The Toughest Love
For Nearly 50 Years, the Delancey Street Foundation Has Offered an Alternative to Prison.
But Does the Celebrated Program Really Work?
by Julia Lurie, Mother Jones
The headquarters of the Delancey Street Foundation occupies a piece of prime real estate near the base of San Francisco’s Bay Bridge, tucked between luxury condominiums and ritzy waterfront eateries. The 400,000-square-foot, four-story complex looks like a Disneyfied Mediterranean villa, with red tile roofs, flower boxes, and sun-filled windows overlooking the bustling waterfront. Inside are 177 dorms, a pool, a movie theater, and an unpretentious restaurant known as a hangout for local dignitaries. Rep. Nancy Pelosi described the facility as “the living room of the city.”
On a third-floor wall hang dozens of framed photos of “hot shots who like us”—a who’s who of California’s Democratic elite and celebrities of a certain vintage, posing with Delancey’s co-founder and CEO, Mimi Silbert. With her big auburn hair and infectious smile, she’s pictured with Hillary and Bill Clinton, Kamala Harris, former Mayor Willie Brown, Colin Powell, Tony Blair, Clint Eastwood, and Jane Fonda. The grip-and-grins are a tribute to Delancey’s reputation as one of the nation’s highest-profile self-help organizations, known for bringing countless lives back from the brink.
The photos are also a testament to the 78-year-old Silbert’s influence. Pelosi has likened Silbert to Mother Teresa and recently called her “the queen of redemption in all of America.” Sen. Dianne Feinstein once urged “anyone, anywhere in the United States that has an interest in replicating a program to rehabilitate American drug addicts that works to go to San Francisco, to call Mimi Silbert.” California Gov. Gavin Newsom became close with Silbert during his own efforts to get sober more than a decade ago. “I never went to rehab,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I went to Mimi.”
Delancey is a bit like a kibbutz where people go instead of prison. With the exception of Silbert, the program is run entirely by people recovering from addiction, and former prisoners, nearly all of whom were sent to the program by judges as an alternative to incarceration or as part of probation or parole. Since it was founded in a cramped apartment in the early ’70s, it has grown into an operation with 1,000 residents in six locations nationwide and more than $119 million in the bank. Delancey’s facilities defy the stereotype of a gloomy halfway house: There’s a Mission-style former hotel in Los Angeles, a ranch in New Mexico, and a turreted manor in New York. Residents, most of whom live in the California facilities, stay for a minimum of two years while working for—and eventually managing—the program’s many enterprises, which include moving companies, catering services, and bustling eateries. The program is predominantly funded by profit from its businesses; residents receive free room and board. During the holiday season, Delancey runs dozens of Christmas tree lots, inviting customers to “Buy A Tree Save A Life!!”
Over nearly half a century, more than 23,000 people have completed the program. Yet as Delancey has become a beloved fixture in San Francisco and a model for rehabs and prison diversion programs around the world, it has been subject to little oversight or scrutiny. Interviews with dozens of Delancey graduates, lawyers, judges, and criminologists paint a picture of an eccentric program with a number of long-standing practices that are rarely discussed in public. New participants are cut off from the outside world and required to spend hours doing monotonous jobs. They must participate in “Games,” in which they receive and dish out intense criticism, often in the form of yelling and cursing. Until a few years ago, residents were required to stay awake for two-day sessions; sometimes those who nodded off were awoken with a spritz of water. They work long hours for no pay, sometimes at events for the politicians who praise the program. Delancey doesn’t offer mental health services and it forbids psychiatric medications. In private conversations, some public defenders in San Francisco liken the program to a cult.
There is loads of anecdotal evidence of the program’s successes, but there is little scientific evidence to support Delancey’s tough-love methods, some of which were inherited from the notorious rehab group Synanon. Even though nearly all of Delancey’s residents come through the criminal justice system, no state or local agency oversees the program, and its recidivism rates haven’t been studied in three decades.
It’s hard to question the appeal Delancey holds for judges and DAs trying to figure out what to do with a specific kind of offender: someone ineligible or unsuited for a typical rehab but deserving of one more chance before prison. Delancey checks a lot of boxes: It’s tougher and longer than most addiction treatment programs; it takes violent offenders; it’s not prison; and it’s free. “Most judges don’t relish the opportunity to send people to prison,” said one deputy public defender in San Francisco. “It’s kind of like, ‘Delancey will fix it.’”
During a 2014 sentencing hearing for Christina Williams, who was convicted of counterfeiting money to fuel a drug habit, federal Judge Lawrence O’Neill said, “I would have loved to have packed her and every other person that’s appeared before me in the last year into my car and driven them up to Delancey Street.” The deal he struck with Williams was typical: If she made it through the program, she would be put on probation. Fail out of Delancey and she would serve time in prison. O’Neill warned her, “It is going to take everything that you have. Every physical, every mental, every emotional drop of energy that you have.”
