By Stanley L. Cohen, Attorney.
“I don’t give a shit about your dog. You pay us in full by the end of the day or report here with your clothes… home confinement is done. If you don’t show… you’re a fugitive.”
With these words Katasha R. Artis, the dramatically under trained ex jock who serves as the Director of the GEO halfway house that I called home for some 10 weeks after being released from the Federal prison camp at Canaan, slammed the phone down; discussion done. As I had learned over the previous 10 weeks, that’s the way Ms. Artis — a former WNBA player and junior college coach — runs the house; the way she deals with its staff and residents. It’s her way or none. To Artis, during the banker hours that she keeps, it’s all about power and control; fear and redemption; carrot and stick. Most of all, it’s about money. She calls it “substenance [sic] fees.”
In a matter of seconds I was forced to choose between my dog’s life and paying a private corporation thousands of dollars my family could not afford, but had to, in a readily transparent shake down scheme to remain free to deal with surgeons and oncologists fighting to save her life. Emma won.
These words, more than any other, sum up my experience at the Bronx based private halfway house that I was released to when the prison component of my sentence was completed this past December. One of dozens of facilities operated by GEO Group, Inc a for-profit contract agency used in the United States by state and federal governments to house prisoners in either pre-trial detention or sentence, or while on community based release, this halfway house is very much the face of an industry that feeds off of the most vulnerable among us as little more than a get rich scheme that has earned billions for GEO, a multi-national prison conglomerate.
Indeed, according to SEC filings, from 2008-2012 it’s CEO, George C. Zoley, was compensated to the tune of $22, 315,704 almost all of it taken from U.S. taxpayers. Zoley appears to be worth every penny he has charged the government: in 2011 GEO had reported revenues of more than 1.6 billion dollars. It had an operating income of almost 200 million dollars, a net income of 75 million dollars, total assets of 3.5 billion dollars, equity of 1.3 billion dollars and employed some 20,000 in its prison empire. As of the fiscal year ended December 31, 2012, GEO managed 96 facilities totaling approximately 73,000 beds worldwide, including 65,949 active beds and 6,056 idle ones. The company had an average facility occupancy rate of 95.7% for 2012.
Disaster In Waiting
Nationwide, GEO is a veritable primer of disaster in waiting. All over the United States complaints have been filed against it which clearly demonstrate that it is completely unworthy of competing for scarce federal dollars for incarceration or “reintegration” services let alone offering any commitment to the health, safety and well being of the tens of thousands of prisoners it oversees, or the communities in which the GEO facilities are located. Violations filed by private individuals and state and federal agencies abound. They include:
•* In 2001 an inmate was murdered at GEO’s Rio Grande Detention Center in Texas and ultimately found liable for $47.5 million for destruction of evidence and negligently causing the man’s death;
•* In 2007 inmates rioted for two hours at the GEO Group’s New castle Correctional facility in Indiana, resulting in fires and minor injuries to staff and inmates. Subsequently it was found that a cause was the lack of experience among prison staff;
• * Between 2005 and 2009, at least eight people died at the GEO Group-operated George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, the state’s only privately run jail. Several of those deaths resulted in lawsuits by family members, who said the facility did not provide adequate medical care or proper supervision for offenders. On December 31, 2008, GEO pulled out of operations at this facility, “citing underperformance and frequent litigations”;
•* In 2007, the Texas Youth Commission (TYC) fired seven employees after discovering inmates at the GEO-run Coke County Juvenile Justice Center living in “deplorable conditions.” An inspection by the TYC found the facility to be understaffed, ill-managed, and unsanitary. The TYC ordered that all inmates be transferred elsewhere, terminated their contract with GEO, and subsequently closed the facility. GEO had run the facility since 1994;
•* In 2010 a federal lawsuit was filed against GEO and the state agencies that operated and owned the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional (YGCF), alleging various abuses, high rates of violence, and negligence to occur. The lawsuit states that prison guards engaged in sexual intercourse with the prisoners and smuggled illegal drugs into the facilities, and that prison authorities denied education and medical care. As of that month the prison had about 1,200 prisoners ages 13–22. Previously, the Department of Justice noted that the conditions there were “among the worst that we’ve seen in any facility anywhere in the nation,” where poorly trained guards, some with gang affiliations, brutally beat youth, used excessive pepper spray and showed deliberate indifference to prisoners possessing homemade knives which were often used in gang fights and rapes. GEO and the state settled the lawsuit in February 2012. The state dropped GEO as contractor for (YGCF) which subsequently gave up management of another local facility where its operations for mentally ill inmates had been strongly criticized. Former Walnut Grove mayor William Grady Sims resigned from his town office after pleading guilty to charges stemming from his employment as warden at WGYCF between 2009 and 2010 and was sentenced to 7 months in prison. He pleaded guilty to removing a female inmate to a motel for sex in 2009 and pressuring her to lie about it to investigators and was sentenced to seven months in federal prison. Sims owned 18 vending machines inside the prison that generated income for him;
•* In 2012, two undocumented immigrants in Florida turned themselves in to police, knowing that they would be housed in GEO’s Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach Florida. Their intention was to report on the conditions inside the facility firsthand; these anecdotal reports included “substandard or callous medical care, including a woman taken for ovarian surgery and returned the same day, still bleeding, to her cell, and a man who urinated blood for days but wasn’t taken to see a doctor.” In response to these and other serious allegations twenty-five congressional representatives demanded a case by case investigation of the complaints. While my own experience at the GEO based facility did not mirror these nightmares, after 10 weeks there and another 6 weeks in home confinement under its staff supervision, there is no doubt in my mind that from top to bottom the site is completely ill suited to provide for a fair, supportive and healthy environment in which to facilitate the return of those on their way home, often after years in prison, to families and communities very different from those they had said good bye to long before.
