The Halfway-House Manager Who’s Trying to Keep His Clients Out of Jail

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Steve, 31*
Head case manager at a private halfway house
New York

I work for a halfway house in New Jersey, which is owned by a private correctional company. They have contracts with the federal and state governments in about 30 states around America. The guys who live there have just come out of prison and are reintegrating into society for anywhere from three to six months. If they do well, they’re allowed to go back to the community.

There is no normal day. I might go to court, advocate on behalf of these guys, or supervise the security and case-management teams. Today we spent the morning out in the cold, shoveling snow. If there are severe emergencies, I’ll handle that. It’s 24/7.

A guy might get high so we have to take him to the hospital, a fight, a guy going missing, escapes — these are all the things that keep me up at night. If you’re on call during a weekend, if you’re planning a night out with your friends, you’re going to have to calibrate that back a little bit because, worst-case scenario, you might have to go back to the facility.

We have a wide variety of charges. We could have a murderer, an arsonist, someone who did time after a gun crime or robbery, burglary. But I’d say the most prevalent are low- to mid-level drug offenses. We mostly see Hispanic and African-American men between their early 20s and 40.

I have some family members who work in law enforcement, so that kind of piqued my interest when I came out of college around 2008. The economy was struggling and this happened to be one of the only fields I could get into, and I’ve been in this field ever since.

I was at a nonprofit for about three, four years. Then I got another job at this private place. When I started I had preconceived notions about private companies getting involved with the prison industry, but after working in the residential facility, I really saw no difference between it and the nonprofit, other than that the private company has more resources.

I started from the very bottom. I’ve worked in security and case management. I went from 100 resident contact, to where I’m at now.

Case management is brutal. You get involved with their families and you connect with a good majority of your clients, as long as they’re not complete a-holes. You invest your time in them; you have to invest in them at least a little bit emotionally. When they do well, you feel that sense of gratitude — that’s what keeps you going. It’s a brutal field. The worst of it, the lowest of the low, is when you see a guy who you think is going to do great go back out into the community, only to end up back in the system a couple of years later. That’ll deplete you. It’s a vicious cycle, with the ups and downs.

I could tell about 100 of those cats who haunt me. When I first started, I had a guy who was a real hardhead. He was about my age; we were both pretty young at the time — probably mid-20s. He was in jail for about five years. He had a vicious temper. He would always get in my face and I’d have to check him a little bit. I did what I could, worked with him one-on-one. Once he saw that I was willing to buy into him, he started to crack. And eventually I got him into a community college and things were going well. He was working part-time; he even got off parole. About a year and a half later, I was in downtown Newark — which isn’t exactly the best part of town, but there was a local pub I went to. Anyway, I saw him outside. He was begging for change and it looked like he was cracked out.

It made me think, What are you even doing at this point? Over the years you get used to all that. I don’t want to say you become numb … but you definitely get desensitized. The more you see something, the less it surprises you.

If you talk to anybody in my field who says they’ve never been jaded, they’re lying. We’ve all felt jaded. I’m a rarity in this field, staying this long. I’ve seen people leave after two weeks. When I was working at the nonprofit, it was my three-year anniversary and my boss said, “I can’t believe you’re still here. I thought you’d be gone after the first year.” I said, “Thanks for having confidence in me.”

Nine years later, I can say this: You have to have a healthy work-life balance. It’s hard to get that, but you need it. Once you walk out the door, whatever’s in that building you have to leave behind, or else you’re burned out, you can’t do it — you have to go to another field. I do a pretty good job of that. I drop it. Walk out the door. I’ll worry about it at 8 a.m. tomorrow. It has to become a ritual.

When I first started, I would go to the bar afterward. As I matured I learned healthier ways to deal with it: either talking through it with my bosses and getting stuff off my chest, or playing sports and working out. That really helped, and that’s what I’ve been doing recently. Like I said, experience is the best way to get through things. Now that I’ve seen everything, nothing’s shocking anymore. Thirty-one-year-old me is a lot better equipped to handle situations than 22-year-old me.

I talk to my regional boss at least four or five times a week, and I try to put that from the top down for my staff as well. I try to interact with them and talk with them every day. If you do something well, I’m more apt to pat you on the back for praise, than yell at you for something you did wrong. You really have to screw up for me to yell at you. I’m probably going to praise you five times before I yell at you once. That’s how you keep employees and you get them not to quit.

