Featured Story, Prison Stories

Attorney General Eric Holder Announces New Rules for Federal Halfway Houses

2014-11-08 08.36.37*Writer’s note- I wrote this shortly before I was released. In an upcoming feature I will discuss what I experienced and what the reality is for prisoners coming home like myself.

I am about to complete a 25 year federal drug sentence in the Bureau of Prisons for a Continuing Criminal Enterprise charge that I pled guilty to in 1991. After all this time, my halfway house paperwork has been routed and I have been approved to go to halfway house and received a release date. I go to Dismas House in Saint Louis, Missouri on August 1.

I have heard a lot about it and halfway houses in general, during my incarceration, as I am about to embark Eric Holder has made an announcement to the national media concerning halfway houses. I am wondering how it will impact and apply to me and if all the new rules he has announced will be in place when I get to Dismas House.

As a Drug War prisoner, on the inside looking out, it seems that Attorney General Holder has been on a one man crusade the last year to reshape the policies and practices of the federal criminal justice system. For those of us buried in the belly of the beast this has been much welcomed news. Because for so long we have had nothing coming.

With the War on Drugs and Tough on Crime rhetoric and polices, we have been locked away in here and forgotten. Out of sight and out of mind. To those of us in prison it has seemed as if no one cared and that the general consensus of society was lock them up and throw away the key. Not a good feeling to seemingly be abandoned by your own country, but that’s what it’s been like.

But now, finally, the Obama administration is making the effort to right the wrongs of the Drug War. And anybody in the know realizes that halfway houses play a big part. By announcing new policies and programming for federal halfway houses, the Justice Department seems sincere in taking new steps to fight against recidivism. They seem to be putting a lot of emphasis on reentry and with thousands of people reentering society after serving their sentences it’s about time. The government should do everything they can to help us transition back to the world.

With this in mind, the Attorney General has made it a requirement for federal halfway houses to boost treatment services for inmates prior to release. Including providing transportation assistance, cell phone access in order to help inmates seek employment opportunities and basically making the transition period at the halfway house less restrictive and more proactive. So ex-prisoners can obtain jobs, get transportation and spend their last months in home confinement.

I am ready to go and take advantage of the new polices. After serving multiple decades in the Federal Bureau of Prisons I am anticipating making the transition to the real world. Having completed the BOP’s 500 hour Residential Drug Abuse Program I have learned new ways of thinking and living and am ready for a second chance to begin my life anew.

I received the Dismas House rules and regulations in the mail, but they didn’t make any note of the change Holder has announced. I can only hope they are in place when I get there. I am not allowed very much there: only seven pairs of pants or shorts, three pairs of shoes, seven shirts and sets of undergarments and personal hygiene items, but I will just be happy to be out of prison and be back in the free world for the first time since 1993.

From what I have heard about halfway houses they are all about getting 25 percent of your paycheck. That is the main thing they are interested in. They want you working whatever job is available so that they can get their cut. They want money for the bed that you occupy. The ability to gain more privileges is based on you getting a job and giving 25 percent of your paycheck to the halfway house. This is how it has been explained to me by returning prisoners who were at Dismas House and other halfway houses.

“The most important thing is to get a job,” Slim, a 26-year-old St. Louis native, who was locked up on a crack cocaine charge says. “They will give you a pass to go to the’ temp agency, you have to supply your own transportation, take the bus or whatever. Whatever job the temp agency offers you, take it, because the quicker you start working and giving them 25 percent of your check, the quicker you will start getting daily rec passes, weekend passes and home confinement. I got a job at a factory from 2 pm to 10 pm, five days a week. I had my girl pick me up and drive me because I wasn’t taking no bus and I couldn’t afford a car. After I gave them my first paycheck I started getting daily rec passes. After the second paycheck, I got weekend passes.”

The Dismas House has five program levels and all recreation time out of the facility is earned by the offender. When I first get there I will be on Level 1, no sign-outs permitted. After orientation I will be upgraded to Level 2, which allows for job search, work, drug treatment (which is mandatory for RDAP graduates), religious and required business passes. Level 3 allows for two 6-hour recreation sign-outs daily with a 9 p.m. curfew and one 54-hour pass per week.

And finally Level 5 allows for home confinement, where offenders live at an approved residence and report to the facility twice a week, are visited by staff off-site at least once a week and receive random accountability calls. Offenders must call the facility each time they leave or return to their residence and must be at residence between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. unless working. An offender’s advancement in program levels will be contingent on full-time employment. I will also be subject to regular urine tests and breathalyzers and any infraction will send me back to prison.