No Novice… Still So Much To Learn
When I walked out of prison on December 15, 2015 to the waiting arms of loved ones, I was not a novice to the concept of so-called reentry programs: I had overseen a halfway house as a social worker many years before, and for decades since represented more than a few federal clients who ultimately ended up in one. Nevertheless, because I had no firsthand knowledge of the Bronx based program I was going to, I was unsure of what the coming days would bring. Torn between rumors within the prison of an unprofessional and ineffective GEO facility in the Bronx, and an opportunity to finish my sentence there working for a decent wage with the freedom to spend some quality time with my family, the choice seemed easy enough. To complicate matters, I had been told that the halfway house had for some time balked at my admission because I was not in need of its “services.”
The reality is that private halfway houses are very much closed worlds, notorious for arbitrary and punitive decisions made under cover of darkness, with a strong overriding drive to cut corners, make money and to avoid public accountability. In every sense of the word, they seek out captive audiences; dependent, in need residents who, thankful for being out of prison, will not cause trouble or make waves. As one BOP official opined to me before I left Canaan “the last thing GEO wants is to see itself on the front page of the NY Times… and, with you, there’s always that possibility.”
For weeks before my release I made repeated attempts to acquire written rules and regulations, for this particular halfway house, from prison staff. My efforts proved a waste of time. Repeatedly, I was told they had nothing to do with the halfway house and that they had been unable to acquire the information for me either on line or by requests made directly on my behalf to GEO. Likewise, efforts made by family and friends to acquire policy and procedure information from the house itself also failed- they were simply told that none was available and that I would receive an “orientation” upon my arrival.
I’ll not forget the two hour drive to the halfway house from the prison camp I called home for eleven months. It was all so surreal, with excited stops along the way to get some real coffee and a bagel with cream cheese and to use a clean rest room all by myself. I remember well looking in the mirror chuckling to myself that with my wild, untrimmed beard and unkempt hair Ted Kaczynski had nothing on me. (A commissary guard had taken to calling me Ted, not long after my arrival in Canaan. In reply I called him Billy Bob and often asked how things were going at the trailer park.)
Reality soon hit home, however, with my arrival at 2354 Crestin Avenue in the Bronx, a dilapidated five story brick fortress in the heart of its Fordham Road community that sits across the street from a park where cheap drugs can be easily purchased and where two murders had apparently been committed not long before.
Upon my arrival at the halfway house I was ordered to a small “cafeteria” where my personal property and clothing was spread out and searched for all to see on a tiny all purpose dining/work table where a number of residents ate a junk-food lunch while checking out what I owned. It was ok, though, because when I suggested to the intake supervisor doing the search that perhaps it would be better done elsewhere, she assured me that I should not worry because “Jesus was watching over us.” Of course he was; after-all it was close to his birthday as evidenced by the broken bulbs hanging from a nearby cracked window sill and a small plastic Christmas tree lying nearby on its side. Growing weirder by the moment, soon several young female employees raced through the room wearing sexy red elves costumes including tights and very low cut blouses exhibiting their Christmas spirit to a room filled with men, most of whom had done many years of hard, lonely time in prison. The tension that filled the room while the elves wished us Merry Christmas was enough to melt its prominently displayed sign that the facility was a “zero tolerance” one, with regard to issues of sexual abuse or harassment.
Indeed, as I would soon learn GEO is really big on a culture of slogans as a substitute for meaningful support and performance. Located throughout the house, as so much pep talk and little else, are numerous signs and posters that run the gamut from “good things are going to happen” to “be the best you can be today” to “someone is happy with less than what you have” to “keep calm . . . no smart phones allowed.” On several floors tattered posters of Mother Theresa and Mahatma Gandhi are prominently displayed. Soon, I discovered that the appearance of newly posted signs was advance notice of a rare on-sight visit by a BOP representative. Another dead give-away of a pending inspection is that head phones, routinely worn by many staff, disappear until after the feds leave.
It’s fitting that Mother Theresa’s picture is displayed at the house. Like her poverty work in Calcutta, the halfway house is filthy from top to bottom but not for want of interest or effort by those unemployed residents who otherwise earn their way and several hours of out-of-doors time each week by trying to clean its floors, toilettes and showers. It’s a dark, dreary place with cracked stained floors and tattered windows throughout, narrow hallways and cave-like rooms for two with barely enough room for one and no privacy to speak of at all. On each floor are four bathrooms, most with tiny shower stalls that remain grimy from top to bottom, which often back up and overflow spewing soapy water out onto the floor or sitting several inches deep in the bottom of the stall; the water remains there until the next cleaning. Only the cockroaches feel comfortable in the bathrooms, scurrying about as lights go on and off, oblivious to the periodic visits by exterminators. No one dares to use the showers in their bare feet for to do so is to invite rampant fungal infections such as athlete’s foot. Often the toilets back up to their lids and remain clogged for want of plungers; they are stained with feces and urine no matter how much the residents try to clean them and have seats that are improperly installed and/or broken. Likewise, the sinks do not drain properly and remain stuffed with soap suds and tooth paste for hours on end. The doors to the bathroom do not close properly and most of their locks are broken, further removing any chance of privacy while in use. The bathroom lights either break or burnout with predictable frequency leaving the tiny rooms darkened for days on end until staff finally remember to replace the bulbs. Not unusual at all, urine spills out on the floors and puddles up until the next cleaning. There are no soap dispensers and only once did I find paper towels or toilette paper in a bathroom.
