NEWPORT NEWS, VIRGINIA — Dallas Bell had just celebrated 16 years of sobriety, but nothing else seemed to be going right. It was 2006, and his once-successful cleaning business was slowing down. He was having trouble paying his mortgage, and his marriage was falling apart. And then his mother died.
“Everything was coming at me at one time,” he recalled, sitting behind his desk near the federal halfway house in Newport News, Virginia. “And when I lost my mother, that really sent me on a spiral.”
That spiral took the form of selling cocaine, a crime that eventually sent Bell to federal prison, in 2011. Two months ago, Bell was released early, along with 6,000 other non-violent drug offenders, as part of an effort by president Obama to reform sentencing laws for low-level drug violations.
When the release happened back in November, opponents of sentencing reform were incensed.
“Has Obama set loose a new Willie Horton?” an article in Politico asked, invoking the infamous race-baiting story of a convicted first-degree murderer who was given a weekend furlough from prison, did not return, and was subsequently accused of raping a woman.
“We’re fooling the public when we tell them we’re releasing nonviolent drug offenders,” Steven Cook, head of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, said at the time.
Despite all the initial hubbub, however, those prisoners have gotten little attention since their release in November. Nearly one-third of the inmates were undocumented immigrants, and their release just meant being transferred to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for possible deportation. But most of the others were sent to federal halfway houses, like the one Bell resides in today.
Life After Prison, Halfway
Bell is one of the lucky ones. Unlike the thousands of other inmates who were released in November, he’s actually been able to spend a long period of time at a halfway house. He also has a job.
His position is just down the street at Good Seed Good Ground, a nonprofit that helps at-risk youth find jobs and prepare for college. Good Seed Good Ground recently partnered with Bridging the Gap in Virginia, a nonprofit that helps ex-felons reintegrate into society, to work with people living at the federal halfway house nearby.
CREDIT: Carimah Townes
Ironically, Bell co-founded Bridging the Gap before he was convicted and sent to prison. The organization’s work continued while he served his sentence, and through his connections, he was able to find employment quickly. Now, Bell works out of the Good Seed offices to help his peers get drivers licenses, register to vote, and find employment.
“They gave me a space, and a job,” he said. “It’s giving me something that I love to do.”
According to the L.A. Times, most of the prisoners involved in the November release spent only a few days at a transitional facility before being released back into society. Normally, released prisoners spend lengthy periods in halfway houses before being granted full freedom. But most of those facilities were already at capacity, according to the Times.
In theory, correctional staff are supposed to establish a temporary housing plan for prisoners who are about to be released. In practice, many people have no support system in place when they get out. Few studies have been done on the first month of re-entry, but existing research suggests that housing insecurity is a harsh reality for many. One-third of Baltimore inmates released in 2004 had no place to live, and one-fifth of New York inmates who participated in a 1999 Vera Institute study expected to go straight to a homeless shelter.
And most formerly incarcerated people can’t find work when they reenter society, so a permanent place to call home is even harder to come by.
Nationally, 60 percent of people who serve time are unable to secure a job within the first year of their release. The stigma that comes with having a criminal record decreases the odds of finding work, and 87 percent of employers take those records into consideration when hiring. Without the financial means to sustain themselves, some people rely on criminal activity to survive. If and when people do find work, they earn 40 percent less than their peers.
In addition to his housing and job security, Bell is also an anomaly because he lives in one of the 13 ban the box states, where people aren’t forced to disclose their criminal backgrounds on applications for state jobs. Virginia also restored voting rights for people with nonviolent drug felonies, so he’s able to vote for leaders and policies that could help him in the future.
‘It’s Almost Still Like Being An Inmate’
Bell’s roommate, Rob Daniels, is still playing catch-up.
Daniels spent the last 12 years behind bars for possession of crack cocaine with the intent to sell, bouncing from prison to prison. He was not one of the 6,000, but was released at the same time because he’d completed his sentence. And he’s confronted with the same challenges: landing a job, finding a place to live, and adjusting to a society that’s totally different from what it was before his incarceration.
“I remember getting to the bus station and I had to use someone’s cell phone to call the cab,” he told ThinkProgress. A woman let him borrow her smartphone, but Daniels had been away for so long that he had no idea how to use it. “The girl handed me a cell phone and I’m just looking at it like, ‘where’s everything at?’ I said, ‘you’re gonna have to call the cab for me.’”
Like Bell, he knew he had a place to lay his head for the next three months. Daniels was initially going to stay with a cousin and his wife, but they wound up having a baby and needed more space in their home. Luckily, he was able to secure a room at the halfway house in Newport News.
But Daniels thought the workers there would give him more direction and resources to get back on his feet. He quickly realized that wasn’t the case. The facility offers some classes about completing basic tasks like resume-writing and banking, but it’s up to residents to figure out what to do when their stay is over.
“My idea of the halfway house…was that the people there were going to help you find a job — help you ease your way back into society,” he explained. “You have to do stuff yourself.”
So far, Daniels has been able to look for work and procure a driver’s license — privileges he did not have behind bars. But with the strict rules placed on him by the house, he still doesn’t feel like a completely free man. And he’s still not referred to by his name. Instead of “inmate,” he’s now called “client.”
“To me, it’s almost still like being an inmate,” he said. “At the same time, I understand that they’re trying to transition you. It felt alright, but at the same time I still knew the real meaning behind it. Because at any time, they can still write me up for anything and send me back to prison.”
One 2015 study suggests that living in a transitional home with educational services, substance abuse treatment, and networking opportunities reduces the likelihood of recidivating. Parolees who participated in a halfway house program were two times more likely to complete their parole than those who went straight into the community.
But not every halfway house is created equal. For people like Bell and Daniels, the experience is a mixed bag.
Some houses are heavily funded by government officials, in return for political support. Others struggle to make ends meet. Some houses offer intensive, rehabilitative programming. Others don’t offer any assistance. The Newport News house is federally owned and managed, but many houses are run by private contractors. Inmates are often transferred to private facilities so that state governments can avoid the costs of confinement. Similar to corporately-owned prisons, those halfway houses are run by companies that are more concerned with filling beds than providing rehabilitative services.
While the Newport News house has given Bell and Daniels security for the time being, some facilities are plagued with sexual assault, theft, drug use, and gang activity. For former inmates living in those conditions, the halfway house experience isn’t preparing them for full re-entry into the community.
Bridging The Gap
Many of the thousands of inmates released by Obama this past November are likely going through the same struggles. An organization like Bridging the Gap in Virginia — which is run by people who have done time and successfully reentered society — can make the transition a little easier.
Daniels found out about Bridging the Gap through Bell, and was pleasantly surprised when he went to the office.
“From what I see, I pretty much like it,” he said. “They give away clothes and stuff like that. They even got food that they feed people. I was just on a computer looking up different places to go to take up trades.” His eyes are currently set on commercial driving.
As for Bell, he’s grateful that he’s been given a second chance to work for Bridging the Gap, the organization that he once helped build. And he’s grateful for the opportunity to help his peers figure out how to cope with life after prison.
“I thank God, my higher power, for putting me in position with people who know the good that is in me, and know that I can make a difference,” he said. “I thank my parents for that upbringing … My mother would give anyone anything they needed. And I think that quality is what was instilled in me.”