THIS SERIES EXAMINES the role of halfway houses in New Haven reentry efforts, looking at their effectiveness, conditions, and availability.
Part 1 of the series examines the way men in halfway houses actually get jobs in the community and discusses structural flaws in the work release program. Part 2 examines conditions in halfway houses, based upon the accounts of a few different men who have gone through the homes. Part 3 examines the way budget cuts limit similar work release programs for women and in general hinder reentry efforts. The piece was written over the span of four months beginning in March 2017.
“I’D RATHER BE IN A HOMELESS SHELTER THAN THIS PLACE.”
What Ernest Bookert Jr. remembers most out of his stay in Roger Sherman are the moldy showers and dirty rooms. Many men described halfway houses as having poor living conditions that make life difficult.
While staying at Roger Sherman, Max had to go to the emergency room for food poisoning. All of the men I spoke to complained about low food quality in their halfway house.
Tim shared, “I came into [Roger Sherman] weighing at 165 and right now I am 191. I gained 26 pounds in 5 months due to the fact that you get absolutely no fruit. You get minimum vegetables, and a lot of the portions consist of bread, macaroni, and pretty much a high starch, high carbohydrate diet.”
The kitchen for both Roger Sherman and the Sierra Center are commercial kitchens run through The Connection.
Men in Roger Sherman also specifically stressed how small the rooms are. They often feel like jail cells. The rooms do not have air conditioning or screened windows, so bugs usually get in when they are trying to cool down.
“There are rodents running around all the time, where we eat our food, in the hallways. The next step for them to do is just be on the bed. [The staff] don’t do anything about it. It shouldn’t be a livable place, but it is,” said Max.
When describing his room Richard said, “I mean, under any other situation, this would never be zoned.”
The number of men per room varies. Some house five men. Others accommodate two. Richard described them as “cramped” and “like living in a cell.”
Tim feels the general house environment is full of tension and stress. “Every hour they come by your room to make sure you haven’t left the building. It’s supposed to be like, release you from jail and get you back into society again. But it’s as though they built [another] prison,” he said.
Ernest Bookert Jr. also struggled with the tense environment during his stay at Roger Sherman. In fact, he regrets going to the halfway house altogether.
“Well, looking back I would have waited and completed my sentence,” Bookert said. “Me, personally, I felt that it was more stress to me. I thought that people were looking and watching me, as though I wasn’t doing something right.”
Dan Jusino, who has gone through the reentry process himself, feels that the major issue with work release is that the men think they are becoming civilians again when they are actually still under DOC supervision. Men might begin to behave as if they were released, risking a return to prison with a longer sentence.
“If you’ve been sitting in [prison] for years, you want to come home. You’d sign into anything. You are poorly prepared to understand what it is you’re committing to,” Jusino said. “[I] decided [a halfway house] wasn’t for [me] because work release is a trap to get you locked up.”
He gave the example of a man working at Town Fair Tires until two a.m. when buses no longer run. Men in the house are not allowed to ride in anybody else’s car, so in this situation the man is stranded. He is set up to be caught in somebody else’s car and sent back to prison.
Ernest Bookert Jr described the Roger Sherman staff as generally friendly, but certain rude or aggressive outliers made his experience difficult. Max finds some of the administration unhelpfully unapproachable.
“There should be an open-door policy, because we’re trying to transition into the world,” Max said. “Instead they have a 24/7, 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week sign on their door that says, ‘Do not disturb.’”
Ernest Bookert Jr. recalls most of Roger Sherman’s staff being polite, but some yelling at him things such as, “Go sit down!” or “If you don’t like that you can go back (to prison.)”
Dan Varley is the Individual Employment Services Program Coordinator for the Community Reentry Services branch of Easter Seals Goodwill Industries, a case management program intended to help formerly incarcerated individuals transition back to the community. He sees these issues partly rooted in the way the houses are contracted by the DOC.
“When [a halfway house is] under contract like that and your funder is paying you to do something, that’s what you’re going to do. And if the contract only calls for one staff member on a floor of 50, you are going to get one staff member on a floor of 50,” he explained.
Richard also takes issue with the DOC contract system. He commented, “You get these guys that are making $12.50 an hour, they’re over worked, they’re asked to wear so many different hats in these programs. They’re not only supposed to be your advocate, they’re supposed to be a screw.”
Tim described the staff as “making mountains out of molehills,” citing how long it takes to get driver approval and medical approval.
“When you go to the doctor, you go to the pharmacy to receive your medicine. You got to come back, hand it to your case manager, count the pills, put the pills back in the medical cabinet, then take them back out, count the pills again, put them in your medical box, put them back in cabinet,” Tim explained. “Everything is like a long, drawn out process within here. It’s almost as though it has a prison-like atmosphere.”
Tim, who suffers from bipolar disorder and manic depression, has had issues receiving his medication during his stay in Roger Sherman.
Gail Eureka explained that in the house the men self-administer their own medication under the supervision of staff. Any medical service that the DOC deems to be extra can be handled by an outside nursing service that comes and administers medication once in the morning and again at night.
Upon first entering Roger Sherman, Tim did not know he had the option to self-administer medication. For the first few weeks of his stay he used the nursing service, which he says never properly administered his dosage and often was unorganized.
Tim’s doctor had increased his dosage from 1,000 to 1,250 milligrams. But when he was administered the medication, the doses would be around 750 milligrams. He eventually met with his case manager and asked who would be responsible if he acted out from manic depression because his medicine was wrong. His case manager explained that he could sign a waver to self-administer, so now Tim takes his medication as his case manager watches. However, Tim thinks most people in the house still get their medication through the nursing service.
“I’m constantly hearing arguments, ‘No, I’m supposed to take this much at this time.’ ‘Where are my pills.’ ‘Oh, we can’t find them,’ or ‘There were supposed to be this many pills,’” Richard said.
In Max’s opinion there is a lot of hierarchy when dealing with medicine. He used to take vitamin supplements and had to wait for the staff to unlock them every morning. It frustrated him until he eventually stopped taking them. Max also finds a problem with the times medication is administered.
He explained, “Let’s say you are someone who has a job, who comes home at maybe 11 or 12 at night, and then [to take your medication] you have to wake up at six in the morning. If you don’t wake up the staff will give you attitude, ‘Oh, you should have come down when…’”
Frank recalls being scared of getting sick in Roger Sherman because he felt that he would be sent back to Whalley Correctional Center. He felt that, “If you have a cold or something, they put you back in jail.” This could be because men in the houses are still under DOC medical insurance.
Richard also dislikes the way the men are required to clean Roger Sherman.
He explained, “It creates two things. It enslaves people to get them to work for you for free, and it steals a job from the community. A professional should be coming in there at least once or twice a week because these places are trashed.”
Tim has less of a problem with being asked to clean. He said, “I do believe you got to do your part in this world because they do provide housing and food.”
However, he added, “But I’d rather be in a homeless shelter than this place.”