Last week, Lamel Diggs, a 32-year-old inmate in a Mississippi prison, sent Splinter an email through CorrLinks, the private email system used by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
In late October, Diggs wrote, he’d been looking forward to his release to a halfway house in Atlanta, Georgia, one of around 180 similar federally contracted programs across the country. Months before, he’d been cleared to spend almost a year at a house operated by Dismas Charities. There he would trade a quarter of what he made for housing and access to reintegration services like job training and drug counseling.
Digg had a job lined up at a Wing Shack in Atlanta—he says he sent out a dozen resumes before he got the position. His sister lives in the city; other family members had saved up to visit from Buffalo, where Diggs grew up. But according to Diggs, the afternoon before he was scheduled to get on a bus in Jackson, his case manager called him into her office and told him his allotted time at Dismas had been cut by about seven months. He’d remain in prison until May, at the earliest.
In emails, Diggs said he couldn’t inform his family of the change when it occurred—his phone accounts and commissary had already been shut down in preparation for his move. He’d sent all his books to Atlanta already, so now he doesn’t even have anything to read. He wrote that he’s started studying Spanish in the hopes of getting out of the country when he finally leaves FCI Yazoo City, a low-security prison. As a Muslim and a black man, he feels he’s “still being viewed as less than an animal.” Having his exit and reintegration delayed at the last minute didn’t assuage that feeling.
Diggs is one of around 40 inmates across the country who wrote to Splinter—some by way of attorney, prison reform advocate, and former inmate Brandon Sample—about changes to their re-entry plans. A number said their slotted time in residential re-entry programs had been eliminated entirely; others cited sudden reductions in the time they’d already been granted—from six to four months, for example, or even from nine to two. “This is happening here daily at this institution,” one wrote from the Yankton Federal Prison Camp. (For scale: The Bureau of Prisons’ own drug treatment program typically includes a six-month halfway house residency.)
In October, Reuters broke the news that 16 halfway houses were closing, as groups such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums began receiving complaints from inmates having their pre-approved time in residential reentry taken away. FAMM, like other attorneys and advocacy groups who spoke to Splinter, reported a spike in such complaints over the summer. More recently, the BOP quietly revised its statement of work for such programs, eliminating cognitive behavior and drug treatment requirements. In late October, four senators wrote to Mark Inch, the head of the bureau, asking for clarification on the change which were occurring “without explanation or advance notice to those affected.”
Residential re-entry centers provide certain rehabilitative services for people who may have been in prison for decades, the basic idea being that kicking a person back into the world without a job or a support network is likely to land them back where they started. According to Molly Gill of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which originally surveyed inmates and acquired the official list of halfway house closures late last month, material hurdles like a job and state identification are just the beginning of the difficult process of reintegration.
“It takes a lot of mental strength to roll with the punches of re-entry,” she says. “People are coming back, feeling overwhelmed by the choices they’re facing, perhaps a city that has changed dramatically.”
Though they were first used in smaller numbers in the ‘60s, the halfway house program expanded through the Bush-era Second Chance Act, which gave all prisoners a chance to petition for a full year in a halfway house for the last portion of their sentence. Last year, the Department of Justice conducted an investigation on the practice; former attorney general Sally Yates endorsed the residential re-entry program as an essential step towards reducing recidivism rates, and recommended further oversight—including requirements for mental health service and drug counseling.
Given the BOP’s revised statement of work, it appears those mandates no longer stand.
“We’re at the mercy of the BOP bureaucrats, who reshuffle people’s’ lives and plans,” says Donald Dover, who was recommended for nine months in a halfway house and says he just received word he’d been granted 44 days. “It’s unfairly punishing inmates who legitimately are looking forward to returning to their families, working hard, and restarting their lives in a productive manner.”
Kim Brumber is the president of Volunteers of America Upstate New York, a chapter of the nonprofit group that manages a number of re-entry programs, one of which was shut down in August. She says that she believes the administration has already or is in the process of shutting down all smaller contract, “minor use” re-entry programs. “I think it’s the current administration’s tendency to privatize everything,” she says. Many of the smaller programs closed were faith-based or non-profit operations.