Today, Williams is thriving, with a full-time job, a fiance whom she met at Delancey, a dog, and years of sobriety. She was one of several former residents I spoke with who credit the program with literally saving their lives. Lifting up the “bottom 2 percent,” as Silbert puts it, through a hybrid of old-fashioned bootstraps and self-actualization is the essence of Delancey. “Name a problem, they have the problem,” Silbert told me when I met her at Delancey’s waterfront headquarters, where she lives. “Drop out of school? They all dropped out of school for the most part. Violent? We go for violent people instead of just taking somebody who just made a mistake. We’re happy to take them. They too can change.”
Yet Delancey’s critics say it’s often presented as the only alternative to prison for people facing long sentences. “Delancey’s considered the be-all and end-all: If you can’t make it there, then you don’t deserve to be out any longer,” said Sangeeta Sinha, who was an attorney in the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office for 15 years, until 2017. In 2006, her client Leyon Barner was sent to Delancey in lieu of a long sentence. Barner buckled under the program’s relentless demands. “You have isolation, you have sleep deprivation, you have this constant pressure of having to go to these Games three times a week where you’re being attacked and insulted and verbally abused,” he recalled. Eventually, he was sent back to prison to serve a lengthy sentence. More than a decade after attending the program, he still has bad dreams about it; he requested that this article be titled “Nightmare on Delancey Street.”
As California attempts to reduce its swollen prison population, and policymakers increasingly agree that the addiction crisis can’t be solved with incarceration, taking a look inside Delancey seems more important than ever. But the questions about its methods and effectiveness resonate beyond the program itself: Does anyone really know the best way to set someone struggling with addiction and criminal activity on a path to recovery and stability?
Silbert is first to acknowledge that Delancey is not for everyone; 4 out of 10 new residents quit before they graduate. But she insisted that its achievements can’t be boiled down to statistics. “There’s just too many people and too many places and the numbers end up never meaning as much to me as the people themselves,” she said. She told me, pleadingly, to remember the alternatives as I wrote this story: “These people would end up in prison if they didn’t come here.”
• • •
A stay at Delancey typically begins by waiting on “the bench,” a nod to the wooden seats on Ellis Island where newcomers waited to be screened. Journeying to a new way of life is a central theme at Delancey, which is named after the street on New York’s Lower East Side where many Eastern Europeans settled at the turn of the 20th century. The first phase of the program is called “Immigration.”
Chesley Cipolla arrived on the bench in San Francisco in 2012. At 40, she had spent more than half of her life floundering between prison, rehab, and homelessness. When the three residents who screened her asked why she was there, Cipolla repeated in a low, raspy voice what she’d told countless therapists and social workers over the years: She grew up in a violent household, started drinking heavily as a teenager, and never finished school. One thing led to the next, and here she was, just out of prison, having never successfully completed a parole.
“Oh, so you think you’re hot shit, just dropping out of school?” Cipolla recalls one of the screeners snapping at her. “How did you treat your mom?” another asked. “I bet you treated your mom real fucking good, huh? What about your kids? Are you a mom? How’d you treat your kids? How’s it feel being a mom like that, just walked away from your fucking own children?
During her many stints in rehab, Cipolla had never experienced an intake like this. “The whole interview process, I was like, ‘These bitches want to fight. I’m going to have to fuck up three big bitches.’” By the time Cipolla left the room so the interviewers could confer, she was shaking, strategizing which of the three she would take down first. At the same time, the process had been such a jolt that it was almost refreshing. “You’ve got a few women just calling you on your shit,” Cipolla remembers. “It seems harsh, but it’s all true, you know?”
Cipolla was admitted, and she entered “Maintenance,” the grueling first part of “Immigration,” which is focused on repetitive cleaning. Residents assigned to cafeteria duty awake at 6 a.m. to scrub tables, stack chairs, sweep and mop, and put the chairs back on the floor—and then keep doing this routine on the already clean surfaces until the next meal. “I’ve heard it’s so we can learn how to work with others’ personalities,” said former resident Anthony Regino, who started at Delancey in 2017. Those on bathroom duty may stand in place for hours, wiping the same spot on the wall. “It was like an episode of Black Mirror,” said one former resident.
Delancey imposes a blackout period of a few months, during which new residents are prohibited from contacting family or friends. Blackouts for a few weeks are common at residential rehabs; the idea is to start with a blank slate, without the stresses and temptations of home. (There’s not much evidence about whether blackouts work—California bans them in the transitional housing programs it contracts with.) But Delancey’s first few months are far stricter than the typical rehab’s. Residents are forbidden from talking about their pasts or the outside world. Male residents have distilled the rules of “Maintenance” into the “three Ws”: no flirting with women, no working out, and no gazing out the windows—which, in San Francisco, provide sweeping views of the bay. (Silbert told me new residents are welcome to look out the windows as long as they don’t catcall women, but can’t use the gym because “they have not earned that right.” At Delancey, she said, “You need to feel you’ve earned things—and the more correct things you do, the more you earn.”)
