15 Minutes

By THE BALANCE
Fact checked

Halfway houses are institutes for individuals with drug abuse tendencies or criminal backgrounds to learn (or relearn) the necessary skills to rejoin society and better support and care for themselves. As well as serving as a resident, halfway houses give social, medical, educational, psychiatric, and other similar services. They are called “halfway houses” because of their being halfway between completely independent living and in-patient or correctional facilities, where residents are very restricted in their behavior and freedoms. Below we have discussed some of the problems in the halfway housing system and more specifically, in the State of Florida.

A newly established interest among government officials in being able to reduce prison populations as a way to cut costs which stems from the 2008 Great Recession that resulted in huge budget deficits, has placed new and fresh emphasis on the importance of halfway houses. As more prisoners are released there is also a need for more post-release housing, which includes re-entry facilities.

Lazily defined as a “halfway” point for prisoners between jail time and freedom, halfway houses have been experiencing a number of issues, indicating that the industry is required to make some systemic improvements. If states continue this trend of reducing their prison populations and more federal prisoners are released because of sentencing reforms [see, e.g., PLN, Aug. 2014, p.26], then halfway houses, also called Community Corrections Centers (CCCs) and Residential Reentry Centers (RRCs), will have to increase their space as well as the quantity and quality of the transitional services they give.

Even though certain halfway houses are well managed and staffed with qualified professionals, others are operated more for profit rather than being interested in helping offenders succeed in returning to society. Quite a lot of incidents involving poorly supervised halfway house residents and indifferent, or also criminal, behavior by the staff have occurred in almost all states as well as the federal prison system.

A nicely-managed halfway house offers a safe and secure environment for soon-to-be-released prisoners; some might have been in jail for a rather short period while others may have been locked up for years or perhaps more than a decade. A halfway house’s principal goal of offering a smooth transition back to society provides the first line of defense against recidivism. Residents of halfway houses usually have a few current ties to the community to which they are released, and even if they do, might not have family or friends to assist them. They require viable re-entry services which include job placements and housing assistance and mostly need substance abuse programs as well. Quite a lot of the time halfway houses are viewed by their owners and operators as a little more than a revenue source.

However bad a halfway house may be in giving effective services and programs, a lot of the time it is the only option available. For some state prisoners close to being released, going to a halfway house is a must; other states might not require any time spent at a reentry facility. According to the non-partisan Pew Charitable Trusts, prisoners in eight states are given the option to “max out” their sentences without any reentry programs to soften their return to the environment around them. In those states, approximately 40% of offenders are released with no transitional services.

“Now, policymakers on both sides of the aisle are starting to realize that if you’re serious about public safety, you must have more effective strategies,” noted Adam Gelb, director of Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project.

Written in an April 2014 recidivism report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 49.7% of prisoners return to prison within three years after being released and 55.1% go back within five years. Quite transparently, most state and federal correctional facilities do not do a good job of “correcting” prisoners and getting them ready for release, which puts an even greater load on halfway houses to provide re-entry services.

If the promise of the new flurry of prison population reductions and sentencing reforms all over the nation is to be taken into account, halfway houses have to adjust to the new challenges and increased responsibilities. Such reforms will be considered meaningless if a vast number of newly-released prisoners offend again and are incarcerated again.

Even though there is this potential crisis, there is also little sign that either state corrections officials or the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) are going over shortcomings in the current halfway house system. A lot of re-entry facilities are badly managed and monitored, with drug use, violence, and escapes that are aggravated by widespread indifference and misconduct by employees.

Further, halfway house systems at times reflect a corrupt system that awards contracts on the basis of favoritism politically or cronyism instead of the ability to lower the chance of recidivism; halfway house contracts are at times seen as a way for government officials to reward political backers and contributors of a campaign.

In many other businesses or industries, the level of failure and corruption happening at some halfway houses would conclude in wholesale employee terminations and management changes, but as in a lot of correctional facilities, there is not much accountability.

Certain companies and organizations that run halfway houses attempt to do their best to give the services that soon-to-be-released prisoners require. Dismas Charities, for example, which runs re-entry facilities all over the nation, has a nice reputation in the industry. While Dismas has also had its share of issues, it looks like it genuinely cares about the quality of its transitional services.

According to Dismas, “Our history has taught us that, if you want to be effective in the process of reintegration, we need our focus to be on three critical areas that have proven to deliver the best results: Employment, Education, and Support. Each program employs evidence-based practices, and uses validated risk/needs assessments to lower the chance of recidivism.” Additionally, “An important component of all our work is to be focused on helping our residents obtain meaningful employment. Through employment, our clients repay their debts to society and become responsible, independent citizens, parents, taxpayers, and contributors to the community.”

