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.
“OF COURSE THERE’S A STRAIN!”
There have been rumors in the greater New Haven prison reentry community about halfway house conditions. Mary Loftus explained that what you hear about halfway houses depends on whom you talk to.
She shared, “You know, everybody has their own feelings about what goes on at the halfway house. I can’t say for sure, because I haven’t seen it with my own eyes, but people complain about conditions, you know. I’ve heard different things about it.” Loftus feel that the success of a halfway house is dependent on whether the staff really has their heart in it.
When asked about halfway house conditions, Clifton Graves said that had head rumors but would not give specific names because he did not know if they were true. He explained that Project Fresh start hears more positive things about certain halfway houses than others, and he thinks it is dependent on the staff to client ratio, the resources the house has, and the intensity of the staff training.
State Representative Robyn Porter represents both Hamden and New Haven, and has also had conversations regarding concerns about halfway houses, though she would not name names because she first wants to investigate the allegations herself and corroborate what she heard.
She explained that “[The concerns are] basically, how they’re being run from the top down. [That men] are pretty much being treated the same way they were treated in prison. Which defeats the whole purpose of the halfway house.”
Ernest Bookert Jr. believes halfway houses actually can play a helpful role in reentry, but he thinks they must be improved.
Alden Woodcock of Emerge also believes that the staffs of halfway houses do aim to help the men living there, and thinks that the houses’ issues with employers often arise out of miscommunication.
Stressing why it is important for him to have a good relationship with halfway houses, Woodcock explained, “If the halfway houses don’t know what [Emerge] is, then they’re going to think [our] guys are just messing around. The hours on their checks are not going to reflect the hours they’re here.”
Woodcock pointed out that a lot of the houses’ strict rules might be out of their control. He explained, “The main thing I hear from [the houses] is that they are under pressure from the DOC to make sure everybody in the house is accounted for 24 hours a day. You know what I mean? I’ve got to look at it from both sides.”
William Outlaw lived in Walter Books halfway house for 14 months and now works at Easter Seals as the Lead Community Advocate. He did not have many issues with his stay there, and feels that halfway houses are a useful reentry tool. When asked about conditions he responded, “It was better than jail.”
Outlaw pointed out, “Connecticut is fortunate to still have halfway houses where you can transition your way back to society if you don’t have nowhere to go, and still get out eight months early to prepare yourself for society.”
In 2015, Connecticut passed the Second Chance Society bill. Its stated goal was to reduce the number of people going into prison and make it easier for those already in to exit and re-acclimate to society. It expedited parole for ex-offenders in nonviolent, “no victim” cases and unlocked funding for reentry programs including 2.3 million dollars of funding from the Department of Justice.
According to statistics released by the Connecticut Governor’s Office the plan is working. As of April 1, 2017, 14,523 prisoners are held in state prisons and jails. That is a total population decline of 6.5 percent since this time last year. In 2016 there was a population decline of 5.4 percent since 2015.
Yet, at the same time, Governor Dan Malloy’s administration has been making sweeping budget cuts to handle Connecticut’s deficit. For example, Connecticut’s 2017 corrections budget was cut by $34.8 million dollars. As more people exit prison the programming is shrinking.
Gail Eureka said she has noticed an increase in people leaving prison due to the fact that the Sierra Center has to expand and open 30 new beds in July of 2017.
Sandra McKinnie is an intern in New Haven’s Project Fresh Start’s office. She believes that one possible reason for low halfway house conditions could be budget cuts.
“Because there is not adequate funding, of course there is a strain [on halfway houses]. Of course there is,” she said.
NGOs that depend on government assistance have also suffered from cuts. There used to be two programs like Easter Seals Reentry, but due to budget cuts only Easter Seals remains. Easter Seals itself is down to a staff of two people. Dan Varley explained that criminal justice took some of the largest hits last year, forcing Easter Seals to close an employment service that served 240 people a year in New Haven and Middletown. “And that’s just our agency,” he said.
Sandra McKinnie has noticed an increase in formerly incarcerated individuals asking their office for help with employment and housing. “However, we don’t have the resources to provide adequately for ex-offenders. So then we’re now helping with recidivism,” she said. About 125 people reenter New Haven per month—about 1,200 a year.
Sandra McKinnie is deeply frustrated with the narrative that Connecticut is a second chance state.
“Fine, Governor Malloy, we’re a great second chance state. However, we were declared that without giving [us] enough resources to substantiate it,” she commented. “How in the world could we be in New Haven County without even one halfway house for women?”
“WOMEN ARE A FORGOTTEN POPULATION”
State Representative Robyn Porter has been pushing to get a female halfway house in New Haven for years. However, she has to face the house’s multimillion-dollar cost. In the face of budget cuts, there is no way her bill will pass until the state’s fiscal condition changes.
“But we know there is dire need,” she said
The only female halfway houses in Connecticut are in Bridgeport, Hartford, and Waterbury.