From the get-go, the program has a do-it-yourself ethos that extends to every aspect of life. There are no outside staffers—no nurses or psychiatrists or social workers on-site for the hundreds of residents. Delancey portrays its lack of clinicians as a selling point. “Rather than hire experts to help the people with problems, we decided to run Delancey Street with no staff and no funding,” its website reads. A letter sent to jail inmates who request an interview warns, “Remember, we aren’t a counseling program. We’ll expect you to learn a different way of doing things by doing them and helping others along the way.”
Though the vast majority of residents have a history of addiction, Delancey isn’t monitored by the state health department because it isn’t registered as an addiction treatment facility and doesn’t take public funding. Silbert sees Delancey’s mission as transcending addiction: She’s called it a “re-education organization.” Usually, if prospective residents are detoxing, Silbert said, “We give you our chicken soup, some chocolate, and a broom.”
At least three nights a week, new residents participate in “Games,” confrontational group sessions where they’re encouraged to let out the anger and irritation built up over long days of tedious work. Beforehand, they request to “play” with those who have gotten on their nerves by submitting forms in a box in the cafeteria. After dinner, groups of about 20 are called off to rooms where they sit in a circle. There are a few ground rules: no threatening, no getting out of your seat. Some topics—like a person’s appearance and family—are off-limits. Most swear words are allowed, but some offensive epithets like “cunt” and “fag” are not. The focus then turns to piling criticism on one member of the group, while, ideally, pointing out how to fix their problematic behavior—before moving on to the next participant.
Former residents recall hearing grievances ranging from minor slights (“You bumped into me yesterday, you bitch”) to general gripes (“You piece of shit motherfucker, who the fuck do you think you are?”). The “Game” serves as an emotional dumping ground from 7:30 to 10 p.m. Afterward, everyone trickles into the cafeteria for snacks. As a former resident in Los Angeles put it, “The joke used to be ‘Yell at each other, then go share a pizza.’”
“There’s a lot of yelling in Delancey Street for certain things, but it’s because a lot of people are angry,” Williams said. “And part of our counseling is to release that in a healthy way.” Many residents have just come from correctional facilities, where a simple disagreement could erupt into violence. But at Delancey, you’re taught to “just go put their name in the Game box, and you can hash it out in the Game and yell until your heart’s content,” Williams said. “You basically get a PhD in how to argue,” said Cameron Bilbrey, a now-26-year-old who attended the Los Angeles facility from 2013 to 2015. “It teaches you how to solve your problems with words—and if you can’t solve your problems, you can at least keep yourself from getting up and beating the Jesus out of the person that you’re having a problem with.”
The verbal sparring is helpful for some residents but painful for others. “If words could cut, they’d have a trauma unit in Delancey Street,” one former resident told me. “Most of our clients come to us with a degree of PTSD. A lot of them suffered greatly as children,” said Sinha, the former public defender. “I question the necessity and efficacy of any treatment that requires them to undergo more trauma.” Another lawyer in the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office recounted checking in with a client at Delancey. “This is a grown man in his early 50s, a tough guy. He sat there and said, ‘I’ve gotta tell you, I’ve been crying with my head in my hands. Can you arrange for me to go back to jail?’”
Some residents do just that. In 2017, Regino, then in his late 20s, arrived at Delancey in San Francisco. He was hopeful that Delancey would give him the opportunity to get back on track and avoid the four-year prison sentence he was facing for stealing a car while he was using meth. He’d heard good things about the program—how it helps you get bank credit, a driver’s license, a job. “It’s a way of a new life,” he recalled. “That’s something that I was really looking forward to.” Regino, who is bipolar, weaned himself off his psych meds in jail so he could attend the program. Naturally conflict-averse, he contends that he didn’t know about “Games” until he arrived. “You have 10 guys yelling at the top of their lungs and cussing at you and all ganging up on you. I just shut down when they did that,” Regino said over the phone from the California Institution for Men in Chino, California. After five months at Delancey, he walked out and enrolled in a different program, violating the terms of his probation. A judge sent him back to jail.
Until a few years ago, residents who had spent several months at Delancey underwent a rite of passage called “Dissipation.” Groups of 18 would gather in a room and stay awake for more than 48 hours, talking through their childhoods and the mistakes that led them to the program. The marathon sessions, which sometimes featured the questioning and grilling of “Games,” plus role-playing, consoling, and weeping, were supposed to be a cathartic turning point. “It’s just letting it all out. It’s out and it’s done,” Cipolla said. “It doesn’t need to come back. We’re not going to talk about it later.” Designated “squirters” kept people up with cold water, remembers Bilbrey. “They focused on stressing out people who probably or definitely had more things to let go of.”
Overall, it felt like “a useful experience but it’s sometimes very weird,” he said. Some “Dissipation” sessions concluded with a “coffin ceremony,” in which residents were encouraged to mourn deaths that they may not have previously processed, in front of a coffin surrounded by candles as ambient music played in the background.