Sadly, not many halfway houses are focused on re-entry services and programs. States that have faced a lot of problems with halfway houses include New Jersey, Florida, and Pennsylvania. The federal prison system’s use of contract halfway houses also has not been exempted from backlash.

“The system is a mess,” declared Thaddeus B. Caldwell, a senior state corrections investigator who has spent years keeping track of escapees from halfway houses. “Doesn’t matter how many escaped, how many were caught, how many committed heinous acts while they were on the run, because they continued to release more guys to halfway houses, and it continued to happen over and over again.”

The number of escapes from halfway houses also surprised people working in the corrections system. 46 escapes were recorded in September 2011, 39 in October, 40 in November, and 38 in December. After he instituted reforms, Governor Christie proudly said that “only” 181 residents absconded from halfway houses in the first five months of 2012.

Around 10,000 New Jersey state prisoners and parolees go through halfway houses each year. CEC officials have mentioned that number to debate the escape rate from their facilities to be “staggeringly low.” However, that argument doesn’t hold much water when one compares the escape rate to that of the state prison system or takes into consideration that there are only approximately 3,500 offenders in re-entry facilities at a given time.

Officials of Halfway houses complain that residents who come back late from work release assignments or who surrender after some days of being absent are harmless, but they are often considered escapees. They also mention that their employees are not armed and they do not have the authority to stop an escape, and also that they are dependent on educating halfway house residents as the right option to prevent them from absconding.

Those points might be valid to an extent, but they ignore the fact that a lot of the escapes have taken place at “locked-down” halfway houses – those without a work-release program – and some escapees are prosecuted when caught. For example, the prosecution rate for clients who abscond in Essex County has been approximately 10% since 2009.

At times the small prosecution rate reflects the low interest of local prosecutors in pursuing a relatively little infraction that could be handled through the prison system’s disciplinary process. But sadly, law enforcement officials mostly aren’t even aware that a halfway house resident has escaped until they have committed some other crime – and at times not even after that.

Rafael Miranda absconded from a halfway house in December 2009 and he was on the run for four months until he shot a man dead in Newark. In 2010, David Goodell was imprisoned for assaulting his ex-girlfriend. He escaped from Logan Hall, a halfway house that has one of the highest rates of escape, and murdered a woman who had broken her relationship with him. Valeria Parziale ran from a Trenton halfway house in 2009; nine days later she pulled out a knife to cut off a man’s ear in a liquor store. She was charged with assault but not with escape since prosecutors were not even aware she was an escapee.

Fairly more recently, Jahmel Glanton, 19, walked away from the Robinson Center in December 2013, only three days after he got there; he was captured after three weeks on January 11, 2014, and was charged with possession of crack cocaine and obstruction of the administration of law.

Halfway houses that are run by the nonprofit Kintock Group have accounted for nearly half the escapes in New Jersey in recent years. CEC has used that statistic to deflect criticism that there is something wrong with the company’s management of its halfway houses, but the Kintock Group mentioned that all of the prisoners sent to its facilities have to first go through the CEC-run Robinson Assessment and Treatment Center for evaluation. Only those considered low-risk by CEC are then transferred to Kintock halfway houses.

From 2009 to 2011, 16% of escapees absconded from CEC-operated facilities but another 43% had initially been evaluated as low-risk by CEC before running from other halfway houses. Therefore, it looks like an improper evaluation by CEC also contributes to the factor in at least some of the escapes.

Another explanation is the increase in the percentage of prisoners that are convicted of violent crimes who have been sent to halfway houses. That figure has increased from 12% in 2006 to 21% in 2012 and clashed with a budget-savings-driven expansion in the use of halfway houses. It costs around $125 to $150 a day to house a prisoner in state prison, but only $60 to $75 to put the same offender in a halfway house.

Some former halfway house residents and employees have given a different explanation for the large number of escapes, saying re-entry facilities are mostly violent, dangerous, and gang-infested, rampant with drugs and other contraband, and residents are not monitored closely.

“This industry just enrages me,” stated Nancy Wolff, director of the Center for Behavioral Health Services and Criminal Justice Research at Rutgers University. “If you would like to go there and sit in peer-run groups – or hang out and smoke and play cards and have access to drugs – it’s a great place.”

Vanessa Falcone, 32, said that there is quite a darker side to halfway houses. Falcone was assigned to a cleaning crew at the Robinson Center in 2009 when an employee ordered her into a closet and made her perform oral sex.