The whole tiered system seems suited to those who are self starters and go getters, but what about those with issues, disabilities or who lacked motivation or direction. “Dudes that didn’t take whatever job they were offered, or who had medical restrictions and couldn’t work, or who missed job interviews or work because of transportation issues were basically confined to the halfway house.” Slim says. “They didn’t give them any passes to go out and find a job or anything. You got a couple of chances to climb up the ladder and move to the next level, but if you messed it up you were hit. Sitting in the halfway house is like country jail. Plus they didn’t allow no cell phones, so it was like you were back in prison for real.”

Under Holder’s proposed new requirements, these halfway houses will have to provide a specialized form of treatment to prisoners, including those with mental health and substance abuse issues like myself. Also, for the first time, halfway houses will have to provide greater assistance to inmates who are pursuing job opportunities, such as permitting cell phones to be used by inmates and providing funds for transportation.

The new requirements also expand access to electronic monitoring equipment, such as GPS equipped ankle bracelets to allow inmates to utilize home confinement as a reentry method. That is good news for me because as it stands right now, Dismas House doesn’t allow cell phones and they have a mandatory 90 day policy before you can be put on home confinement. They don’t even allow any type of electronic or computer devices besides a TV. Kind of archaic in 2014, but we will see if the changes Holder announced are implemented before I arrive at Dismas House on August 1. The shorter the time I have to do there, the better.

I have heard all kinds of stories about how some halfway houses try to get you on home confinement as quick as possible. They just shuffle prisoners in and out, so that they have six prisoners paying 25 percent on the same bed. A couple of weeks or a month at Dismas House would be way better than 90 days, but we will have to see how they are doing it when I get there. I believe I am a suitable candidate for home confinement as soon as possible, and if Eric Holder’s new rules are implemented that will benefit me directly.

Plus as an RDAP graduate I am clean and sober and have no interest in using drugs or being involved in that lifestyle. As I understand it RDAP aftercare comes first at the halfway, then my job, then anything else that I wish to do, like college, etc. I will be participating in mandatory and weekly aftercare meetings as I am still in treatment. And since I got a year off my sentence for graduating the program I am under a zero tolerance policy for fucking up. Meaning, first time I mess up, I’m back in prison. I can live with that, but I will need help to adjust.

The new policies Holder announced have the potential to be far reaching. To ease transition, those exiting prison typically spend the last few months of their sentence in either a federal halfway house or home confinement or a combination of the two. These community based programs provide much needed assistance to   returning citizens in finding employment and housing, facilitating connections with service providers, reestablishing ties to family and friends and more.

This is what the halfway house if meant for, to be a place halfway between prison and the streets, but more often than not, it is just a drop off point for prisoners until their time is up. It is not a place to adjust or transition, it is a restrictive environment that either pushes you out the door, if you are a self starter or keeps you confined for 6 more months, if you can’t find a job. Last year alone, more than 30,000 federal inmates passed through a halfway house.

The most significant changes Holder announced is the requirement for standardized cognitive behavioral programming to be offered at all federal halfway houses. This treatment will address behavior that places formerly incarcerated individuals at a higher risk of recidivism. As part of this treatment requirement, the BOP is setting guidelines for instructor qualifications, class size and length, and training for all staff at the halfway houses. Instead of just kicking prisoners out of prison and saying get yourself situated,” which is basically what they have been doing, the BOP will be required to give inmates some real reentry help.

With Eric Holder’s proposals, modifications will be made to the standard contracts that apply to federal halfway houses in order to provide greater support to returning citizens. Examples include requiring halfway houses to provide public transportation vouchers or transportation assistance to help residents secure employment, requiring all federal halfway houses to allow residents to have cell phones to facilitate communication with potential employers and family, and improving and expanding home confinement by increasing the use of GPS monitoring.

While he is at it, Holder should allow prisoners to get 1 year of halfway house and home confinement, instead of the current 6 months most institutions offer. If I was afforded that I could have been home and working already. I have paid my debt to society and I am ready for a second chance at life. I can only hope that all these changes will be implemented before Aug 1, so that when I go to the halfway house my transition will go Easier and I can resume my life, after being sucked into the War on Drugs vortex for 21 years.