Today, instead of “Dissipation,” residents talk about their personal histories during “12-hour Games.” Silbert was opaque about exactly when or why she ended “Dissipation.” (One resident recalls the practice continuing as recently as 2017.) She suggested the process sometimes stirred up past hardships rather than enabling participants to let them go. “It wasn’t really what I felt was helpful,” but “I felt it was terrific while we did it.”
• • •
The flip side of the long days and nights is the many perks that come with residence at Delancey, where the atmosphere can feel camplike. Every morning, residents perform a skit and present a word of the day. Every week, there’s a social “function” like a fair or treasure hunt. Over the summer, residents go camping. Holidays are huge events featuring elaborate meals. “I ate my first shrimp, lobster, bisque at D-Street,” said Brandon Ingram, a former Los Angeles resident. At Christmas, Silbert becomes Delancey’s “Mrs. Claus,” she told me. “I make them practice: ‘When we open it, what do we say?’ And we all go, ‘Ooooh!’ And then we say, ‘Aaaah!’”
New residents live in spartan, nine-bed dorms and wear frumpy donated clothes. Women are forbidden from wearing makeup, and men are required to shave facial hair. With time, they earn more freedom, graduating to two-bedroom apartments and donated designer clothes. Technically, residents graduate after two years, but many, dubbed “explorers,” choose to stay longer. A handful of “lifers” pledge to stay at Delancey until their final days.
After a few months, residents graduate from “Maintenance” and begin working in one of the organization’s many enterprises. Residents train each other, and with time, rise in the ranks—from line cook to restaurant manager, or mover to crew boss. Some of the enterprises are major operations. Delancey Moving and Trucking completes thousands of jobs annually; recent corporate contracts include transporting the Macy’s flower show and moving the San Francisco Giants’ operations to Arizona for spring training. The entire Delancey organization kicks into high gear during the holiday season, when other enterprises shrink to skeleton crews so residents can focus on selling Christmas trees. In Los Angeles, residents deck out downtown buildings. Last year, Silbert says, Delancey sold 50,000 trees, bringing in almost $3 million in net revenue in the four weeks before Christmas. “Everybody is working night and day,” Silbert said.
The most obvious difference between a Delancey business and a regular business is that Delancey’s workers aren’t paid. All of the profits from its enterprises—technically called “training schools”—are funneled back into the nonprofit. “You don’t get rewarded with money—you get rewarded with responsibility,” Cipolla said. “You’re the shit if you have a ton of responsibilities.” (This model isn’t altogether unique: As a recent investigation by Reveal reports, Delancey is among at least 300 rehab facilities across the country requiring participants to work long hours with no pay.)
Cipolla first worked for the catering company and as a secretary in Silbert’s office, eventually becoming her personal assistant. Cipolla learned to type, dress professionally, and make eye contact when shaking hands. She fielded dozens of phone calls in a singsong voice each day, taking messages for Silbert—a particularly big responsibility because Silbert, who admits that she is “old-, old-fashioned,” doesn’t have a cellphone or email address.
Because using Delancey’s services is seen as virtuous, and because Silbert is extraordinarily well connected, residents have often worked as caterers and servers at functions for politicians and celebrities. Williams spoke about them on a first-name basis. “Gavin was cool because he just hung out in the back with us,” she said. “Nancy”—as in Pelosi—was “nice…I don’t know, I’ll just leave it at that.” Cipolla helped arrange flowers for a personal event for Kamala Harris and catered functions for political bigwigs. It was, as Cipolla put it, “a bunch of ghetto-ass motherfuckers” at Delancey serving “supermillionaire people.” (The culture clash led to some memorable moments—like when Cipolla, unfamiliar with the cornmeal dish she was serving, offered “placenta and mushrooms” to guests at a party.)
Bilbrey, who worked on the moving team in 2014, recalled hauling Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibitions; he said they also packed up the mansions of celebrities like Flea, the Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist. The company rarely used dollies—workers carried every box by hand. On the way back to the truck or the house for another load, they were expected to run. “It’s abusive physically, and sometimes having to work a 16-hour day sucks,” he told me. But the jobs get done, he said, and you get a lot of freedom. “I never saw somebody give up.”
For Bilbrey, who describes himself as a former drug addict with “sticky fingers,” there was something empowering about packing up ritzy houses and not stealing. “I would flip over a mattress and there’s nobody around me, I’m alone by myself…and there’s a spilled half a prescription of Xanax under the bed.” Something like this happened dozens of times, and Bilbrey never took a pill. “That’s all that I wanted in the whole world: to know I wasn’t some thief,” he said.
Silbert said she instructs movers not to run but acknowledged that some crew bosses might have told them otherwise. To nitpick about things like running, in her view, misses the bigger point: “They do remarkable things, even if sometimes they’re not perfect,” she said. “They’re running a moving company! Please hear that.”
After hours, some residents take classes taught by other residents and friends of Silbert. Recent courses include feminist literature and theoretical geometry. Nancy Pelosi’s daughter Christine has taught several criminal justice classes there over the years. In 2017, she tweeted a photo of a whiteboard from her lesson on slavery and sweatshops that listed the characteristics of “exploitation”: low wages, long hours, no health care. Bilbrey described Delancey as “basically indentured servitude or slavery, whatever you want to call it.”
