By Christopher Zoukis
Federal inmates expecting to be transferred from a penitentiary to a halfway house — what the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) calls a “residential re-entry center” — are being informed shortages of spaces mean they’ll face delays in their transfer, and consequently more time in prison.
BOP can let federal inmates with good-time credit spend up to a year of their sentence in a halfway house; this aims to provide inmates nearing the end of their sentences a stable base where they can establish community roots, search for post-release employment, and receive helpful services. Some halfway houses also supervise non-violent offenders released to home confinement.
If the Trump administration is serious about its prison reform proposals, halfway houses should play an important role in reintegrating inmates back into civilian society. But the administration – or at least parts of it – show few signs of valuing the contribution halfway houses can make.
Just about a year ago, BOP’s director announced the agency would end contracts it had with 16 halfway house systems out of about 230 across the nation. BOP’s official announcement called the facilities “underutilized,” though at least some were crowded. The halfway houses received little notice and less explanation for the move.
BOP said the cutback didn’t reflect “any change in the Bureau’s long-standing commitment to provide transitional services to inmates” and “an alternative to incarceration when appropriate.” At the same time, the agency decided to drop cognitive behavioral training from halfway house services and to abolish the position of community services director in halfway houses.
A bipartisan group of eight Senators, including Judiciary Committee chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) and the chamber majority’s second-ranking leader John Cornyn (R-TX), wrote in protest to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and then-BOP Director Mark Inch.
In urging the dropped halfway houses and services be reinstated, they noted research had shown cognitive behavioral training helped reduce recidivism, and social services directors eased the transition for residents (BOP had already dropped an Obama-era requirement that halfway houses offer mental health and drug rehabilitation services).
While BOP also claimed it’s merely trying to streamline management and guard against overspending, there’s clearly more going on than that. Statistics on halfway house availability are hard to wring out of the BOP (even the Judicial Conference of the United States claims to be in the dark, but industry sources claim at least 1,000 halfway house beds are vacant).
It makes little sense to defend fewer halfway house placements as saving money. It costs nearly $36,300 annually to keep an inmate in federal prison. A halfway house placement costs about $4,000 less. Monitoring a person in home confinement costs about $4,000.
Just three years ago, over 10,600 prisoners were in federal halfway houses and about 4,600 in home confinement, together roughly one of every 14 federal inmates. Today, federal halfway house residents are down 28%, to 7,670, and home confinement numbers plunged 61%, to 1,822; as a result, only about one in every 20 federal inmates is in transitional housing.
These moves could frustrate objectives — ending prison overcrowding and promoting social re-entry – underlying the Second Chance Act of 2008, and the administration-backed First Step Act, awaiting Senate action.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.