In keeping with Gandhi’s vow of simplicity, the resident rooms themselves are approximately 12 by 10 feet each with a double bunk bed typically cracked and rusted at its edges. The mattresses are but a few inches thick and offer no support, essential for many residents that present a host of health problems as a result of years of medical indifference or malpractice in prison, or who have bodies that have just not aged well because of stress and a lack of proper exercise or adequate diet while imprisoned. The rest of each room is occupied by two small metal lockers which often don’t close properly and have bottoms that routinely fall out leaving clothing or other personal items or documents on the floor or stuck in between cracks of each metal stall.
Almost all winter long the radiator in my room cranked out a raging heat that could not be lowered or adjusted in any way. To manage the sauna like temperatures in the tiny room I called home for two and a half months it was necessary to keep its single window wide open all night long no matter how cold, or wet the weather outside. On several occasions I woke up to find the floor soaked with rain water or melted snow that had blown in overnight through the open window. Rare were the times when it was necessary to get under the paper thin blanket provided us, for even with the window wide open, it was still too hot to cover yourself with it. On occasion, the radiator would shut down completely leaving the room freezing cold . . . with or without the window open. During one period, the boiler shut down on our side of the building leaving upstairs rooms heat-less in the dead of winter. Like prison itself, the halfway house was a veritable incubator for illness with dozens of its residents at any given time falling ill to flu or infections that had started out benign enough with just one or two residents.
Although there were usually ample supplies of fresh fruit available in the tiny kitchen/dining area of the house, the food itself served up by microwave oven alone was uninviting, essentially lacking in any nutritional value whatsoever. Heavy with unhealthy starches and saturated fats, the meals were obviously intended to temporarily bloat ones stomach and not much more. Indeed, as a dietary “supplement”, the most popular part of the “kitchen” was its vending machines that were constantly emptied by residents of their candy bars, chips and high sugar drinks.
Home at any given time to approximately 130 or so mostly men, the halfway house has but one small all purpose “lounge” area on the main floor with two televisions, a battered table, a few chairs and some milk crates jerry-rigged to serve as extra seating. On those rare occasions when a resident is granted an in-house visit, long separated families can, at times, be seen huddled in a corner holding painful intimate discussions for all to hear. On one such occasion, I was witness to an incident where a visitor’s tears were met with a yell to be quiet because she was interfering with the televised ball game. To describe this government funded community room as anything other than a fee generating mausoleum for the living dead, is to pay GEO an ill deserved courtesy.
The Highly Undereducated
Typically, private halfway houses employ and empower poorly paid, ill trained and immature women and men, many of whom seem to relish the control they exercise over others who have been locked away in isolation, some for decades, while the outside world has raced them by. Of course some staff display with pride certificates of accomplishment on the walls of their tiny public cubicles, but periodic 6 hour weekend lectures by one time prison guards turned counselor/teachers simply cannot substitute for well paid and experienced counselors, social workers and therapists… committed, trained professionals that are available, but ignored, by corporate halfway houses lest it eat into their profit margin.
The Bronx based GEO facility is no exception. Under the lead of Coach Artis and her assistants Mmes. Leeder and Mejia, its management staff is remarkable for little else besides being cold, aloof and punitive and not just to residents but subordinate staff as well. Indeed, a constant murmur can be heard among case managers and counselors alike complaining about the failure of upper management to respond to inquiries, to provide information, to follow through on requests, or to be available to resolve a problem. Numerous are the occasions when the Bronx based GEO management team is locked inside the Artis’ office enjoying some coffee, having a laugh at the expense of a resident.
Power, Control And Punishment
Administrators and many subordinate staff enjoy making grand statements to residents in the presence of others using the hammer of collective audiences and tease as a means of reinforcing their power over men who typically have lost years of their lives to bully boy tactics of prison guards. Often can be heard the admonition that the halfway house is surely a better place than prison and that federal marshals can come at any time to pick up and return residents there for the slightest breach of rules; this is especially true for those “trouble makers” who indicate any sign of independence or challenge to authority no matter how valid their concerns or complaints might be. While I was there, this proved to be no idle threat as many residents were seized by deputy marshals and returned to prisons with no rights to due process or even an opportunity to be heard. Indeed, it appeared that marshals included 2354 Crestin Ave. as a regular weekly stop after picking up donuts at the nearby Dunkin Donut shop located just several blocks away. Although we joked about who would be seized next, it was no laughing matter for loved ones who once again needlessly lost partners and dads for minor indiscretions that ranged from the use of smart phones to petty arguments with staff.
In prison, for most inmates there comes a time when the count-down begins in earnest; that moment when you dare to see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel; the time when phone calls with loved ones move on from guarded strength to guarded hope. Some keep a calendar on the inside of their locker- the fortunate, mark off freedom not in years or decades to come, but in months. Others fantasize about it as they spend hours walking aimlessly on a treadmill to escape, or pass hard, lonely time doing one or two hundred pull ups 3:00 am each morning on a rusted shower stall.
Rumors abound in prison… we call it inmate.com… the unofficial “official” word that makes its daily rounds selling fool’s gold to the desperate, spreading the gospel of hope derived not from a compassionate god, but from a favorable sea change in the law or a one in a million appeal that like a magic elixir can suddenly and dramatically reduce sentences over night. Most important of all can be the terse loudspeaker announcement that just might herald your destiny: “Cohen, Cohen, Cohen report to your case manager.” Ultimately, these meetings can provide the key to the prison door, and a good night or bad, as they are the final bureaucratic “reentry” step when you learn how much halfway house and/or home confinement time (if any) you have been awarded by the BOP. More often than not, these meetings are ministerial in purpose: they’re held merely for statistics sake alone and to note in a cold prison record an interest and update in a given inmate when, in reality, there is none.