Still, Bilbrey is among the many residents who believe that Delancey has given them a gift far more valuable than wages. “I wouldn’t be here if Delancey Street didn’t exist,” he told me. Both Cipolla and Williams were moved to tears as they told me about their personal transformations from drug users to working professionals. “I’m telling you, I was a junkie,” Cipolla said. “Needle in my neck, abscesses everywhere, dirty hair, in and out of jail and prison and nowhere to live.” I met both women at the offices of Hornblower Classic Cable Cars, a tour company where a number of Delancey grads work. Until a recent move, Cipolla was the director of operations, overseeing dozens of people. Williams is a sales manager. “It is amazing and I am telling you: It’s Delancey Street,” Cipolla said.
During the last few months of their stay, residents are required to find outside jobs. During this transitional period, called “work out,” they pay rent to Delancey. Many work for moving or construction companies. Some work at a high-end grocery store at the base of Twitter’s headquarters. Delancey graduates have gone on to become EMTs, medical examiners, firefighters, social workers, sales managers, and real estate contractors. Rick Mariano, who attended the program in the ’70s and married Judge Katherine Feinstein (Dianne’s daughter), became a Bay Area real estate magnate. Bill Maher (not the TV host), who lived at Delancey Street in the organization’s early years, went on to become a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. “I would have been dead in prison 40 years ago without Delancey Street,” he told me.
A common refrain at Delancey is “Act as if,” a variation of “Fake it till you make it.” You may not know how to be a restaurant server, or a mover, or a Christmas tree salesperson, but act as if you do—and after enough acting, you’ll have convinced everyone, including yourself. This philosophy has carried many residents through the program and beyond, but this ethos is also applied to health care and mental health services, putting Delancey at odds with best practices for addiction treatment and prison diversion programs.
“The only medicine you’re going to get at Delancey Street is literally ibuprofen,” Bilbrey said. Other former residents corroborated this, adding that they were given a hard time when they asked for medication or treatment. When he was with Delancey in Los Angeles, Bilbrey said, the Delancey resident in charge of medical services had no medical background, college experience, or even CPR training. Silbert explained that doctors come for regular checkups at the San Francisco facility, and if a resident is in serious need of medical care, they’ll see a doctor. Yet she acknowledged that the person deciding whether to let them go may not have medical training. In every family, “somebody has to make that decision,” she said. “‘Am I going to send you to the doctor, or am I not going to send you to the doctor?’”
Delancey doesn’t advertise as a mental health treatment facility. Yet many of its residents come with substance use problems and psychiatric diagnoses. Former residents recalled that Delancey’s lack of counseling was reflected in an unofficial motto: “Fuck your feelings, get to work.” Bilbrey’s diaries from his time there show signs that mental health practitioners would likely have found troubling. In March 2014, he wrote, “I’m struggling with how to control my thoughts and emotions. I’m obsessing…I’ve been thinking those old suicidal thoughts.” He continued, “Helping other people is all that keeps me moving onward. I fear going to my room at night. To be alone with myself.”
There’s no way to measure if Delancey’s residents have more medical or mental health issues than residents of a typical rehab. Public records show the Los Angeles Police Department received three calls regarding overdoses at the address of Delancey’s Los Angeles facility between 2018 and the summer of 2019. (It’s unclear if Delancey residents were involved; the facility shares an address with a Denny’s.) Silbert recalled one fatal overdose in Los Angeles in recent years, and said that such events are very rare.
The program’s emphasis on self-reliance extends to discipline: Residents are responsible for policing each other. Sometimes this can result in seemingly arbitrary punishments. When Bilbrey cracked an off-color joke, other residents made him sit on a wooden bench for more than 24 hours before putting him on “contract,” meaning he was instructed not to talk to others and had to clean the floors for 60 hours. After Bilbrey’s girlfriend came to see him at a court hearing, his peers put him on contract for two weeks for not telling his higher-ups that she was coming. “18 hours a day, working from 6 am to 11:30 pm,” he wrote in his journal. Regino says he was put on contract for weeks after a dispute with a roommate, made to quietly clean and reclean dishes in the scullery.
Occasionally, not fitting in with other residents can have life-altering consequences. Leyon Barner, who attended Delancey instead of going to prison for armed robbery, was instructed to leave the program after seven months even though, according to court records, he hadn’t broken any rules. At a court hearing, a higher-up at Delancey named Teri Delane said Barner seemed paranoid and posed a safety threat. “Do I have particular examples? No, I really don’t,” she told the judge. “You need to understand when we do an interview, we have no professional staff at Delancey Street. There is no way to determine whether or not someone will really make it in our environment.” Delane, a long-term Delancey resident, had earned a doctorate in psychology during her time there—“but not to practice therapy in Delancey Street, because it’s not what we do,” she testified. She suggested that Barner would be a better fit with another rehabilitative program. But Barner’s plea deal had specifically stipulated that he would go to Delancey, and the prosecutor, who reported to then–San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, didn’t want Barner to go to another program. “Unfortunately, this is a situation that was contingent upon the successful completion of the two-year Delancey Street program,” said a reluctant Judge Charlotte Walter Woolard before remanding Barner to custody. Ultimately, Barner was sent to prison for seven years.