It is generally agreed upon in the criminal justice community that when women return home from prison they face different challenges than men.
Amy Smoyer is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at Southern Connecticut University and worked for many years with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals, researching the way gender interacts with reentry issues. She shared, “We know that in low income communities, housing is often controlled by women. So the men who come from prison, they have housing opportunities with their mothers and with their wives or their female sex partners. Women don’t often have those same options.”
If women are released on early parole and don’t have a family network to return to, they are technically supposed to be sent to a halfway house. The lack of female halfway houses thus causes many women to stay in prison longer. Through her work, Smoyer has heard many stories about women who were currently incarcerated and eligible for parole, but couldn’t leave prison because they could not find an approved place to live.
Some women are cleared to go into halfway houses that are not in their area, such as Bridgeport of Hartford. However, in many ways, this contradicts the point of a halfway house. Halfway houses are intended to allow formerly incarcerated individuals to integrate into the community they plan to reenter when they finish their term of their sentence. If a woman is from New Haven but has to stay in a halfway house in Bridgeport, she won’t feasibly be able to sustain a job in her hometown.
Representative Porter explained, “Think about it, these women don’t have cars. The halfway house needs to be in the community where they’re living, where their kids are, where their family is, where the court system is. That’s a key factor when you transition out of these prisons.”
Amy Smoyer suggests that, as a group, women also may face more stigma around being formerly incarcerated than men, affecting their ability to be rehired after exiting prison. She pointed out that when women break the law, on average, they are convicted of drug use, sex work, or larceny, crimes driven by poverty and powerlessness. Women are more stigmatized for these behaviors than men. Such stigma can hurt women when they apply for jobs, suggesting that perhaps women need the assistance of work release programs with vocational counselors even more than men.
Beatrice Condianni served 15 years of a 17-year sentence for racketeering, now working as the editor of the Reentry Central website that aims to help inmates transition to life after prison. When she was released on parole to return to New Haven she was given the option to go to a halfway in Harford. She chose against it. Upon release, it took Condianni a year and a half to find a job.
“[Women] have hard times finding jobs,” Condianni said. “If [employers] find out you’re in a halfway house and you’re not going to be staying [in the area], they’re not going to hire you. It’s very difficult not having a halfway house [in New Haven], and it’s difficult in a halfway house anyways.”
“I think that women are a forgotten population when it comes to incarceration,” Representative Porter said. “[Lack of community integration] helps cause recidivism, the recycling of these women through the system.”
This is not to say that men are in any way immune to recidivism.
“THE REALITY IS IT’S TOUGH FOR ANYONE TO GET A JOB.”
Max just found out that he is being released from Roger Sherman in the very near future. He qualified for early release because of his job at the car wash. He plans to go home to family in New Haven.
Max is lucky. Not all men have a family to return home to. In Holly Wasilewski’s mind the biggest issue facing people reentering New Haven is housing. There is very little affordable housing in Connecticut, even if individuals are working.
The New Haven Legal Assistance Association (NHLAA) runs a reentry clinic, staffed entirely by Yale law students, that represents people with criminal records. It often deals with housing discrimination cases. Even though it is illegal for landlords to discriminate against someone with a criminal record, many places still do, creating another major issue men must face when preparing to leave a halfway house.
For now Max still has his job at the car wash, but hopes to soon find another job that will actually sustain his family.
When asked if individuals can actually successfully come out of prison back into the community, Holly Wasilewski told a story about someone she called Mr. W. He was in prison for 33 years for a murder he committed when he was 22-years old. He is 55-years old now. The DOC gave him a two-hour bus pass and dropped him off at a homeless shelter. Wasilewski had been working with him prerelease. Case managers worried he would not be able to operate a simple cell phone due to technological advances.
But Mr. W surprised them. He has looked for work all over the state, has two part-time jobs, and is trying to go back to school. He’s looking for his own apartment.
“Mr W is very resilient; it depends on what kind of plan you have when you get out and what kind of support you also have,” she said.
Holly Wasilewski asked Mr. W once how he has been so successful.
He explained that they had gone to a job fair, and there was a temp agency that had handed out about 30 cards that day, but he was the only one that showed up the next day because it was out of Hartford. Now he works there. She points to his resilience and determination as evidence that people really can complete reentry.
But what if Mr. W reentered the community through a halfway house whose rules stopped him from traveling to that temp agency? What if the house put him on “no movement” for a week and he lost his job? Mr. W’s success story seems to not involve, or require, a work release program at all. Are halfway houses really worth the taxpayer investment?
When asked if he was happy that Roger Sherman exists, Max responded, “I don’t believe anyone would rather still be in prison. I’m definitely happy that it exists, but it could be way better.”
He ended,“At times, I feel like I’m still in jail. It feels like I just I got furlough to go out, and then I had to come back. This is, like I said, like prison outside of prisons.”