After years of mandatory drug sentences and other tough-on-crime policies, the United States now imprisons more people per capita than any other country except, possibly, North Korea (where the statistics are sketchy) and the Seychelles. Those American sentencing policies are starting to change. But the new emphasis on probation and other alternatives to incarceration has meant more business for the private companies and nonprofit groups that run residential reentry centers, or "halfway houses," which help move inmates out of prison and back into their communities. This is one man's story about life in a halfway house.
The story was co-published with The Marshall Project.
I walk out the front doors of the prison at ten o'clock in the morning. For the first time, I am standing in the "sliver." My mother and sister rush to me, beaming with tears in their eyes. We hug and kiss while my father snaps pictures on a digital camera. No more clanging steel gates, no more guards shouting orders over loud speakers. An oversize American flag sways above us; rust-colored leaves float down through the crisp fall air. Autumn, from the Etruscan root autu- and the Latin auctumnus, signifying the passing of the season. Six years in a box with only a dictionary for a friend: My mind works differently now.
It's hard to remember myself before all this, as a 19-year-old college kid who thought it was a good idea to join some buddies in stealing a first edition of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species and other rare books and manuscripts from a university library. In prison, you start to forget after a while even why you're there. Who you were, what you wanted—the steady, quotidian punishment grinds it away. For years all I could see of the "real world," as inmates call it, was a thin strip of pavement just beyond the razor wire where I would watch visitors passing in and out. I called it the "sliver."
Before we reach the car, a prison official chases us down and demands to see my father's camera. Visitors to Federal Correctional Institution, Ashland, a low-security prison in northeastern Kentucky, are not allowed to take pictures while on prison property. "Security issue," she explains, deleting photos of my pale, gaunt face.
As soon as the car starts moving, I feel nauseated. I can't remember the last time I was transported by anything other than my own two feet. My mom passes me a brown grocery bag reeking of bacon and sausage. From the size of it, she must have bought nearly everything on the menu at a local diner. When she asked me a week ago what I wanted for my first meal, I just said "breakfast." It was an exciting thought at the time, but now I can't take a bite. I roll down the window, close my eyes, and breathe deeply. My dad turns and asks how it feels to be free. All I can think about is vomiting.
We pull off the highway at a rest area, and I bolt for the men's room. Instead of dry-heaving, I freeze in front of the mirror. It's the first time I've seen myself outside of prison. My clothes don't look right; something is off. Toilets flush; doors swing open and closed. I feel paralyzed, like a stone at the bottom of a river. Men walk in and out, giving me strange looks. A freak—from the Middle English freke, meaning "bold creature."
My dad is normally a slow driver, but today he's speeding. The trip from the federal prison in eastern Kentucky to my new halfway house in Louisville should take a good three hours, and the Bureau of Prisons has allowed me exactly three hours and 15 minutes. If I'm more than one minute late, I can be declared an escapee and the US Marshals Service will take charge of my return. Some inmates avoid the stress by taking the Greyhound, or at least saying they will. The Bureau of Prisons gives you more time for the bus, so if you arrange for someone to secretly pick you up at the station you can end up with two or three days of freedom if you're going home to another state. When I asked fellow inmates what they would do with that extra time, the response was usually the same: "beer, pizza, and pussy," though not necessarily in that order.
I arrive at Dismas House in Old Louisville with only minutes to spare. The building is a renovated, neo-Gothic church with redbrick towers and lancet windows. All the doors are locked, but after waving my arms in front of a security camera for a couple of minutes, I am buzzed through. A slender, middle-aged African American man, dressed in a button-down and slacks, sits behind a Plexiglas window at the front desk. He asks me what I want, and I say I'm reporting from federal prison for supervised early release. No, I'm not, he informs me; there were no arrivals on the schedule. After much explaining, many mouse clicks at his computer, and a phone call to someone, he finally agrees to admit me.