Even successful Delancey graduates acknowledge it doesn’t work out for everyone. Bilbrey showed me a photo of his former moving crew: more than two dozen strapping guys in green work shirts. “Out of about 30 people there, I think only seven or eight of them are now what I would call well-adjusted taxpayers, working jobs, back to their families, not selling drugs.” When I mentioned to Cipolla that former residents have called Delancey’s practices abusive, she bristled. “If you think it’s abusive, then fuck off and don’t do it,” she said. “You choose: You can go to prison or you can do what has worked for thousands and thousands of people and not cry like a little bitch.”
• • •
When we first met more than two years ago, I had not been prepared to be so completely charmed by Silbert, who is 5 feet tall and speaks with a booming, gravelly Boston accent. She buzzes with energy—a chatty, constantly gesticulating bubbe obsessed with changing the way society treats people who are addicted to drugs or have been convicted of crimes. We met at the Delancey Street Restaurant, billed as an “ethnic American bistro” where residents in slacks and bow ties serve homey fare like chicken soup, grilled cheese, and crab cakes. Silbert came up with many of the recipes herself. She hugged me—“I’m so excited!” she practically yelled—before asking, “Are you a vegetarian?” And, when I said no, “Oh good, thank heavens.” She seemed genuinely unfiltered: “I actually say everything I think,” she announced.
She let out a yelp when I asked about the architectural inspiration for the headquarters, constructed by Delancey residents and completed in 1990. “No one asks me that!” she exclaimed. The tale went like this: Years ago, Silbert was in Italy, walking by a beautiful building, when she spotted an elderly woman in a narrow alley chasing a child with what looked like a cast-iron pan. “And she is literally chasing a child and I said, ‘That’s exactly what I want,’” she said. “I like it to look beautiful. But it’s also extremely real and everybody says everything they feel because that’s really important. We’re angry, not angry, happy, not happy. That’s why it’s set up that way,” she said. “Isn’t that hilarious?”
(When we spoke again in March, Silbert said the coronavirus had thrown a wrench into Delancey’s usual routine, particularly at the restaurant, which started offering contactless delivery. Still, she seemed unfazed. “We have so many other horrible things that we have to handle in everybody’s life that our people are probably less stressed than most people,” she said.)
Delancey began in 1971, when a self-described ex-junkie named John Maher rented out an apartment in San Francisco with friends who were sobering up. It quickly filled with people sleeping on couches and sprawled across the floors. They all worked and pooled their earnings in a group fund. Maher first called the flat Ellis Island, and then settled on Delancey Street. “We wanted to get back to the original concept of a bunch of wild-eyed fanatics who came over here to build the New Jerusalem and not ask Uncle Nixon for another handout,” he told Grover Sales in the 1976 book John Maher of Delancey Street.
Almost a decade earlier, Maher had sobered up at Synanon, the alternative community founded in 1958 that went on to spawn dozens of tough-love rehabs and treatment programs. Synanon sought to cure addiction by breaking down users through isolation, attack therapy sessions, and hard labor. It was Synanon that first developed “Games”; founder Chuck Dederich said that a “Game” wasn’t “worth diddly shit unless every player is either screaming with laughter, bawling like a child, hugging each other—or on the verge of physical violence.” Synanon also developed the 48-hour “Dissipations,” complete with coffins.
Maher joined Synanon in 1962 and instantly took to it. The “little old Red Cross ladies cried a lot and told me what a hard life I had, or in jail, guards would beat me and scream what a dirty sonofa I was,” Maher told Sales. Synanon offered another way: The onus was on the individuals addicted to drugs to change their lives, with no help from professionals. When Maher left Synanon and started Delancey, he drew the analogy of a son building an extension on his father’s house. “Let’s get one thing straight—Synanon does nothing but good,” he told Sales. (Widespread violence and abuse in the group was exposed in the 1970s, and it shut down for good in 1991.) Silbert told me that Delancey is worlds away from Synanon and Dederich. “Whoever he is, whatever he did, has nothing to do with us,” she insisted.
Maher met Silbert soon after he founded Delancey. They couldn’t have seemed more different: He was an ex-con from the Bronx who’d dropped out of eighth grade; she was a Boston intellectual who had studied with Jean-Paul Sartre in Paris before completing a doctorate in psychology and criminology at the University of California, Berkeley. She was waiflike compared to the broad-shouldered Maher, but she commanded a room with her brassy charm. “John and I talked, talked, talked, talked, talked—two total opposites,” Silbert told me. “Stunningly, we had the exact same responses to everything.” Like Maher, Silbert, who was working as a prison psychologist, also rejected constant talk about feelings and thought the power differential between her as an “expert” and inmates as “victims” obscured their potential to help themselves and each other.
