On Nov. 8, Mercyhurst University saw a Criminal Justice panel speak on the topic of rehabilitation of prisoners following their release from jail. The panel discussion was organized by the Student Alliance for Prison Reform as part of the Criminal Justice department.
The student leaders brought in three staff members from a local outreach center, Climate Changers Inc., which works with at-risk ex-convicts and those nearing the end of their time in prison.
Climate Changers assists those recently released from prison in Erie County to help them re-establish themselves in the community and readjust to daily life in a way that benefits the entire Erie community.
The program leader, Fred Williams, is a previously convicted felon who served 18 years and two months in prison in the Erie area.
He now dedicates his life to solving the critical issues facing ex-offenders when they are released from incarceration.
He brought with him to Mercyhurst his program administrator, Sarah Jones, and Climate Changers intern Eva Soloman, who is a Mercyhurst alum.
Climate Changers partners with Lexington law firm and has been a part of the Erie County prison program for the past four years. The group works with men, women and juveniles for as long as they need assistance or as long as they take to complete the Climate Changers three-phase program.
The program is guided by mandates for parole. It doesn’t matter if a program participant is from Erie or not, as the single requirement is that you want to change your life.
Williams discussed with students burning issues in the criminal justice system, such as the privatization of prisons.
Williams felt that this makes modern-day prisons work farms where offenders are paid far less than minimum wage for forced labor.
He also noted that the skills learned from this type of work are often not applicable to the real world after jail, and leave prisoners as bait for jobs that are under the table and can land them in prison once again.
However, even beyond the search for employment, Williams commented on how the greatest issue faced by those released from prison is the difficulty in adjustment to freedom.
“The freedom that a person is given when they come out of prison is far too great for individual to handle,” Williams said. “The only thing you have to be in prison is compliant. They don’t let you think. They tell you when you can eat, when you can sleep, when you can go to church, if you can go to church and what you can wear, or listen to or watch. Then after two, four, 10, 15, however many years, they hand you your personal effects and your brain and they tell you ‘think.’ That doesn’t work.”
Williams’ program is faith based, and its co-founder is local bishop Curtis L. Jones.
Although it has a faith aspect, assistance from Climate Changers is available to anyone regardless of religion.
Of the 126 men the program has worked with, only seven have gone back to jail. This shows astounding success due to the fact that the average return to prison after incarceration rate is 67 percent.
The center also has similar statistics in their work with women. Program administrator Jones works exclusively with the women of the program on Friday evenings and runs events for both genders throughout the week.
When asked by students what obstacles newly released prisoners face, both Jones and Williams discussed the views of society and need for support in Erie.
“The most difficult thing is society – there are so many stigmas attached to someone coming from prison. Society is tough. You’re only as good as your last fight,” Williams said.
Climate Changers Inc. is looking to expand their program every day in line with demand in Erie.
Jones commented on how the program has changed the face of Erie.
“We give you the tools and we leave the tools of the program open forever. As long as you’re alive, you can come back to the program,” Jones said.
“Even outside of the numbers, we have multiple guards pull us aside and thank us for what we’re doing. Guards have noticed the change between those who are in our system and those who are not, and for me that’s success in itself.”
The Climate Changers program is designed to be administered in prisons in the weeks leading up to a person’s release, and afterwards from a closed school, because almost every city has a closed down or unused school which has a suitable layout.
Climate Changers can also provide clothing, accommodation and other aid to those they work with.
The three phases of the Climate Changers program concentrate on positive reinforcement, suitable work, housing and a strong and stable support system.
Williams concluded the talk by saying that if you are in criminal justice, you should not be fighting crime, but fighting a mentality in itself.
His advice to students was to be effective in the criminal justice system by having a heart for people and a strong sense of justice within.
Senior Criminal Justice major Allison Fratus, who is president of the Student Alliance for Prison Reform, was excited to bring this panel to Mercyhurst.
“We really try to connect with Climate Changers whenever possible because their program matches up perfectly with the mission of our club. We try to connect students with the criminal justice community and advocate for justice reforms,” Fratus said.
“I think this panel was beneficial to our club members because they see on a very real level the absolute need for reforms within the prison system and how criminal justice policy impacts real people in our community,” Fratus said. “In addition to this, Fred Williams is really just a great speaker and students love listening to him talk about his life experiences and his program.”
Climate Changers Inc. is located in Erie on East 11th Street. The group encourages any Mercyhurst students to call into the center and ask about internships and service opportunities.