Everybody thinks people in the criminal-justice field are all gung ho, and all they want to do is lock people up. I’m the opposite: I want to get people out of prison. I want to help them stay out of prison. That is my motivation. I don’t want to put you in jail — I want to help you stay out.

I was malleable when I came out of college. Like I said, the economy drove me toward this first position I had at the nonprofit agency. Then I studied up through the guys they had on my case load and did some research and realized: You know what? Society might think you’re a bad person, but after talking to you for all these months and getting to know you and learning about your case — they all say they’re innocent — you might have gotten a raw deal. You’re not so bad. That’s what motivated me to help the guys out — guys or girls.

But, of course, things still get to me. Say I see an older guy who’s mid-60s who’s been in and out of jail his entire life; his family has cut him off, and maybe all his friends are getting killed or they all left him, and he has no place to live. That’s got to be the loneliest feeling in the world, being a guy who’s been in and out of jail for 40 years with no prospects. Even after all these years, I really empathize with that particular kind of person.

I’m big on giving respect and then getting respect back, so I try to have that relationship with all the residents. I never feel scared; this isn’t a maximum-security prison, it’s a halfway house. That being said, you always have to be on your toes because you’re dealing with guys who have committed violent crimes or have mental-health issues that could go off any minute.

De-escalation is key. They feel they’ve been wronged, so they want to be heard. You try to give them a healthy, quiet, safe environment to be heard, without causing problems for other people. You’re basically just hearing them out. That’s the one thing they want. They want their voice to be heard, their problems heard and addressed. That’s the biggest problem.

My current position could definitely support a family if I didn’t live in Manhattan. In this day and age, it’d have to be a two-parent system. This salary probably couldn’t handle two, three kids. Before I got promoted to this position, I had my foot out the door because of the lack of pay for lower-level staff. I was applying to jobs; I had a few interviews with different agencies who were paying a little more. As luck would have it, I got promoted and I’m pretty comfortable. Having said that, my ideal goal would be to work for the Bureau of Prisons or United States Parole [Commission] — a government agency where you could put in 20, 25 years and get a pension on your way out and still work pretty much wherever you want. This field has a retirement plan, but who knows what that’s going to be like in 20, 25 years? Nothing’s guaranteed. I do try to take it day-by-day, but everybody has to think long-term at least some of the time. I’m good where I’m at. My girlfriend’s good where she’s at. If we decide to start a family in the next few years, it will definitely not be on this island. Maybe Staten Island.

Maybe it was three years ago that the federal government launched an initiative to reduce convictions on crack offenses, because they treated crack like five times worse than regular cocaine. Obama made a big initiative to treat crack equally as cocaine. From that, we saw the residual effects in our industry. I can’t put a number on it, but a good amount of residents or inmates were released from our prisons, halfway houses, day-reporting centers, just because of that one swoop of action. That led to other agencies being more lenient, too. Where I’m working currently, maybe ten years ago, a guy on the street would probably be given a drug test by his parole officer. Say he tests positive for whatever — marijuana, cocaine maybe — they would have thrown him right in jail, whereas today they get another chance.

I voted for Hillary. You can probably tell that I’m a liberal. I’m pretty much against the prison industry. Having said that, however, throughout the election cycle — I’m not even talking personally about my own company — the industry itself was going, even the stock prices dipping, as Hillary became more and more of a clear favorite, because everybody thought she was going to win. During one of the debates, she announced she wanted to get rid of private prison. Private-prison stocks dropped the next day. I think it was back in September. I’m dead serious. Then, obviously, when Trump pulled off the shocker of all shockers, running with his aggressive agenda of locking everybody that’s an illegal immigrant up, the stock shot back higher than even what it was before the debate. Our industry is obviously pro-Trump. All you have to do is look at the numbers.

I’ve been in the industry ten years now, but I’ll often look up some of my favorite guys from the past to see if they’re still out of prison. If I see that a guy got locked up again, I’ll go, like, “Ah, damn.” But if I see he was released back in ’08 or ’09 and I was dealing with him directly in 2010 — say it’s been about seven years now — hopefully he’s doing good. That gives me a little solace, a little peace of mind. Every once in a while, I’ll read an article about a drug bust and I’ll think of Mr. Jones. I’ll wonder how he’s doing. Then I’ll go off and start looking up other guys …

* Name has been changed.

The Case Manager Who’s Trying to Keep Clients Out of Prison