Silbert left her husband to move in with Maher and build Delancey together. Their new rehab group grew quickly, eventually buying what had been the Russian Consulate in the tony Pacific Heights neighborhood. After complaints from neighbors, then-Supervisor Dianne Feinstein became an ally, pushing for Delancey to be allowed to stay. In 1973, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an article headlined “Delancey Street Is Big Business,” describing 250 residents who ran a restaurant, moving company, construction business, florist, and credit union. Maher energetically sought donations—“I never in my life ran into anyone with this much know-how about bartering, trading, and hustling free goods and services,” said then–state Assembly member Willie Brown—but Delancey eschewed money from the government, as it continues to do today.
Delancey did, however, work with the government in a different way: California counties started sending recovering drug users to Delancey on probation. “We tried to make friends with the district attorneys and the nasty judges as opposed to public defenders, who were naturally on our side, because we were trying to get the people nobody wants to give a chance to,” Silbert told me. Delancey residents started going to jails and prisons to screen potential recruits; by 2002, most initial interviews with prospective residents were done behind bars.
Silbert and Maher proved to be gifted political hobnobbers. Residents provided security at the food giveaway organized by the Hearst Corporation to free newspaper heir Patty Hearst in 1974. Maher was a frequent speaker at Cesar Chavez’s rallies throughout the Central Valley. A 1976 article in the Chronicle posited that Delancey was “the most powerful single organization in the city today.” (A “slightly awed” Feinstein told the reporter that Maher “can mobilize people like that,” with a snap of her fingers.) Residents were not forced to engage in political activity, but when, say, a local politician stopped by while walking precincts, they were encouraged to tag along. Most Delancey residents were “people for whom the American Dream hadn’t produced a particularly good result,” recalled Bill Maher, John Maher’s younger brother. Getting involved in local politics “was an opportunity for folks to be part of society.”
John Maher sounded almost like a political boss as he described Delancey’s civic role. “There will be no Republican or Democratic conventions in our congressional district in which Delancey Street’s political clubs are not the deciding factor,” he told Sales. “Delancey Street will also determine the swing vote in San Francisco’s next race for mayor…I have 600 fanatical volunteers waiting in the wings, and the candidate for mayor who promises the best for the people will get our support.”
Maher didn’t survive to see most of Delancey’s growth. In the early ’80s, he quietly relapsed into alcohol abuse. After a drunken car crash in 1985, he was sent to Delancey’s New Mexico ranch. He continued drinking, eventually resigned from Delancey, and made his way to New York, where he suffered a series of heart attacks. He died in 1988 at the age of 48. Silbert doesn’t like to talk about this chapter of her life. “This is not helpful to me or him,” she said when I asked about it, sounding weary for a moment. “It’s more important to know that he was brilliant. He was brilliant, and then he drank, and then he died.”
Silbert soldiered on, and her profile and influence grew. As mayor, Feinstein helped secure the waterfront property for Delancey’s headquarters, wielding a shovel at the groundbreaking ceremony in 1987. The complex, now worth at least $40 million, became a hub for liberal politicians, a spot where Feinstein, Pelosi, Harris, and Brown have held political events and town halls. Its restaurant became known as a place to network, a place where, as a promotional flyer put it, “the schmoozing reaches world problem solving levels.”
In 1986, the governor appointed Silbert to California’s Board of State and Community Corrections, the advisory committee that develops standards for training probation and corrections officers; she served until last year. In 1997, she helped rewrite San Francisco’s juvenile justice protocols, devising a program that provided young offenders with an alternative to juvenile hall. A year later, she opened Life Learning Academy, a school for juvenile offenders on San Francisco’s Treasure Island. Today, Delane is its principal. Feinstein called it the “single most important social experiment there has been in this area.” Delancey has also joined forces with Solano State Prison to form the Delancey Street Honors Program, a unit whose 100 inmates learn the program’s ethos from residents who travel up from San Francisco. The participants hope to open the first-ever restaurant based in a prison.
Delancey grads have gone on to start their own rehabs, often with a tough-love bent, in Salt Lake City and Alaska. In the same hall as the “hot shots” photos, a wall of “Replications abroad” displays photos of smiling job crews in Singapore, South Africa, and New Zealand, participating in programs inspired by Delancey.
Silbert is still intimately involved in the day to day at Delancey, but during our conversations, she sometimes compressed timelines and glossed over details. She was adamant that she was the only person who had the power to kick someone out, and was shocked to learn that Teri Delane had gone to court requesting that Leyon Barner be removed from the program. When I asked Silbert about Bilbrey, who said he was made to sit on a bench for more than a day, her eyes widened and jaw dropped. She asked, urgently, “Is he okay?”
When I asked about the three Ws of “Maintenance,” she said she’d never heard of the saying. So she asked our server, Will, who had been standing outside the private room where we’d been talking for several hours: “So when you were on ‘Maintenance,’ did you say the three Ws?” Will smiled. “The workout, the windows, and women,” he replied. Silbert, shocked, squealed with laughter.
