By Christopher Zoukis
With little fanfare, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) recently decided to end contracts with at least 16 operators of halfway houses— facilities providing inmates alternative settings designed to ease transitions as they near the time of their scheduled release, thus reducing their time in prison.
Since the 1960s, BOP has contracted with halfway houses (it calls them “residential re-entry centers,” or RRCs) run by nonprofits or for-profit entities, to provide supervised, structured environments, with counseling, services and programs to help build community ties and ease adjustment to the outside world.
With assistance from the halfway house on job placement and employment counseling, most RRC residents are expected to find full-time employment within two weeks of moving in. To provide structure and supervision, periodic headcounts are made, and residents must sign out for approved activities, including work, medical or mental health care, substance abuse treatments or recreation. Proponents of halfway houses argue that helping inmates re-enter society reduces recidivism.
BOP community corrections field offices identify area needs based on projected numbers of inmates to be released, trends in prosecutions and other factors, but performance standards and contracting issues are handled through the agency’s central office. The agency uses only contracts, for one or more years, to support RRCs; there is no grants program for that purpose.
This summer and fall, various RRCs whose contracts were due to expire by the end of this year received written notices from BOP that the agency would not extend their contracts. If given any explanation, it was suggested budgetary limits were the reason. When Reuters reported the size of the cutbacks in mid-October, a BOP spokesperson gave a somewhat different explanation. Agency spokesperson Justin Long downplayed the significance of the dropped contracts, saying they affect only about 1 percent of RRC beds under BOP contract, and are only for RRCs in areas with small numbers of released inmates, or which were otherwise underutilized.
Still, the cuts drew immediate expressions of concern from some federal judges and criticism from criminal justice reform advocacy groups, such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Opponents argue the reductions will make it harder for inmates to find suitable placements, and fewer available halfway houses will bring additional delays for some inmates already scheduled for release to an RRC.
The community ties-building mission of RRCs won’t be helped when inmates lack previous ties to an area, which is more likely as BOP shrinks the areas where RRCs are available. For example, BOP’s decision not to renew at year’s end the contract with an RRC in Buffalo, New York that had been in service for over 40 years will likely mean the closing of that RRC. The up-to-50 residents still there at that time will be relocated about 80 miles away to Rochester, transported more than 300 miles to Pittsburgh, or returned to prison. Other inmates from the Buffalo area won’t be able to find a halfway house in their home area unless BOP finds a replacement.
Opponents of the reductions also see as evidence of BOP’s dwindling support of halfway houses with the little-publicized changes BOP has more recently made to the standards for RRC services, which remove the need to offer substance abuse or cognitive behavioral services.
About Christopher Zoukis
Christopher Zoukis is an outspoken prisoner rights and correctional education advocate who is incarcerated at FCI Petersburg Medium in Virginia. He is an award-winning writer whose work has been published widely in major publications such as The Huffington Post, Prison Legal News, New York Daily News and various other print and online publications. Learn more about Christopher Zoukis at christopherzoukis.com and prisoneducation.com.