“He took his pants off and grabbed me by my hair and pushed me down,” she said. “That initiated a few weeks of basically hell.” After another employee found out what was happening, Falcone was shifted to another facility and the employee was fired but not prosecuted.

In an incident similar to that, a woman who escaped from the Robinson Center told police after she was caught that she was attempting to get away from a counselor, Joseph A. Chase, who had raped her repeatedly. When police searched Chase’s car, they found drugs; he was then arrested with charges of sexual assault and drug possession. CEC officials stated it to be an isolated incident.

According to a report by Florida’s Tampa Bay Times in 2012, it looks like halfway houses in that state also have many problems, which also include failure to properly screen those who operate re-entry facilities. One such operator, Troy Anthony Charles, had a massive criminal record before he went into the halfway house business. He said he was there to offer addicts and alcoholics a safe, sober environment to stay in while helping them find jobs and get counseling.

However, a former resident, John Lees, stated that the program was “a scam” and Charles was “using the money he gets from funding to buy drugs,” according to a St. Petersburg police report in February 2012. Shortly after that, Charles shot one of his halfway house residents, killing him, and returned to jail to face murder charges. The incident unveiled that just about anyone could open a halfway house in Florida as there is hardly any regulation; the sheer number of people being released from prisons and jails every day makes a huge market opportunity for unscrupulous halfway house operators.

Transitional housing offers the promise of meals, a bed, job placement assistance, and an opportunity for substance abuse therapy. According to the Tampa Bay Times, a lot of halfway houses “are large, professionally managed facilities that normally deliver what they promise. But a lot of others are a little more than flophouses that cram residents into two or three per room in dingy quarters with no job assistance, no trained employees, and no support.”

A lot of the latter halfway houses are operated by people “with serious criminal records, which include robbery, sexual assault, and drug trafficking. One operator was barred permanently from a federal housing program due to improper billing, yet was able to start a fresh halfway house that is getting thousands of dollars from the same program,” the Times reported. Drug abuse is spread widely, with residents being taken to the hospital or some even dying from overdoses.

Astoundingly, state officials do not need halfway houses to be licensed, because of which it is impossible to keep track of such incidents. As a matter of fact, without licensing, there is no way to find out how many halfway houses are really being operated in Florida.

“We’ve been informed that there are several thousands of those around the state at any one time,” said Darran Duchene, who oversaw federally-funded halfway houses when he was working for the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF). “They should be regulated from a business standpoint and then from a social service standpoint.”

A lot of halfway houses are ordinary-looking homes on quiet suburban streets. According to the Times, “There are halfway house programs in apartment complexes, old motels and buildings once used as assisted living facilities for the elderly. Few of which have signs out front.”

“[Halfway houses] keep popping up,” stated Ramona Schaefer, a Pinellas County sheriff’s supervisor who is a helper in finding houses for released prisoners. “My concern is, what are their intentions? There are many people who truly want to help. But then there are others whose intentions are not very pure.”

The amount of money that is available for transitional housing has fueled issues with halfway houses in Florida, and so has the increase in addictions caused by prescription drug abuse. Real estate investors stung in the housing market bust have figured out that they could make larger profits by running such facilities, noting that with two individuals per room, a three-bedroom house could produce a cash flow of up to $3,000 per month – all of which would be paid for by the government.

Starting in 2003, a good-intentioned federal program known as Access to Recovery (ATR) invested $150 million into treatment for addicts that were recovering. This helped drive the trend. As noted by the Times, “$30 million in federal funds has gone to Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and several other Florida counties, a lot of it for transitional housing. Almost 300 halfway houses qualified for the money initially.”

William Garrison, a former drug user, opened New Birth Abundant Life Ministry and made more than $300,000 in ATR funds before being banned from the program. According to residents, Garrison made them pay $50 a week for food although he received federal funding for meals. They also claimed that Garrison cursed and touched them non-consensually with “strong sexual overtones,” a state report found.

The House of Hope in St. Petersburg, another program that qualified for ATR funds, was run by Patrick Jay Banks, an ex-offender that served eight years in Texas for forgery and robbery. When he was investigated, it was found that Banks was a part of the “most egregious case of fraud, waste, and abuse” among Florida halfway houses, submitting bills for residents even before they had arrived at the houses he managed. He made over $110,000 before being booted out of the federal ATR program.

However, Banks spoke to the Times, telling them that he had opened a new reentry facility, Agape House, which had received $55,000 in federal funds. Banks’ name, however, did not appear on Agape’s ATR application.