According to Brumber, even the facilities still under contract are seeing fewer inmates. “Based on what I can garner from our peer organizations,” she says, “over the last eight weeks we’re seen a significant slowdown in the number of people getting assigned to our [larger] centers, too.
“When we see and hear the same thing, here in New York State, or in Minnesota, or on the West Coast, that pretty much means it has to be a directive straight from D.C.”
Inmates who contacted Splinter expressed frustration at what appeared to be a last-minute change in policy, executed with little explanation. “I was actually supposed to be leaving today, as I write this,” wrote Shawnita Jones. “It feels like I’ve been sentenced all over again.” Robert Beer, an inmate in North Carolina, said he was told that due to closures and budget cuts, “no one here is receiving six months.”
They and other prisoners spoke of missing the holidays they’d promised their families, losing jobs they’d applied for in preparation for their move, the “emotional rollercoaster” of being told they’d have to remain behind bars just a while more. They were anxious about what it meant to spend, for example, nine years in prison with only two months to get re-acquainted with life outside. “I have no family, no friends,” wrote an inmate who says he alienated everyone he knew through his drug addiction. He’d been a pharmacist. “I have nowhere else to go.”
Concerns about money and job placement weighed on many; a handful sent detailed breakdowns of how they’d planned to pay the halfway house fee and save money for a deposit on an apartment at the same time. “This is made it impossible for me to return to society without being a burden on my loved ones,” wrote one, who says he taught workshops on recidivism rates while in prison. “I’ve never even used a smart-anything,” said another.
Several mentioned that their families thought they had done something wrong to have their residential re-entry program reduced. For Patricia Renteria, who was charged with drug trafficking in 2011, having her halfway house time cut short further damaged her relationship with her son: “He didn’t believe that the BOP are having issues and has accused me of doing something wrong in prison.”
Since the Bureau quietly started scaling back its halfway house programs this summer, even advocates who’ve previously enjoyed a relatively cozy relationship to federal operations have been leaning heavily on inmates’ own reports to figure out what exactly is going on.
“There’s a total lack of transparency,” says Malcolm Young, a longtime prison reform advocate who founded the Sentencing Project in the ‘80s. He says it’s remained unclear whether inmates affected by the closures—which according to the BOP only vacated 1% of available beds nationwide—are being diverted elsewhere or are simply having their sentences extended.
Some of the prisoners who say they’re having their time in the halfway house rescheduled at the last minute, like Diggs, weren’t docketed to be released to houses whose contracts expired this month. Tristan Brennard, an inmate doing time for drug trafficking, was recently notified that his time at a house in Tacoma, Washington, would be cut short as well, which his family confirmed.
“The only reason given was budget,” Young says. “And the fact that they were closing down ‘underutilized’ halfway houses. Well, that’s kind of a BS answer.” As Young points out, between the long-standing overcrowding of U.S. prisons and Jeff Sessions’ push for harsher sentencing, it’s unlikely those beds, most of them in the Midwest, were empty.
Yazoo Correctional referred questions to the BOP, which has not responded to calls and emails requesting comment. The patchwork of private and nonprofit entities that run contracted halfway houses, which coordinate with federal and state agents and process recommendations from individual prisons, was already a messy bureaucracy.
In mid-October the BOP told Reuters it was firmly committed to the practice of residential re-entry, and only executing “some modifications to our programs due to our fiscal environment.” But evidence points to a hastily executed decision with little coordination, the reverberations of which are being felt by a number of prisoners nationwide.
While the full impact of the halfway house closures and the axing of rehabilitative services has yet to be seen, prisoner advocates are troubled by this new pattern, especially as the administration pays lip service to the opioid crisis and the private prison giant Geo Group (which has recently moved into the halfway house market) holds its annual conference at a Trump-owned resort.
When Mark Inch joined the administration, prison reformers pushed him to give inmates even more time in halfway houses, to which the agency replied it didn’t have enough available beds. And while rehabilitative services are supposedly being axed because of budget constraints, the Geo Group seems to be doing fine as it moves towards the community re-entry market, picking up some very profitable re-entry contracts around the time inmates were emailing this publication.
Brandon Sample, the attorney, thinks the halfway house closures are part of a reversal of policy that will be felt for a long time to come: “I think think it’s going to be much more systemic—even if it’s attributed to resources,” he says.