July 24, 2016

Intermittent clouds

Seeking freedom from the prison of the past

Mark Fahringer, whose ex-wife Rahna Fahringer was shot by her ex-boyfriend in 2012, puts together directories to help prisoners re-integrate into society on Friday. (BRUCE BISHOP / GAZETTE)

Mark Fahringer, whose ex-wife Rahna Fahringer was shot by her ex-boyfriend in 2012, puts together directories to help prisoners re-integrate into society on Friday. (BRUCE BISHOP / GAZETTE)

Mark Fahringer remembers the first time he met the man dating his former wife, Rahna Fahringer.

He knew Terrence Abel, 39, had a criminal past, but the man who was fixing a used washer and dryer in the garage of Rahna’s Brunswick home offered up no red flags that he might be a danger to his former wife and their two children.

Abel, he said, was excited to work. He was upfront about his past felony record for burglary and theft and seemed willing to change.

Terrence Abel

Terrence Abel

“He was really engaging and really looking forward to building that and having a part-time job,” he said.

Abel’s part-time repair business was successful for a while until an appliance warehouse that was supplying the appliances to Abel realized that it was losing business to Abel, who was selling the repaired appliances for well-below market value.

That’s when Abel became discouraged and his mood darkened, Mark Fahringer said.

Mark Fahringer even tried to help Abel secure work through his job as coordinator of The Salvation Army Oberlin Service Unit, which at that time was offering job-finding resources but did not tailor anything toward inmate reintegration.

“It was about the summer of 2012 when I noticed he was really changing,” he said.

The relationship turned abusive, but Mark Fahringer said he wasn’t aware until Abel had been involved with Rahna for about a year. That’s when their 12-year-old daughter told him about Abel’s abusive behavior and Mark Fahringer started pushing his former wife to end it with Abel.

On Nov. 26, she decided to obtain a protection order against Abel. In requesting the order — which barred Abel from going near Rahna Fahringer and her two children — she said he had abused her for about six months and she feared for her life.

Rahna Fahringer displays the scars from her gunshot wounds Monday. (BRUCE BISHOP / GAZETTE)

Rahna Fahringer displays the scars from her gunshot wounds Monday. (BRUCE BISHOP / GAZETTE)

The order did little to stop Abel from coming to her home, 1528 Jefferson Ave., on Dec. 1, 2012, shooting Rahna Fahringer in the leg and getting involved in a standoff with police, which ended when police stormed the bedroom where he was holding her. Abel was dead, and Rahna Fahringer also was hit in the crossfire, getting shot in the arm and hand.

Rahna Fahringer said she believed Abel had serious mental health issues from his time in prison and former drug use, but she also said some of Abel’s problems stemmed from his inability to find a job and become successful. She said ending the relationship with Abel was the last straw.

“He would have to face everybody … with having to move back in with his brother, not having us, not having that whole thing,” she said. “It was desperate measures.”

Mark Fahringer said his former wife’s ordeal inspired him to help other convicted felons like Abel.

“He was really motivated to turn his life around and do everything right. No matter where he turned, because of his record, he was getting doors closed in his face,” he said. “He was getting frustrated and really didn’t have any idea of where to turn. … You can just see, over time, his personality getting darker and darker when doors were closed in his face.”

Giving direction

Mark Fahringer has been working on a program to give inmates an idea of where to turn when they are released from prison.

The program, The 49-9 Project, is a Lorain County directory given to prisoners once they are released. The directory includes information on where to find alcohol and drug abuse treatment, housing and legal assistance, as well as information on child support and Lorain County’s public transportation schedule.

Mark Fahringer said he never expected such an interest in the project, but he has been approached by prisons from as far as Conneaut to Warren County that want copies of the directory. He’s also been asked to work on directories for other counties.

“We kept getting requests from farther out. We have over 1,000 requests,” he said, pointing to a table full of copies of the directory, which would be distributed later that week.

One of Mark Fahringer’s biggest supporters is the Grafton Correctional Institute, which began implementing re-integration programs at the jail last year.

Cathy Cornish, a program coordinator at Grafton Correctional Institution, said the directory should be helpful to inmates, especially those who have been incarcerated for several years.

“It’s just a great resource,” she said. “It’s handy, so they can carry it around and refer to different things.”

The Grafton Correctional Institution’s Reintegration Camp has been at the forefront of a push to change the way institutions look at re-offenders. Traditionally, the institutions spent little time trying to determine why prisoners are locked up, but Director of Ohio Rehabilitation and Correction Gary Mohr has made it his goal to discover those issues and prevent convicts from coming back to prison once they are released.

While it’s too soon to tell whether reintegration programs, like those adopted by the Grafton Correction Institution’s Reintegration Center, will reduce recidivism, something is working.

