Given Another Chance

“George Williams” is a criminal.

At least, some might only see him that way.

The 44-year-old Jamestown resident, who’s currently serving an eight-month sentence at the Chautauqua County Jail in Mayville, is indeed on familiar ground.

He’s been in and out of there multiple times.

But now in the final month of his latest sentence, Williams is facing his departure a bit differently.

Instead of again wallowing outside aimlessly with little or no desire to change, he’s garnered a newfound confidence in himself. He has new skills, a resume and job prospects already lined up.

In fact, when speaking with Williams – who chose not to disclose his real name – on Friday, it was startling to see the stigma, so often attached to those in jail, quickly slip away.

Williams was polite, composed and articulate. He was hopeful for the future and determined to avoid jail at all costs.

“I used to take this place for granted … I would just come here, do the time and get out of here,” Williams said. “This time, I don’t know what came over me. I just felt that I had to make a change.”

This change, of course, was not a fluke, but rather one prompted by a set of educational and training programs offered at the jail itself, the brainchild of a concerted statewide effort to reach out to the incarcerated, help them re-enter the workforce and – perhaps more importantly – redefine their lives.

In 2013, the Chautauqua County Office of Probation was awarded the “200 Percent of Poverty Alternatives to Incarceration” grant via the Division of Criminal Justice Services. The grant seeks to reduce recidivism by funding re-entry and training programs to individuals with families whose income does not exceed 200 percent of the federal poverty line.

Williams, who has an 18-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son, was not only eligible for these programs, but took them to heart.

“(My kids) don’t want to see me coming back and forth to this (jail),” Williams said. “I know I should make a change for myself first. But I’m doing all this for them.”

Williams volunteered and eventually graduated from two programs, Thinking For A Change and Ready, Set, Work-the former addressing cognitive, behavioral and social skills and the latter addressing employment and marketing skills.

In addition, he became a member of the jail’s Trustee Program, which placed him on a work detail in the cafeteria.

The Trustee Program, while granting certain privileges to its members in exchange for work, like separate dorm-style housing and more freedom from the guards, offers its biggest reward in the form of job training.

“First of all, (I volunteered for the Trustee Program) to better my living situation, I won’t lie about that,” Williams said with a smile. “But once I got down to the kitchen, and started to see how things were done in a restaurant, I started to take it seriously. I figured I could look into this when I get out of here.”

Indeed, Williams, who never knew how to cook before, eventually earned a culinary certificate for his work in the cafeteria. His supervisor is even willing to give him a recommendation to potential employers.

“I’ve really made great strides,” Williams said. “These programs really work … (they’ve) changed my attitude a whole lot. Whenever I get into a situation now, I always think back to the skills I’ve learned. (These programs) really helped me a lot.”

Williams’ story, while seemingly good news, may still prove dissatisfying to critics who regard jails as providing too much security and assistance to inmates, perhaps even incentivising jail time and creating space issues.

CodyAnne Weise, employment and re-entry facilitator at the county jail, acknowledged these concerns, but countered that inmates who acquire a job are 33 percent less likely to return to jail.

Moreover, according to the National Institute of Corrections, the No. 1 way to reduce recidivism is employment. It reduces county costs accrued through incarceration and adds back to the local tax base.

“This is why these programs are so important,” Weise said. “This is not a bleeding heart care service. This is a practical, dollars and cents issue. The (inmates) that make it (through these programs) and get a job will save taxpayers a ton of money.”

Chautauqua County Sheriff Joseph Gerace also showed support for the re-entry programs, stating that he would be “remiss” if he didn’t try to help inmates improve their lives.

“Our goal is to put ourselves out of business,” Gerace said. “(The jail) is not a place for people to be comfortable. But we need to make (inmates) become productive members of society, and reduce the chances of them coming back.”

According to Weise, 35 individuals successfully completed all re-entry programs offered in 2013. Eleven attained some form of employment after being released. Weise believes these numbers will increase if the grant expands to include inmates who don’t have children as well.

As for Williams’ future, things look brighter than ever.

“I had a lot of opportunities to keep my life straight, but I chose the wrong direction,” he said. “At this particular time, I’ve decided to make a change. I’m ready to help the community out and be a respected citizen.”