In prison, it’s all about control. No, not the kind necessary for security or safety but the pernicious overarching type designed to reinforce the state’s power over you, to keep you uncertain… dependent. Indeed, as time passes, prisoners grow to understand a sinister purpose behind these public broadcasts that as a rule are intended to do little more than keep you on edge, to manipulate your spirit and mood by good news, bad or none, or to spread rumors within the prison population of one’s “most-favored” status with a BOP official who inexplicably calls for a mid-day meeting for no apparent reason. But then again, collective group punishment of one prisoner, at the hands of the rest, though frowned upon by the BOP in its written rules and regulations, is ultimately very much the preferred… hushed… manner and means of maintaining institutional control.
In prison, collective punishment of inmates runs the gamut from minor personal impediments, to group loss of privileges, to violations of fundamental human rights for all. Behind the bars, it’s a constant battle to maintain your own dignity and self respect against an administrative machine that seeks to chew it up by reducing all prisoners to a common denominator… except for those that serve it by becoming informants. Thus, if one inmate defecates on himself and the floor because he is ill and untreated, TV privileges are suspended for all. If another is caught returning to the unit with several candy bars from a public vending machine, all prisoner visits are canceled the following week. Though sleep deprivation constitutes a clear violation of fundamental human rights, in state and federal prisons across this country lights are routinely left on at night in a conscious effort to punish inmates for even the slightest breach of protocol… often for no greater offense than “talking back” or questioning a given prison policy. Indeed, I can recall of one such instance at Canaan when prison guards left the large overhead florescent lighting on all night long in a not too subtle effort to send a message about an “incident” that had occurred several days before but had not, as yet, been resolved internally. Needless to say, after several days of sleep deprivation prisoners found a creative way to, all at once, resolve the incident and again darken the bunkhouse each night without further involvement or punishment by the institution.
In prisons across the country, collective self-discipline can be swift and unrelenting as administrators turn their back and simply walk away, leaving “problems” to be resolved within the prisoner population itself. This should come as no surprise given a federal sentencing scheme which currently leaves little in the way of meaningful discretion, in the hands of prisons, as to when a prisoner can be released and even less incentive for those jailed to comport themselves to largely meaningless and typically abusive regulations.
Indeed, long ago the federal prison system abandoned parole or “earned release” time which, in theory, provided for a common sense sentencing scheme that balanced the whole person with their prison conduct and community support in determining when those jailed could return to their families. Up until 1987, many federal sentences provided for relatively modest time behind bars after which prisoners were eligible for consideration for release with community based supervision. However decades ago common sense gave way to the political winds of Congress and the White House which, all at once, imposed a mandatory sentencing scheme and abolished parole to satisfy the cheap hue and cry of “get tough on crime.” Overnight, tens of thousands of prisoners suddenly found themselves looking to halfway house, home confinement and good time release as the sole, largely token vehicles, by which to get home a bit earlier than the draconian sentences demanded by the government and routinely rubber stamped by the court. Not surprisingly, these “release” prospects are used by the BOP to keep you in line; for to “act out” while incarcerated… no matter how minor or meaningless your lapse… can mean not just a trip to the SHU (special housing unit) but an administrative penalty that can augur an end to all three of these early release possibilities.
Halfway houses are no different. They demand strict, often mindless, obedience to arbitrary, ever changing, rules that make no sense and have little to do with facilitating community and family reentry for many women and men who have lost years of their lives to the isolation and control of cold, often brutal and rural prison settings. Like prison, halfway houses are designed to reduce all residents to a common denominator yet reward those individuals who cooperate with, and benefit, the institutional demands of the particular setting itself. In prison, that means snitches; in private halfway houses it means residents with an available cash flow that bloats the coffers of private corporations.
Paying For Illusions
Those who make decent incomes, large “substenance” [sic] fees, or percentages paid directly to the halfway house from paychecks, can buy the freedom of 12 hour work days on the street, three day passes with family and maximum periods of home confinement. For residents who cannot afford to purchase their freedom, it means the tease of long hours separated from family and friends solely because they are unemployed or too poor to pay the price… even though the halfway house may be but blocks from their home and family. At day’s end, as with the criminal justice system itself, the reality of race and class once again pervert the halfway house setting with older white residents of means or employability getting release time breaks from halfway house directors that their younger counterparts of color or poverty simply do not obtain.
In theory, halfway houses should, indeed must, be the bridge that supports a difficult, at times overwhelming, transition for mostly people of color that have lost years of their lives to a prison industry that is America; one that has left them ill prepared to return to often broken homes with scant employment skills, a host of medical and mental health issues and technical skills long outpaced by changes in their community and world on such basic issues as “cut and paste,” Google and smart phones. As a social worker, lawyer and prisoner, I’ve seen both sides of the prison wall. I’ve represented, known and most recently lived with thousands of inmates going back decades. I know of none who return home and want to fail; to fall back into old ways or habits that targeted them justly or not and which stole their lives and liberty as it needlessly punished their loved ones along the way. It’s not so easy, though. We are a population very much of special needs, no matter what our backgrounds. At times it drives us to the covers happy to close our eyes and to forget about the reality of the moment… for many, that moment can become days or even longer. No matter how strong or independent we may once have been, prison changes the dynamic of survival for everyone once warehoused behind its walls. Reintegration is a large word for more reasons than just the sheer number of its letters.
