Colorado parolee describes returning to society during a pandemic after 26 years in prison

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After nearly three decades behind bars, Fred Wilson reentered a world that was turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Rocky Mountain PBS
DENVER | Imagine 26 years behind bars. Then, consider what it takes to commit to positive change, doing the years of hard work and finally earning parole — only to face reintegrating into society during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Where do you turn for reliable resources? How do you even get a cell phone? Where do you live? Can you find a job? How do you stay healthy?
The stakes are high. And the risk of reoffending, even higher. For Fred Wilson, trusting himself was the first step. The next step has been to find what he calls “tools” from people in the community who are more interested in his future than his past. After serving nearly three decades in prison, he is determined to mend relationships while seeking a fresh start.
“I broke a lot of hearts and I broke mine the most, you know. There was a lot of shame and guilt. But I used it as a pickup not a downfall,” said Wilson, while taking time to pause and reflect about each word, and about a life that had taken him on a path with many twists.
Since earning parole in September of 2020, he’s worked with his parole officer to find organizations willing to provide him assistance. On this new path, he has found some highlights. He has a job. He has a new smart phone that allows him to stay connected with his work, support and parole officer. He has a safe home. And he’s getting vital emotional support from the Lutheran Family Services Colorado Spirit Wellness program and St. Francis Center.
This has been a lot to process.
So, how did he do it?
 
Tool One: St. Francis Center Employment Center
“We do find folks employment,” said Ronnie Anika, during a tour of the employment center building at 14th Avenue and Williams Street in Denver. He leads the employment services team and is well-versed in all of the resources St. Francis Center offers.
There’s a housing department and day shelter, an outreach center, and more. Since 1983, St. Francis Center has been finding ways to meet the needs of families and individuals experiencing homelessness.
Anika’s job is finding jobs. He also makes sure clients are ready for new opportunities. Sometimes that means providing a business suit. Other times, it can mean providing sturdy work boots. But most of the time, he says, help is needed to draft new resumes and coach clients with interviewing skills. He’s ready to help.
“We do make sure that our clients are well equipped to start a job. We don’t want them to miss out on anything,” Anika adds, while showing off the clothing closet, where community members have made donations of clothing just waiting for a new owner.
For the past seven months, Anika has been part of Fred Wilson’s world. He’s been that “rock,” meeting with him often three or four times each week.
“When Fred came out of prison and he was in such a place that he was very, very scared. He was from another world, going into another world and everything was very fast and very quick,” Anika said.
Fred needed help with creating a resume and finding his own safe place to live, away from the influence of friends from the life that lead him into prison. He also needed a way to process the sea of emotions he was experiencing.
Anika introduced him to Lutheran Family Services. The two nonprofits would work together to set Fred up for success with what they call a “warm hand-off” to needed resources and counseling.
 
Tool Two: Lutheran Family Services Colorado Spirit Wellness Program
Known decades for providing assistance with foster care, immigration, adoption, and aid following a disaster, Lutheran Family Services (LFS) has added a new program since the national declaration of a crisis in early 2020. The organization is using a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant to provide Coloradans with free emotional and mental health resources.
Jill Addai is a master’s level social worker with LFS crisis counseling program. She’s seen the power this community-based outreach can create across the state.
“The grant covers free mental health support for all 64 counties in Colorado with 22 providers that do daily outreach,” she said, describing how organizations like LFS offer free one-on-one listening sessions, group support, drop-in sessions and even in-person support when feasible.
“A lot of times social services clients feel as if they’re just being thrown to the wayside, but we really try to pay special attention to that by providing a warm hand. It’s not the same ‘Call this number’ [approach]. I’m actually the one calling,” Addai said.
Addai said she assisted Wilson via two virtual sessions and some phone calls. She continued to assure him he was in good hands with both organizations and the connections she personally set up.
 
Community partnerships bring results
“I’m becoming a good role model in that and I’m doing something about it,” said Wilson as he describes excitement to now have two jobs, a safe place to live, and an overwhelming sense of community respect. He often works 10 or more hours a day.
“I got my landscaping job and snow removal job, and I was so proud when that guy gave me a chance,” he said. “I started at $17 [an hour]. I got a raise to $18 and now I’m going to make $20 in the summer and that’s full-time.”
Crediting his devout Christian faith and the generous support from so many community members, Wilson says he’s committed to creating “no more victims” and positively sharing his tools with others following a similar journey. He has given his first flip phone to a former inmate starting the reintegration process and continues to preach his commitment to positivity.
“Me, I was deemed never to get out of prison. I worked with the system and I utilize my tools and people to help me and I’m free right now because of it. Don’t give up, because you can rise up from anything if you want to. You’re looking at a person that did it,” said Wilson.
“I’m drug free. I’m alcohol free. I don’t smoke. I serve Jesus. I got two jobs. I feel good. I feel blessed. I don’t feel like a prisoner. I feel like a freed man, a law-abiding citizen,” said Wilson before he hopped on his bike to catch the next bus to his next job.
Success stories continue to inspire 
“He went for the first meeting [with LFS Colorado Spirit Wellness program] and when he came back, he was a totally changed person,” said Anika. “That support helped him tremendously.”
Every Thursday, clients at St. Francis Center continue to have the opportunity to join a private virtual session with LFS Colorado Spirit Wellness counselors.
The FEMA grant continues through June of this year, but counselors say there are already plans to find ways to continue these valuable resources.
“Even after COVID, I can imagine the long-term emotional and mental health needs, the financial needs and the economic needs of our community members [will remain]. So I am really hopeful that this collaborative work will be ongoing, to address those long-term needs,” assured Addai.
This story is part of a new series from Rocky Mountain PBS called “COVID-19 in Colorado: The Long Haul.” Explore the project page here.
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