DCF, which oversees the federal ATR program, said it was not aware of Banks’ involvement in Agape House and was going to investigate. Halfway house owners and employees need to undergo criminal background checks and the houses must meet certain codes in order to qualify for federal funding. Most of the re-entry facilities in Florida do not receive federal funds, due to which they are poorly regulated.

Emily Rifkin was one of a minimum of three people who have overdosed and died in Tampa Bay halfway houses. In November 2010, Rifkin, 25, was a struggling addict which had her sent to prison for eight months. A judge gave her permission to go to a halfway house while she waited for a residential treatment program to have an opening.

Rifkin was found to be violating the rules at the first facility which had her move to a house on Okaloosa Street, where she supposedly was to be supervised more. But a police report on the Times said, “that obvious signs of trouble were ignored the day she died.” A roommate thought Rifkin seemed a little crazy, but did not do anything to help. After six hours the house manager, who herself is an addict, saw Rifkin on the bathroom floor sitting, yet did not intervene. It was not until Rifkin had stopped breathing later that a roommate called 911, but by that time it was too late. An accidental overdose of oxycodone had killed Rifkin.

Shelton Jones, the house’s owner, had turned it into a re-entry facility with the help of Linda Walker, who is in charge of the nonprofit Hillsborough House of Hope, a transitional program for women. Walker is also in charge of a profitable business to help individuals in forming halfway houses. Walker and Jones claimed that they were not responsible for Rifkin’s death. “I feel upset she died,” Walker stated, “but a lot of individuals die in recovery.”

There were no trained employees at the Okaloosa Street house and no routine tests for drugs and alcohol. A year before Rifkin’s death, two residents that were male overdosed on methadone and died in another unregulated halfway house.

Following an attempted suicide and a short stay at a private mental health facility, Leisha Simpson needed a safe environment. She took the decision to go to Still Standing in St. Petersburg, as the website of the program said it provided a “safe haven” with counseling and 12-step meetings.

Instead of what she expected, Simpson paid $500 a month for a bed in a roach-infested house with about four other women, one of whom did drugs there and had sex with men in the shared bedroom. She filed police reports after her credit cards, TV, and medications were stolen. Another resident also assaulted her.

Rev. Edward Leftwich, who was the founder of Still Standing, said he could not maintain a sober living program because of his old age and federal funds started to run out. He admitted he shouldn’t have left his website out there to the world with inaccurate information.

Another halfway house operator, Pamela Dixon, visited detox facilities and public agencies in Pinellas for the promotion of her program called ‘A New Direction for Women and Men.’ Public defender Bob Dillinger started to send clients with alcohol issues to Dixon’s facility, unaware that a requirement was to have residents with filled prescriptions from a pharmacy that also sells wine and beer. The same Tampa-based group owned the pharmacy and the New Direction house.

“I do find it questionable,” Dillinger said when informed about the connection. He said Dixon had agreed to not deal with the pharmacy.

Florida officials have found that it is tough to overlook the thousands of halfway houses in the state given the present law and lax regulations. “We regulate thousands of child care facilities across the state with no issues” noted DCF spokeswoman Erin Gillespie. “We are certainly up to the task if the law were to change.”

However, there hasn’t been much political will to monitor halfway houses and make sure they deliver the programs and services they promise. A bill introduced by Florida State Senator Jeff Clemens to regulate halfway houses and sober houses, SB 582, died in committee in April 2014; a similar bill introduced the year before had also failed to pass.

Thus, it is easy for individuals like Troy Anthony Charles, a convicted felon, to get into the business of halfway houses. Charles moved to Florida after serving three years for aggravated assault in Arizona and started Back to Life Outreach Recovery Services over there. He rented a house, put bunk beds in the living room, and charged $125 a week.

A resident by the name of John Lees had served jail time for drug-related offenses. “At first it was presented to me, like, if you need a place to stay and recover from addiction, you could stay there,” he stated. “Then he attempted to get me to sell drugs to him.” Lees also said Charles abused cocaine and talked about getting girls on drugs so he could change them into prostitutes.

Lees moved out but afterward came back to pick up some personal property. Charles accused Lees and a resident at the house, Samuel Harper, of burglary. Prosecutors rejected filing charges against the men and, while a subsequent confrontation in April 2012 was ongoing, Charles shot Harper in the head, killing him. Charles, who was known to have had an interest in Harper’s girlfriend which might have contributed to the shooting, was convicted of first-degree murder in July 2014. He was given a life sentence without parole.