Given the reality of reentry and recidivism rates that prove our criminal justice system is broke, one would think that of all places along the road to release, halfway houses would be staffed not just by caring individuals but by those who by education, training and experience are prepared and capable of smoothing the transition process for those that have been forcibly ripped from their family and communities, often for years. Tragically, nothing could be further from the truth.
These are not mere abstract or academic thoughts, but very much a dark reality for halfway house residents and those of us who have fought this system from without and within for years. Indeed, the road to community “reintegration” is filled with pitfalls that serve as a constant reminder that it’s not designed to work. Crime pays, whether intended, or not. It pays for arrest, prosecution and imprisonment. It pays for prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and cops alike. It builds and maintains prisons across largely rural America and props up failing local economies by employing many not otherwise employable. Most profitable of all, it pays with cruel, mind numbing sentences that pickup where recidivism takes hold. For many, recidivism becomes almost a certainty, as women and men are dropped often into impoverished communities without marketable skills, employment and safe housing.
I hate the phrase reintegration; it’s so disingenuous. The reality is that the majority of returning prisoners never belonged to, or were welcome, in our race and class based society… not before they went to prison and certainly not now. But it’s a feel good concept and a phrase that’s been the proffered aim of our criminal justice system for years, despite posting signs everywhere you look that say in loud, dark colors… “not wanted.” Nowhere is that more painfully evident than in the corporate halfway house system I just survived.
The concept of community reintegration is not rocket science or magic. It’s not complicated and doesn’t have to be costly. Indeed, it’s an entry level course taught in most undergraduate programs throughout the world. All it requires of us is some hard work and a commitment to growth and care.
Having a stable support network and employment skills upon release from prison and a bit of financial security is vital to a successful return home. Families and friends can be a source of that support, provided they are equipped to do so and have a meaningful opportunity to participate in the process. It takes a lot of forgiveness, therapy, and effort on the part of all involved to achieve a healthy family support system. Parents who have been imprisoned face hardships re-establishing relationships with former spouses, partners and children.
Likewise, successful employment can reduce recidivism rates, however, finding and maintaining work is difficult (sometimes impossible) for many former prisoners. There are fundamental “skill sets” demanded in today’s employment market yet are well beyond the expertise of returning prisoners who have spent years working as so much slave labor at meaningless jobs for 12 cents per hour. Steps we take for granted such as being computer literate; knowing how to Google and to cut and paste; to complete employment searches or job applications on line; staying in touch with family, friends and prospective employers by smart phones can be daunting for those who have lost decades to “count time.”
Most inmates leave prison broke, or close to it, saddled with personal and family debt and without any viable credit rating or ability to improve upon it. For the lucky few who leave with remaining funds in their commissary account they are provided a debit card which includes a prominently displayed photo of your prison mug-shot; yes, your fucking mug shot. Now that’s a positive step toward healthy reentry:
“Hi, you don’t know me, but I’d like to open an account with your store or obtain a credit card or have some food delivered to my home, or apply for a job, or get an apartment. Can I use my debit card? . . . Oh, that . . . not to worry, that’s just my federal prison mug shot.”
GEO is no more solicitous of smoothing reasonable transition fears for returning prisoners, many of whom lack drivers’ licenses or other forms of state issued identification. Not long after your arrival you receive a “Bronx Community Re-Entry Center” ID card that says BOP on it and provides your inmate number. But then again most residents have scant use for identification in the outside world, as the majority spends much of their time participating in meaningless job fair activities or ex-offender programs structured specifically for returning prisoners. When not serving as “rehabilitation” statistics for GEO at such programs to satisfy its BOP contract, most can be seen taking cigarette breaks in front of the building, watching TV or mopping the floors to earn some nominal pass time with their families. For the majority who are able to find employment, typically, it’s got nothing to do with GEO, or its efforts, but rather arrives thru the assistance of, or employment by, family or friends.
And what of those fortunate enough to obtain employment while at the halfway house? From them, GEO extorts a tithe of up to 25% of their gross income (in reality 40% of their net) for their stay at the facility in addition to the bounty that it receives for each one from federal coffers to provide services it simply does not. Of course, like the illusory counseling or job training programs inside prisons, GEO goes through the motions and little else… far removed from public accountability while holding hostage women and men who bite their tongues and say little to remain outside of the deep dark walls from where they came.
Imagine hosting meetings three nights a week in a halfway house where long separated couples can get together in private with a seasoned facilitator to talk through their fears, anger or needs. Or where a parent can begin to spend some quality time with children they’ve not seen since they were toddlers. What about the idea of more frequent home visits and overnight stays even for those residents too poor to buy a weekend pass from GEO. How about kids… no longer children themselves… introducing their mom or dad to a grandchild for whom they are named. Or group sessions where returning veterans of a very different kind of war can share their fears with each other and learn from those who returned home before them… and made it.
Is it too much to ask for a halfway house to arrange for family outings to a ball game or an amusement park or a library? Let’s get really revolutionary… how about in-house computers and on-site training on how to use them and smart phones and access to traditional resource materials while there… such as dictionaries and a thesaurus and books and paper and pens. Instead of extorting money from vulnerable residents, why not help those who are employed to open a bank account and to set aside some necessary funds for use upon release to the community or to help their families with current pressing financial concerns. What about training programs where unemployed residents can receive decent stipends while learning a marketable skill, or improving upon those they have but can’t find employment to match. Costs, you might ask? In the long run it’s far more cost effective and efficient than that attendant to class and race based recidivism.