I push on the door, wanting to say goodbye to my family on the sidewalk, but it's locked from the inside. The intake process has already begun, the deskman says, so I can't go anywhere without formal permission. He is already waving a handheld metal detector around my crotch as he explains my situation, and he quickly moves on to the Breathalyzer test. I am then escorted to a room in the basement to urinate in a plastic cup as the desk guy watches. While I wait for the drug-test results, another staffer, called a resident monitor, rummages through my duffel bag for contraband.
The monitors are like the prison guards of the halfway house. They keep the residents in line and run the day-to-day operations. One of them, a pasty, pear-shaped young man about my age, in his mid 20s, takes me on a tour. He gets sweaty just walking me around the house, which has a cafeteria, a fitness room, separate televisions for men and women, and rows of pay phones. Other residents size me up as I pass by. The shot-callers are easy to spot, especially in an environment where the men can show off in front of the women. Coed or not, it feels like my first day in prison.
I am allowed fresh air only at certain times of the day, in a small, fenced-in area adjacent to the halfway house. I can see, hear, and even smell the city—it's so close—but I can't touch it.
I spend the rest of the day filling out forms and watching videos about Dismas Charities, the nonprofit group that runs the halfway house. Named for St. Dismas, the penitent thief who was crucified alongside Jesus, it operates 30 residential reentry centers in 13 states. One video assures me that Dismas promotes rehabilitation through "evidence-based practices," empowering offenders with "education, employment, and support." Its motto is "Healing the Human Spirit."
Days pass. I sit around waiting to be told to do something, but they just tell me to keep waiting. I am allowed fresh air only at certain times of the day, in a small, fenced-in area adjacent to the halfway house. I can see, hear, and even smell the city—it's so close—but I can't touch it. Most days I end up smoking cigarettes and watching reruns of How I Met Your Mother with my roommates, a couple of drug dealers just out of state prison.
I try reading Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated, but I can't concentrate. My mind races; I can't sit still. All I can think about is getting out. The longing was so much easier to suppress in prison, when the outside was more distant. There, everything faded: friends, family, love. I remember the morning I woke up feeling like I had lost my dreams. My imagination could no longer access my past and could only work from images of my dim, narrow prison life. I promised myself that when I got out I would appreciate freedom—really appreciate it. But in the halfway house, trapped in between, I still dream of prison. Limbo—from the Latin limbus, the region that borders hell.
Some of my fellow residents kill the time with drugs, and there are plenty in the house to choose from. K2, also known as spice, is popular because it's available at convenience stores and supposedly not detected by the unscheduled drug tests. One night one of my roommates asks if I want to try some. It's like synthetic marijuana, he says—all natural ingredients. Out of boredom and curiosity I give it a go, smoking the entire joint in the bathroom by myself. When I return, I see panic in his eyes. He says I was only supposed to take a couple hits.
For the next ten hours I hallucinate in the worst way. Muffled voices blare over the loudspeakers, sounding every time like someone is shouting my name. I wonder if my counselor is finally calling me to her office. I ask other residents if they heard my name being called, but no one else can decipher the announcements.
For the rest of the night I hide in my room, frantically jotting down thoughts in a notebook to calm myself.
I wake up from a dream about prison—the unrest, the din. Next to me in the bed is a piece of notebook paper with my handwriting on it. It says, "Don't let the darkness eat you up," which I think I heard in a song on the radio. Men are shouting nonsense outside my door. Some mornings I jump out of bed disoriented, my heart pounding, thinking I missed the cell-block head count. I've been to the hole before, and I don't want to go back. But then I see my halfway-house roommates lying in their beds, staring at me like I'm some kind of nutcase.
After the standard breakfast of rubbery eggs and grits, I head to the men's room with a disinfectant spray bottle, rubber gloves, scrub brushes, and mop bucket. The house will not "open" until all residents complete their daily chores. New guys get bathroom duty, same as in prison. I start with the toilets because guys always burst in needing to go—it never fails—and then I move on to the showers. Everyone just rushes through their chores as quickly as possible, but I take my time. I figure I have to use the bathroom too, so it might as well be clean.