Ohio, long a state with a high prison population, has reduced recidivism from 39 percent in 2000 to 27 percent in 2010, far below the national average of 40 percent.

Mohr has attributed the drop to newly enacted reintegration programs, which prepare prisoners for life outside of bars.

He added that a lower return rate means fewer crime victims and more cost-savings for taxpayers, as well as creating productive members of society.

“We need to recognize that these folks are human beings,” he said during a visit to Grafton Reintegration Center in January.

The center’s programming was also touted by U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Cincinnati, who visited in January to highlight the Second Chance Act – legislation in support of reforming prisons to reduce crime and support prisoners. Portman said he hoped President Barack Obama would support a federal effort like one underway in the state. At the Grafton Reintegration Center, the building doesn’t resemble a prison. It looks like a school with inmates working on computers or building toys, which will be donated to Lorain County children in need.

Inmates are offered help writing resumes and finding jobs, as well as drug, alcohol and mental health counseling.

Shelly Kamenec and Alex Figueiredo, correctional program coordinators for drug and alcohol services at Grafton Correctional Institute, said it’s the kind of atmosphere that invokes change.

Kamenec and Figueiredo have been working with inmates who are addicted to drugs and alcohol. They say statistics show that as many as 80 percent of inmates are addicted, and early prevention is important.

By the time those inmates are released, treatment is too late.

“We learn a lot about their background,” Kamenec said. “Many times I ask these guys, why did they turn to alcohol, but why wouldn’t they? Many of these inmates have horrific childhoods.”

Kamenec said early counseling can help inmates recognize some of the toxic relationships in their lives, which can help them make healthy decisions when they are released. For many, it’s a process.

“It’s up to the inmate (to change). And that is what’s frustrating for the family and the public to understand,” she said. “Somebody can really be trying hard and they slip.”

Figueiredo said they are seeing success in the program, which coordinates with the mental health unit. While counseling and treatment isn’t mandatory, there are approximately 100 inmates on the waiting list for it, he said.

Inmate Lamar Reed, of Lorain, has struggled with drugs in the past, but after programming he received through the Grafton Reintegration Center, he said he realizes that the choices he made were not ideal.

“Before I came in here, I had nothing. I had no programming, no GED,” he said.

After being incarcerated for 10 years for possession of drugs, Reed has been released to a halfway house with a GED and a job at EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute.

The opportunity came as a surprise to the 36-year-old, who said he has never worked before and didn’t think a job would be available to him as a convicted felon.

“It’s opened up a different light to me. Now I think, ‘Oh, OK. This is a better life for me,’” he said.

A better life

There is still a lot to be done to reduce the Ohio prison population, however, which is expected to grow over the next several years. According to a report from the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, the population is expected to grow by 3,000 inmates, hitting 53,484 by 2019.

About 50,000 inmates now are incarcerated in the state prison system.

That’s where Brandon Chrostowski hopes he can help.

Chrostowski, owner of EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute, said the idea behind his business is to give former inmates a chance like the one a former mentor gave him, even after he spent time in jail. Chrostowski would only say that he was mixed up in the wrong crowd and his charges were later dropped.

But the experience was enough to open his eyes to the stigma surrounding those with a criminal background.

“If you give someone a job and a career and have something to work for, it ought to reduce recidivism,” he said. “Without cooking, without a job, I’d be back in jail, that’s for sure.”

Chrostowski studied the culinary arts in New York and Paris, becoming general manager at L’Albatros Brasserie and Bar in Cleveland. His newest venture includes a partnership with the Grafton Correctional Institution, where he has been teaching weekly culinary classes to inmates.

Jail administrators, like unit manager Adam Kastler, have put so much trust in the inmates that Chrostowski even brings his tools with him, including knives, to demonstrate the cooking techniques.

Kastler said giving prisoners hope is the idea behind the program, and he’s seen it in the inmates.

“It’s a very positive program, and I support it fully,” he said.

Many of the released inmates who have participated in Chrostowski’s program have gone on to work at EDWINS or at one of the partnership restaurants.

According to its mission statement, EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute’s goal is to “enhance the community of Cleveland’s vulnerable neighborhoods by providing its future leaders.” Located in Shaker Square, the institute teaches former inmates the skill of culinary arts while giving them the opportunity to work in the restaurant.

Tony Smith, who spent three years at Grafton Correctional Institution for forgery and theft, was one of the first graduates through Chrostowski’s program. Now, he works as a pastry chef at EDWINS.

“I paid my debt and I’m cool with it,” he said. “I had enough time to think about what I wanted to do when I got out.”

Smith applauded recent changes to the prison system in which inmates are given more opportunities but also a structured learning environment. He said more opportunities should be given to former inmates, like the opportunities Chrostowski has given him.

Contact Chelsea Miller at (440) 329-7123 or cmiller@chroniclet.com.