None of these activities or resources exists at the GEO house in the Bronx. None are even contemplated. While some staff at the facility struck me as caring, I met no one there who had the training or experience to undertake such programs… let alone in a healthy productive format. In any event, given its extreme physical limitations there’s simply no room there to initiate such efforts in a professional and constructive manner even if there were such staff present. Most important, it takes management committed to people, and not to profit, to initiate, support and oversee progressive reintegration steps. No such management works at 2354 Crestin Avenue in the Bronx. To them, it’s all about billable hours and nothing else.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve supported community based alternatives to prisons for years. Putting aside the issue of pre-trial detention, today more than 60% of all sentenced federal prisoners (approximately 150,000) have been convicted of non- violent offenses or present backgrounds that clearly indicate they pose no threat to the community as a whole, or to their own families. Jailed in so-called camps or low security facilities at approximately $30,000.00 per year per inmate, these women and men could just as easily, and far more cheaply, be housed in halfway houses or in home confinement coming in at about 3,000.00 per year each. Add to these figures another 8300 or so ex-inmates sent at any given time to private halfway houses, throughout the country, to complete their sentences, and you quickly get an idea of just how enormously profitable the prison industry is today in this country. I know it all too well for to save my dog’s life I had to pay almost eight–thousand dollars. But ,then again, Emma is worth so much more to me than GEO.
Corporate Con… Victims Above, Victims Below
In federal prison we are considered all alike, no matter what our differences. It’s easier and cheaper that way. Don’t you know, prisoners are there because of poor impulse control or bad judgment? The notion that millions have been criminalized and jailed, essentially in an enormous profit making industry fueled by race, class or politics, is just not something that Washington can wrap its arms around let alone discuss openly. After all, to do so is to acknowledge that our history has been a grotesque political lie. Halfway houses are no different. While GEO argues that uniformity removes the prospect of special treatment, in practice it’s a pretext that maximizes profits by cutting costs. It all but guarantees mass failure and recidivism.
People ask what I took away from the GEO experience. I learned, as constituted, this halfway house, like the others I’ve heard about or dealt with, is a dumping ground… a get rich quick scheme for corporate profiteers that oversee human commodities and nothing else. Although I’ve been critical, here, of upper management at GEO Bronx, on a rudimentary level I found the few case managers that I interacted with to be professional, concerned and, to the extent possible, helpful. However, as in prison, there is only so much subordinate staff can do. Ultimately, like the residents themselves, in this GEO facility they too are held hostage to the petty politics, unavailability and malevolent mood swings of upper management. In the Bronx that meant days, sometimes weeks on end, trying to work through a maze of incompetence and indifference, or retribution for daring to ask why… or for saying no.
The day after my arrival at 2354 Crestin Avenue I met with my “case manager.” A bright enough young college graduate, she showed a great deal of empathy and concern for my needs even as we were forced to waddle through a world of rules and regulations that had nothing to do with my past or my future. I’ll always remember the “red book.” Like each resident no matter their age, experience or the basis for their conviction, I was required to fill out a 20 something page questionnaire, the answers to which determined those areas in which I needed personal “improvement” to ensure a healthy transition back to my community. That decision was made via computer program on the basis of a test score alone.
Thus, it asked of me . . . “Why do I hate cops? Can I forgive myself, or those that hurt me? Do I fear my partner cheated on me while I was gone? Have I learned it’s better to work than steal? What do my kids do that makes me angry? Have I learned crime does not pay? Would I rather work 40 hours per week for $500.00 than deal drugs for $10,000? When will my embarrassment end?”
The questions, neither literate nor nuanced, ran on ad nauseam, no doubt designed by a PhD candidate or an outside contract agency. Dozens were entirely ambiguous making abstract references to concepts like justice, love, freedom and growth. When I sought clarification none was available. “Just fill it out” was the constant refrain. Needless to say, while I enjoyed crafting the answers in my ambiguous red book there was nothing at all humorous or ambiguous about the priority of GEO to grab as much money as it could from me and other residents no matter what the cost to our families. Indeed, the day after my arrival I was informed by my case manager that it was expected I pay GEO “up to” 25 % of my gross wages to reimburse it for my stay and “services” there. This kickback scheme was to prove a source of constant turmoil for me, and my family, with the administrative staff at the halfway house and came very close to being the cause of my return to prison and a hunger strike to protest it.
Although I’d led a successful life for many years before prison, given the extent of my pro bono work, resources were certainly not unlimited and the exorbitant price of the defense in my case had all but drained us financially over the many years that it had raged on. Not unlike many accused, financial considerations ultimately rubbed up against the price of justice and came to bear in our decision to resolve the prosecutions rather than to continue on with no end in sight. For almost all, prison means a dramatic loss of income and mounting debt no matter what your background or “stature” in life. It also takes a tremendous toll on even the strongest of relationships and often tears apart families leaving them reeling and uncertain about the future. Fortunately, for me after serving eleven months in prison I returned to a well paying job as a consultant to a number of law firms pending resolution of the status of my own license.
Typically, residents are not permitted to begin work for a few weeks upon arrival at halfway house even where employment is guaranteed. For me, however, an employment letter detailing a significant salary at a Manhattan based law firm set off bells and whistles at GEO with the prospect of them obtaining a healthy and immediate tithe enticing enough to permit me to immediately begin 12 hour work days outside the house. Though there was preliminary discussion about how much payment was expected from me to GEO for the privilege of bed space and nothing more, the precise amount sought of me remained a point of controversy right from the start… both in principle and application.