More than a week passes before I finally meet with my counselor. She gives me permission to leave the house each weekday morning for the sole purpose of finding a job. I need to produce a list of five potential employers I will visit, and the list has to be approved one day in advance. Residents scour the Yellow Pages for any business that seems acceptable, but the trick is to find ones close to one another because we only get four hours and have to use public transportation to get around. Dismas requires that I inform any potential employer of my felony status, and the manager of any place I apply must sign a detailed form to prove that I actually filled out an application. If I do not return to the house every day with at least five managers' signatures I am in violation of the halfway house's terms.
Almost every day, I overhear the monitors threatening to send residents back to prison if they don't do what they're told. And some of them do get sent back.
Many residents are so fearful of returning without their signatures that they resort to forging. But counselors spot-check these entries, and often residents are caught and disciplined. Once I secure employment, the halfway house will garnish 25 percent of my gross wages. It's called "paying for your bed." I have been assigned by the federal Bureau of Prisons to stay in the reentry center for six months. If I meet all the requirements, the community corrections manager—the director of the halfway house—can grant early release and place me on home confinement, with supervision by a federal probation officer. But even then, I would still have to pay for my bed for the full six months. So in theory, several residents could end up paying Dismas for the same bed.
At night I exercise in the fitness room and search for jobs online. The house computers are controlled by internet-filtering software and only allow access to job-search engines. On one list I find a Dismas posting for a full-time resident-monitor position at my halfway house. "Enjoy meaningful work that positively impacts your community," it says, "assisting individuals to heal so they can once again be productive and responsible citizens." According to the description, the monitor ensures the residents' accountability by enforcing all rules, responsibilities, and restrictions. The job pays $9 an hour. No experience necessary, and only a high school diploma or GED is required.
It's pretty clear to me that the monitors need more training than they get to deal with the kinds of people who are coming through. A while back, one resident fresh out of federal prison stabbed a woman to death with an ice pick in the Dismas bathroom. Even for those who are more stable, it's a precarious time. But almost every day, I overhear the monitors threatening to send residents back to prison if they don't do what they're told. And some of them do get sent back.
One night a commotion erupts near the front of the house and everyone rushes to see what's happening. One of the longtime residents, a hulking man with tree-trunk limbs and dark bags under his eyes, is shouting, "I'll burn this place down!" The man, who is known to be mentally unstable, hurls the sign-in clipboard at the wall.
"You want to go back to prison?" the egg-shaped resident monitor demands from behind the Plexiglas window of the reception desk.
"Y'all don't know me!" the man continues. "Y'all don't know where I've been!" He stomps down the hallway, kicking the doors.
The resident monitor goes on the PA system to order everyone back to their rooms.
One of my roommates tells me he was standing nearby when the monitor accused the resident of withholding his weekly 25 percent payment. The man works at Dizzy Whizz, a fast-food joint a couple of blocks from the house, and he returns from work every night in a grease-stained uniform stinking of French fries. He doesn't talk much, just works all day and visits with family on the weekends. He insisted that he had paid his cut, but the monitor said he hadn't, and his visitation privileges were being revoked. He had a visit scheduled for the next morning.
The rest of the night we lie on our beds, listening as the man screams and beats his fists against the wall outside in the common area. The resident monitor, still behind the glass window of his office, is talking to the man over the loudspeakers, warning him to return to his room.
Eventually the police arrive and the house goes quiet.
In prison, other inmates would tell me the halfway house is the worst part. I found that hard to believe, but nearly every repeat offender would say that. Guys on their way out of prison would sometimes get into fights and lose their good time on purpose, just to avoid the halfway house. Some would refuse to go at all, and ride out their final months in the hole.
Now I'm starting to understand.
This story was co-published with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the US criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletter, or follow The Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.