“Who said that to you?” she asked.
“Everybody!” Will said.
Silbert conceded that she may be fuzzy on some details in part because, a decade ago, she fell ill, first with cancer, then two strokes. During her six years convalescing, when she was less involved with the program, some residents “had their own version of Delancey Street,” she said. Now that she’s back to her healthy, mile-a-minute self, she’s piecing together what happened. “I keep going, ‘Huh? When did that happen? And how?’”
• • •
When Silbert learns that a Delancey resident or graduate has gone back into addiction or crime, she goes up to her room, closes the door, flings herself on the bed, and cries. “It doesn’t matter if they’ve done something wrong and I kick them out, or if they’re out there six years and fine and then something happens, or if they leave and fail,” she said. “It doesn’t matter: They go from somebody you know well to some person that you’ve never seen before.”
Yet Silbert doesn’t seem concerned about the program’s lack of hard evidence. “Quite frankly, if we have one person that’s totally changed and the whole time they’re here, they’re fine—and they go out and something happens, it makes me worry about society,” she said. “No one knows what recidivism is because recidivism gets changed every minute of every day.”
In a way, she’s right: There is hardly any data on programs like hers. Delancey occupies a unique spot—it’s a diversion program, where would-be inmates, many of whom struggle with addiction, go instead of prison, and it’s a reentry program, where residents transition after doing time. In many states, there are few licensing requirements for diversion programs, so judges have wide discretion in deciding who gets treatment and where they’ll be sent for it. “Judges can pretty much do what they want,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a prison reform advocacy group. “The reality is that there are no experts,” said Jeff Tauber, a retired trial court judge in Alameda County who helped develop the nation’s first drug courts. “And this is what makes this field so difficult, and so perplexing.”
Even reentry programs that contract with the state have limited oversight. In California, these programs, which range from residential facilities to day-reporting centers, serve 4,000 parolees each day. In exchange for state funding, these facilities are, in theory, obligated to comply with basic standards for the number of trained staff on-site and the services provided. But in practice, oversight appears minimal. Reentry facilities that don’t receive state funding—like Delancey—are not subject to any oversight. It’s unknown how many programs like it exist, what services they offer, or how many parolees participate. As UC Berkeley public policy researchers put it in a recent report, they “do not appear to be regulated at all.”
In San Francisco, reentry options include facilities run by GEO Group, one of the nation’s largest private prison companies, and a Salvation Army residential program called Harbor Light. Many lawyers in the public defender’s office opposed the city signing the multimillion-dollar Harbor Light contract in 2017. “They’re not queer-friendly. It’s a tough, Christian-based organization,” a deputy public defender told me. But, she said, “Everyone stopped objecting because housing is housing.” (Salvation Army disputes those allegations, contending that the program doesn’t ask participants about their sexual orientation or beliefs.)
In this context, a program like Delancey—with nearly 50 years of history, a charismatic leader, and many notable success stories—looks awfully promising. That its practices aren’t evidence-based or subject to official oversight isn’t a secret to the prosecutors or judges who send participants there. “If you had a chance to not go to prison by going to this program, are you going to really care that it’s not regulated by the state that much?” said Sacramento Deputy District Attorney Chris Carlson. Plus, it’s free. “This guy that doesn’t have a pot to piss in, I know we can send him” to Delancey, said Carlson. “And if they accept him, they’ll take him and he’s not going to have to pay anything. What are your other options?”
Therein lies the problem. What everyone—lawyers, criminologists, and mental health practitioners alike—seems to agree on is that, as Tauber put it, “treatment is a very individual thing.” What pulls one person out of a life of addiction and crime may not work for another. Silbert agrees: She doesn’t relish Delancey’s status as an exceptional prison-alternative program, or the knowledge that, if someone doesn’t fit in there, they could be headed straight back to a life behind bars.
Three years ago, when I first learned about Delancey’s odd practices—“Games,” “Dissipation,” unpaid labor—I couldn’t decide if the program was a myth or a miracle. Now, I think of Delancey as one big exercise in “Act as if”: Act as if you’re a credible alternative to prison, and the rest will follow.
After Delancey purchased its waterfront lot in the 1980s, Silbert put its residents in charge of building the new headquarters. Residents with no construction experience had to figure out how to construct a massive complex that wouldn’t crumble in an earthquake. “We had everybody working on it,” she recalled. “Literally, we had 300 and something people who knew nothing working on this building.” A resident who’d poured concrete for the handball court at San Quentin Prison became the head of the concrete crew. Silbert took a test to become the contractor and developer. “We would do a wall and then we would look at each other and say, ‘Is that wall crooked?’” If the wall wasn’t straight, Silbert would tell her workers, “Fixing your mistakes takes a lot of courage. You have to go through your mistakes sometimes.” Then they’d take down the wall and put it back up, over and over, until it was right.
This article was originally published in the May/June 2020 issue of Mother Jones magazine (motherjones.com); reprinted with permission. Copyright, Mother Jones and the Foundation for National Progress 2020.