While a 25% cap on a resident’s salary is a formula thrown about by GEO, it’s misleading in the extreme. As constructed, it’s demanded share of a returning prisoner’s labor is, in fact, much more and ends up for GEO as very much a tax free windfall. In reality, GEO receives almost 40 % of a resident’s disposable income as they are responsible for all tax consequences including their own and that of GEO. For example, if your gross salary is 4800.00 per month your projected disposable income after taxes is approximately 3200.00. If GEO were to receive 25% of 3200.00 its share would be 800.00, or two hundred per week and it would still carry its own tax responsibility for that share. Under this formula the resident’s disposable income would end up at 2400.00 or 600.00 per week or 50% of their gross income. By charging residents 25% of their gross salary, GEO’s share ends up being 1200.00 dollars per month with no corporate tax liability. Under this formula, for the resident, they take an additional beating inasmuch as their net income drops further to 2000.00 per month… approximately 41.5 % of their gross wages. Put another way, and using these hypothetical salary figures as a basis, under GEO’s formula they end up tax exempt on the demand as a whole, and making almost 40% of the resident’s net income. Only in the world of hedge funds does this seem fair; to the rest of us its usury. For GEO, it’s a government sanctioned extortion scheme that demands kickbacks from the most vulnerable and their families lest they lose their liberty for no reason other than debt and privation.
I refused the swindle. Not only was I offended by an unwarranted demand that I buy my way home, but, from a practical standpoint, to do so would have exacted outrageous payments leaving me unable to catch up on debts accumulated while in prison and ill-equipped to maximize steps necessary for going forward… you, know, the reintegration module that GEO likes to huff and puff about at public seminars and for which it receives enormous federal dollars to implement and oversee. Assured of a “mitigation” process that permits GEO to reduce subsistence fees upon a showing of need, I agreed to go forward contingent upon a significantly reduced payment plan. Within days it was agreed between GEO and a CPA firm representing me that, based on my projected needs, my payments to GEO would be approximately $840.00 per month. It was a resolution that would prove to be short lived.
About a month after I began work I was suddenly called to a meeting with Ms. Mejia, who essentially serves as the vig collector for Coach Artis. Denying any knowledge about the payment plan that had been agreed to between my representative and GEO… and for which I was current… she simply announced that it had been decided by Artis that my subsistence cost had now been “recalculated” at over 100.00 dollars per day… yes, per day… for a total of approximately 3,000.00 per month… an increase of almost four hundred percent retroactive to the day of my arrival. Recounting the agreement we had reached with representatives of GEO and my financial needs, I refused. Later that day I learned a formal mitigation request had not been filed by GEO but simply left hanging, unresolved, like so many other issues that impact upon the health and safety of GEO residents and their families. Within days of this discussion I submitted a formal mitigation request in writing to Coach Artis and attached almost $9,000 worth of receipts for essential bills that had been paid with my salary. I also indicated that if necessary additional evidence could be provided that wages I earned were not being partied away but addressed to other core expenses for me and my family. Although I checked with the administration weekly on the status of my request, I was simply told that it was under consideration. No request was made of me for further documentation.
Weeks later while on home confinement I received an unexpected message that Artis had ordered me to return to the halfway house and to “bring my clothes”… code for being violated. That I lived 100 plus miles from the City, without a car and would not have a ride for my regular scheduled weekly visit till noon the next day didn’t matter to Ms. Leeder, the delighted messenger who insisted that I arrive at the Bronx no later than 9:00 am the next day… an all but impossible task. A bully who regales in her power over residents and case managers alike, Leeder likes to be the center of attention; one that thrives on setting impossible deadlines and then violating residents for their failure to perform like caged monkeys in a zoo.
Upon arriving for my weekly visit… without my clothes… and not until my regular scheduled time, I was told by Artis that because I was thousands of dollars in arrears to GEO I had forfeited the “privilege” of my home confinement… a benefit, I might add, set not by GEO but by the BOP. When pushed for a status report on my mitigation request. now 6 weeks old, Artis fumbled for an answer. After hemming and hawing, she acknowledged that it had not been forwarded to the BOP then blamed me for the omission because I had not provided additional information required of me. When asked who had conveyed that news to me, she simply shrugged her shoulders and changed the subject.
The meeting ended with an agreement that I would provide additional documentation to her within two days. Two days later I hand delivered another batch of receipts totaling an additional nine thousand dollars worth of payments made by me for essential bills, old and new. As of that submission, I had established that between tax expenses, necessary expenditures and payments to GEO (at that point almost 3,000.00) almost all of my wages for the previous three months had been exhausted leaving perhaps a hundred dollars or so per week for my food and transportation.
Several weeks later I learned that Emma had been struck down with cancer and required numerous doctors’ appointments both locally and in New York City before a decision could be made on how to best proceed. In keeping with the requirement that I get permission from GEO before leaving my home confinement for unscheduled trips, on each such occasion I called the halfway house to obtain consent to leave. Not once did I receive prompt approval from subordinate staff to take Emma to hospital. At times, it took several calls to accomplish and required me to provide written documentation of the visit after the fact. Increasingly the delays became longer and longer as it became apparent to me that I was being punished by GEO during this time of a critical medical emergency for my family.
At one point, during a weekend when Emma’s leg suddenly swelled to the size of a tree limb, I was told no one was available to give approval to rush her to the hospital. After insisting that Artis be contacted, I received a return call with a terse message she had denied my request. After demanding that I be provided the name and number of the BOP duty officer for the weekend, Artis relented and authorized a four hour pass to cover the 200 mile round trip to the NYC hospital and treatment time… as she knew, an impossible task. Artis further rejected my request to drop off the necessary proof of treatment on my way home from the city, insisting instead that I drive another 200 miles the next day to drop off the proof. On the way home I dropped off the proof.
