaware Avenue in North Buffalo.

"When you're out on the street, it's a real lonely, dark place," he said. "You're not wanted. You're not needed. Nobody wants to be around you." That included his daughter, who he hasn't seen in two decades, he said.

His addiction to crack cocaine grew worse. "When the addiction takes over, you do stupid things ... I was on the sidewalk and there were a couple of cops walking by and they recognized me. They stopped and it went from there," he said. Fenner had failed to appear on a previous petit larceny charge. But now he also was in trouble for allegedly assaulting a police officer.

"So here I am in jail," he said.

But he said he was ready to change. He signed up with Project Blue and with a 12-step program to help him with his addiction. He began counseling and realized that his addiction is a symptom of a deeper problem. He was diagnosed with bipolar depression and he began taking medication for that. He took part in the Ready, Set, Work workshop and was selected to be the speaker at the graduation ceremony. Now, he's working with his case manager from Peaceprints on getting his truck driving license restored for when he gets out of jail.

"While you're in here you can learn and they provide that hope," he said.

Fenner said he hopes that, like the painter who spoke to his workshop, he, too, can be an example for others.

"Me doing this right now?" he said of the phone interview. "This is against the grain. But you know what? It makes me proud. Maybe I can help someone else."

Project Blue started in 2018 through a $1 million federal grant. It's grown since. In 2020, the program received a $258,800 grant from the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation to include people who are awaiting trial but aren't behind bars, often due to changes in bail laws. "It's to connect with people you still need to support," said Cindi McEachon, executive director of Peaceprints of WNY.

Last week, Sheriff John Garcia announced that Project Blue will include all of the inmates at the Holding Center starting this fall, a population of between 300 to 350 people depending on the day.

Previously, the program was focused on repeat offenders and could take on about about 125 to 150 people at a time.

"Now we're growing and expanding and working with everybody," McEachon said.

It remains voluntary but is open to everyone who is spending time in the jails, said Thomas Diina, chief of community integration and former jails superintendent.

The expansion will focus on workforce development.

"People are hurting for employees," Diina said, noting that he has three meetings set up with employers interested in bringing on people who go through the Project Blue program.

"The desire is there for folks who enroll in the program and for those who need workers," he said.

Many studies show, he said, that when incarcerated people are connected with services before and right after their time behind bars, and they have employment, they are far less likely to end up back in jail.

"It's about linking the two," he said.


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