Reentering Society from the Hillsborough Residential Reentry Center in Tampa
Upon being released from federal prison nearly six months ago, I left with a set of expectations about what I might encounter during my stay at the halfway house. Unfortunately, however, nothing could have prepared me for what I would ultimately encounter there.
Leaving prison after spending nearly 17 years inside, I expected the usual bureaucracy and mundane blind adherence to overly restrictive regulations, but I also looked for some form of support and guidance.
Luckily for me, I wasn’t in need of much. Before I left federal prison, a friend and attorney offered me a job. Working as a paralegal, starting out at $50 an hour. I planned on living with my family temporarily until the job provided me with enough money to get a car and place of my own.
My plan seemed reasonable enough. Which is precisely where I went wrong—expecting a logical outcome. For a month, I was led to believe that working as a paralegal and making decent money was a possibility. My boss happened to be a Georgetown professor of law and I had numerous letters of recommendation, including one from another friend and law professor who works for the University of California.
After more than a month of waiting and making arrangements, my request to work as a paralegal was denied. At the same time, the program manager gave me an ultimatum: Find a suitable job in two weeks or get sent back to prison. I thought I’d stepped out of prison with a great plan to support myself and even had the people in place to help me accomplish this; yet halfway house officials and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) apparently had a different plan—one that didn’t give much consideration to the notion of whether I became successful or failed.
In dealing with the BOP, logic doesn’t seem to prevail in any facet of the agency’s operations. My request to work as a paralegal was denied due to lack of a suitable location, which made no sense whatsoever. I agreed—at the request of halfway house officials—to GPS monitoring. A long-time family friend and veteran correctional worker agreed to let me work from her residence. The location had an appropriate land line to facilitate regular accountability checks. Yet halfway house officials and the BOP were concerned about establishing my whereabouts.
Meanwhile, numerous people housed at Hillsborough Residential Reentry Center were regularly allowed to work construction jobs and truck drivers, where locations change on a routine basis and landlines aren’t available to establish a particular resident’s actual whereabouts.
So I took the first minimum wage position I could find to avoid going back to federal prison. I worked there for nearly five months while I waited for my home detention eligibility date to arrive, doing so because halfway house officials led me to believe that once I reached this date taking the position as a paralegal would be approved.
At the job I was basically forced to take, my pay was roughly $450 every two weeks. Since my contract with Hillsborough County Residential Reentry Center required me to pay subsistence fees equal to 25% of my gross wages, approximately $112 of my $450 check went to the halfway house. Another $40 every two weeks went toward bus fare. The math doesn’t lie—this left me with very little money to apply toward my goal of saving for a car and place to live, especially when you consider that I had just spent the past 17 years in prison. Whereas, working as a paralegal would have netted me at least $1000 per week and placed me in a far better position to support myself in the near future. But that only matters to me. The people in charge could not care less.
Since it was virtually impossible to save money under the circumstances, I asked halfway house officials to consider a reduction in the amount of subsistence that was being collected from me. I waited three months after making the request and never received an answer. The only hope I had was being able to take the paralegal position once my home detention eligibility date arrived on February 3, 2018.
This was the proverbial carrot they dangled in front of me for six months, so I played along satisfying their expectations. But when that day actually came . . . neither the promise of home detention nor being allowed to work as a paralegal ever materialized.
The Statement of Work (SOW) regulations governing Residential Reentry Centers (RRC) clearly provides for the type of employment I requested. The SOW also emphasizes making an effort to place residents in positions that will develop into long-term employment commensurate with their skill level. But, in practice, that’s simply isn’t what takes place.
Walking out, I thought the halfway house and BOP would have been overjoyed that I had such a great job lined up. But they’re only interested in warehousing people and collecting money from them. Dead end entry-level jobs are the only acceptable means of employment they’ll approve—paying the same low wages that drive people to engage in criminal activity, to begin with.
The state of reentry in this country—particularly at Hillsborough Residential Reentry Center in Tampa—is dismal. If, as many experts agree, reentry plays such a vital role in reducing recidivism, the business model for community corrections at the federal level is in desperate need of reform. Like so many others, I’m interested to see what the Trump administration has in the works when it comes to recent commitments to change the current system. Until then, however, corporations like Goodwill in Tampa are going to continue to profit from offering substandard services that often stifle—rather than promote—successful reentry.