While awaiting surgery, and still at home with me, several days later Emma’s leg opened up to reveal a gaping hole in her femur. The cancer was spreading out of control. After being told by the surgeon to bring her to hospital immediately, I placed the dutiful call to GEO for permission to travel to NYC. Not long thereafter, I learned Artis had authorized the travel with the caveat that after dropping Emma off I had to either bring her a check in the amount of 7,980.00 for the outstanding money “due” GEO or to return there with my clothes as home confinement and community passes were canceled. According to Artis, she could care less that the mitigation claim had not been resolved, that I did not have any available resources and, most important, that my presence would be needed over the next few days to meet with surgeons and oncologists to make life saving decisions on behalf of Emma. In the words of Artis, before she hung up the phone… “I don’t give a shit about your dog . . . if you want to save her, pay me the money.”
I’ll spare you the precise details of the calls that followed while I awaited a ride to New York City. From a prison administrator I knew, I received the name and contact number for the Regional Director of Community Release Programs for the BOP. From him I learned that because the mitigation request had not been filed by Artis there was nothing he could do to help. From Ms. Mejia I learned that despite having over twenty-thousand dollars worth of receipts from me she had been ordered by Artis not to submit the request because I had not as yet provided an outstanding electric bill for approximately 250.00 dollars. Of course no one had told me anything about the bill or the decision.
I don’t know what the future holds. But because I was immediately able to borrow the eight thousand dollars, Emma is alive and sitting by my feet as I conclude this piece. For tens of thousands of other less fortunate prisoners returning home, their Emma, their child, their partner would have died because for them there was no one to turn to and borrow money.
Stories abound of residents returned to prisons from “reentry” centers across this country because they chose to buy school books or clothes for their kids or treat their partner to a healthy dinner rather than pay what little money they had earned to a billion dollar industry.
During the ten weeks I spent at GEO Bronx I received no counseling services I was in need of, nor training of any sort. Nor did I eat a single meal there, receive a stipend or subsidy for my subway/taxi fares back and forth to my job, for the cost of laundry or dry cleaning services or for dental or medical needs that arose during that time. Yet I paid GEO over eleven thousand dollars for the privilege of staying wide awake 6 hours per night, four nights a week, in a filthy bug infested 12’ by 10’ tenement room and nothing more.
Recently I was asked by a journalist what if anything I learned from my experience at GEO Bronx. Without hesitation I replied . . . “to make the perfect egg salad sandwich.” Yes… the perfect egg salad sandwich. You see, as in prison, all halfway house residents are dumbed down to the lowest common denominator; we’re all there because of poor judgment, an inability to craft healthy productive plans and then to see them through to fruition. So, in preparation for our return home, all of us are required to identify an area that we want to improve upon and come up with a goal within it that can be spread out and monitored till completion. It’s sort of like a prison thesis but without words… a real priority.
For me, it was easy. Always envious of the chef that can make the perfect egg salad sandwich, it immediately became my choice for my special month long project that covered each weekend of the final four that I spent at home on a pass to prepare me for eventual home confinement.
Returning to GEO Bronx after my first weekend, I excitedly recounted to staff how I had gone through some two dozen eggs until I finally figured out how to boil the perfect one… and did. On week two, I really worked hard; this time becoming skilled at seasoning boiled eggs, learning how to mix them with just the right amount of mayonnaise, fresh lemon juice, minced onion and finely chopped celery. On week three, it was all about toast. Not too dark, not too light. Just brown enough to compliment the rich yellow of the eggs. For the grand finale, after weekend four, I raced back to the Bronx early Sunday evening to make sure that everyone learned that I had in fact made the perfect egg salad sandwich. There it was: a month of weekend passes and the perfect egg salad sandwich to show for it. It looked wonderful. How did it taste? I don’t know. I hate egg salad.
After costly (to family and practice) years of attempting to defend against government investigations related to his defense for a variety of politically reviled (by the US & foreign governments), high profile groups and individuals, the “We can’t get you on any real charges so we pull out our ace in the hole…Impeding The IRS…” canard finally caused Movement and Human Rights Attorney, Stanley L. Cohen, to end the farce through negotiating a plea deal which would see him sent to the Canaan Prison Camp in Pennsylvania in January of 2015. Stanley was released to the Bronx Halfway house and then Home Detention in December of 2015. It should be made clear that he was never charged with attempting to defraud the IRS or avoid taxes. Stanley has a long career of activism, both as an individual and an Attorney. Notable clients were charged with offenses related to the destruction of the Twin Towers (Sulaiman Abu Ghayeth), blocking access to Indigenous lands in Canada (Mohawk Warrior Society), blocking access to PayPal (PayPal 14), material support of terrorists (Abdourahman Alamoudi) (Patrice Lamumba Ford) (Members of the Holy Land Foundation 5) among the many. He has represented Hamas, Naturei Karta, USA, War Resistors League, Black Block, and a host of other groups and individual activists. http://istanleycohen.org/index.php/cases Stanley began a blog while imprisoned to capture his thoughts and observations, Caged But Undaunted https://cagedbutundaunted.wordpress.com/ , where can be found a 2 part piece on “Prison America” and a 7 part series called “It Ain’t The Promised Land”. Stanley has been a guest on numerous broadcasts, both radio and television, and has debated media personalities and academics (Some of which can be found on YouTube). Just prior to his incarceration, Stanley risked his life to attempt saving that of former military turned aid worker, Peter Kassig. From his eventual beheading by ISIS. http://www.theguardian.com/news/2014/dec/18/-sp-the-race-to-save-peter-kassig