DOJ Publishes Ten-step Program for Halfway House Reforms
Halfway houses, known as Residential Reentry Centers (RRCs), are the last stop for federal prisoners before they are released from the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). According to a recent U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) memorandum on the subject, the BOP “maintains agreements with 103 different contractors to operate 181 [RRC] facilities nationwide, serving more than 30,000 residents a year.”
However, the quality of those facilities and effectiveness of the services they provide vary widely, with many residents complaining of substandard living conditions, indifferent staff, insufficient reentry services and lack of personal security. All RRCs are privately-operated, either by for-profit companies or non-profit organizations.
High levels of recidivism for federal prisoners seem to validate the failure of the RRC system to function effectively. Prison Legal News has repeatedly covered this issue, including numerous examples of not only shoddy business practices but profiteering and cronyism in the awarding of lucrative halfway house contracts, with profit apparently taking precedence over quality of service. [See: PLN, Feb. 2017, p.26; Jan. 2015, p.18].
The November 30, 2016 DOJ memo, authored by then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates, included a ten-point plan for reforming federal halfway houses plus a uniform “Statement of Work.” The first, and perhaps most important directive, was to “Establish clear, uniform standards that apply to all RRC providers.”
Amazingly, the memo noted, “the [Bureau of Prisons] has never required all RRCs to provide the same baseline of uniform services, resulting in a patchwork of requirements.... The resulting lack of standardization makes it difficult for the [BOP] to monitor and gather data on its contracted facilities, which in turn impedes the development of best practices and results in inconsistent resident services.”
The second directive was to “Require all RRCs to provide the most essential reentry services.” The DOJ has apparently finally realized that the purpose of RRCs is to reduce recidivism, not just to generate profit for halfway house operators. Third, RRCs should “collect and publish RRC data to drive performance.” The DOJ’s new Statement of Work requires quarterly reports to determine whether a halfway house is meeting its performance goals.
The fourth, fifth and sixth directives were to “Expand the Bureau’s oversight and monitoring of RRC contracts; Reevaluate the Bureau’s inmate-placement system, prioritizing the higher-needs, higher-risk inmates most likely to recidivate; and Reduce Costs ... by ensuring all federal inmates receive government-issued identification documents prior to their transfer to a halfway house.”
Directive seven was to institute a “single, nationwide Bureau contract for location-monitoring services,” to help eliminate the haphazard and burdensome system of calling prisoners’ homes and places of employment to verify their whereabouts.
The eighth directive was a long-overdue plan “to limit the use of counterproductive ‘subsistence’ fees on indigent residents,” which are generally 25% of an RRC resident’s gross paycheck. It is difficult enough for poorly-paid former prisoners to reestablish themselves when they must give a quarter of their pay to halfway houses, and they risk violating their RRC placement if they fail to make such payments.
The funds collected from residents are in addition to the sums that RRCs bill the DOJ under their contracts, and the DOJ has acknowledged it has no ability to track how much money halfway houses are collecting from residents.
Finally, directive nine addressed the need for “partnerships and information-sharing agreements with stakeholders involved in the reentry process,” while the final directive was to “Identify sites for pilot programs that would lower costs, increase competition, and improve performance in the private RRC market.”
But perhaps the most significant improvement for federal halfway houses, not mentioned in the DOJ memo, would be to withhold funding from RRCs that fail to provide the services they are contracted to provide, including preparing prisoners for reentry into society and reducing recidivism rates.