Controversy, Criticism Plague Brooklyn Halfway House
by Derek Gilna
Community First Services, Inc., established by Jack A. Brown III in 2005 to provide transitional services for prisoners returning to New York City, has come under scrutiny following news reports that cast doubt not only on the organization’s halfway house but also the oversight provided by the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).
Congress had the right idea when it passed the Second Chance Act, a broad legislative initiative to make it easier for prisoners to receive the reentry assistance and job training and placement they need to help reduce high recidivism rates. [See: PLN, Feb. 2009, p.8]. However, as detailed in this month’s cover story, that lofty goal has foundered on the reality that there are too few halfway houses capable of providing necessary reentry services and too few trained personnel to provide the counseling, treatment and job placement needed.
As the number of federal prisoners has steadily climbed over the past several decades, so has the number of prisoners released into the community after completion of their sentences. Unfortunately, the capacity of BOP licensed and approved halfway houses has not kept pace – many are overcrowded and in some cases actually less safe and supportive than secure correctional facilities.
Community First operates a 161-bed halfway house in Brooklyn that has moved twice and was previously located “in the basement of a rundown hotel crammed between a junkyard and a homeless shelter,” according to a December 2012 article in The New York Times. The organization has a $29 million Residential Reentry Center contract with the BOP and receives $98 per day for each resident, but people familiar with the program, including five residents contacted by the Times, indicated that few services were provided.
Residents would often play cards or watch television and videos; some would drink and smoke synthetic marijuana, called K2, or use contraband cell phones. More than two dozen residents walked away from the facility without permission during the first year under Community First’s management.
Critics of the organization include defense attorneys and social workers, who are usually supportive of halfway houses. The Federal Defenders of New York, a non-profit that represents defendants accused of federal crimes, said the facility falls short in its mission. Vivianne Guevara, director of client and mitigation services for the Federal Defenders, stated Community First’s halfway house was a “big hindrance” in helping prisoners transition back to society. “I don’t think it really promotes healing or rehabilitation. It’s not a supportive environment,” she said.
Like other halfway house operators, Community First has made the most of its political connections, and Brown, its CEO, has been an influential lobbyist in New York for many years. He was criticized by the Times for “exaggerated claims and self-dealing,” including his involvement “in one of the biggest lobbying scandals in Albany in the past decade.” In that scandal, Brown testified in 2003 that the company he worked for at the time, Correctional Services Corporation, had provided undisclosed gifts and perks to lawmakers; the company was fined $300,000 but no criminal charges were filed.
The Times, which noted that Brown’s brother and sister also were employed by Community First, said claims regarding the organization’s experience and programs, as well as Brown’s qualifications, were untrue. Those claims were later removed from the organization’s website.
In October 2012, the New York State Comptroller’s office rejected Community First’s request to operate a program for parolees, stating it had a “disturbing pattern of ethical violations.”
Brown was vigorous in his defense of the organization, however. “We’re new, but what makes us different, in my opinion, is that we operate understanding that the community is first; I mean, it’s in our name,” he said. “We always keep in the front of our minds that these clients are eventually going to transition back to some neighborhood within New York City, and we want to make sure that they have the greatest possible chance to succeed.”
But controversy has dogged Community First since it first obtained its sole BOP halfway house contract. In April 2011 the nation’s second-largest private prison firm, the GEO Group, filed suit against Brown, alleging he had misappropriated trade secrets from the company. According to GEO’s complaint filed in federal court, Brown was employed as a vice president at GEO Group while he was simultaneously running Community First Services without his employer’s knowledge. GEO claimed it planned to bid for the BOP contract for the Brooklyn halfway house, which it was already operating, but Brown obtained confidential materials from GEO, resigned his position and then submitted a lower bid through Community First, which won the BOP contract. GEO challenged the contract award administratively and lost. The suit remains pending. See: The GEO Group v. Community First Services, Inc., U.S.D.C. (E.D.N.Y.), Case No. 1:11-cv-01711-CBA-MDG.
The BOP is clearly challenged in its supervisory role for the 9,000 beds in 180 halfway houses it contracts with nationwide, including several, like Community First, that have more than 150 beds. The BOP’s spending on halfway houses has almost tripled since 2000 to around $300 million. Yet organizations like the Center for Advancing Correctional Excellence at George Mason University have been sharply critical of such facilities, saying they have had little effect in discouraging prisoners from committing more crimes and returning to prison. According to George Mason Professor Faye S. Taxman, “The feds don’t have an expectation of what they want to accomplish. These [halfway houses] are just places to move people closer to home.”
Ultimately, it is up to halfway house residents to decide whether or not such programs have been helpful. Unfortunately, some residents at the Community First facility in Brooklyn felt they were provided little more than three meals and a bed.
“They don’t set you up with any [job] interviews,” one Community First resident stated. “They put a poster on the wall. They just send you to a job fair. They don’t give you any tools.” Sadly, for many prisoners who have been locked up for years or decades, reentry tools and services are exactly what they need to stay out of prison.
In an apparent attempt to distance itself from criticism and negative news reports, Community First Services changed its name to Core Services Group in 2013. Since “community” is no longer part of its name, one has to wonder if helping prisoners successfully return to the community is still the organization’s mission.
Sources: TheNew York Times, www.tsi.brooklaw.edu, www.bop.gov
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Related legal case
The GEO Group v. Community First Services, Inc.
|U.S.D.C. (E.D.N.Y.), Case No. 1:11-cv-01711-CBA-MD