After 9,135 days of confinement in federal prisons of every security level, my wife, Carole, picked me up on August 13, 2012. We married inside of a prison visiting room a decade before, but that morning was the first time we’d ever alone together. Unfortunately, we weren’t going to be alone for long. Authorities gave me a three-hour pass to drive from the federal prison in Atwater to a halfway house in the Tenderloin district in San Francisco.
Prior to arriving at the halfway house, I had heard a lot about it. Several friends that I had known while I was in prison transitioned to the same halfway house in San Francisco, so I had lots of feedback from them. None of it was good. They complained about the neighborhood, describing the Tenderloin as being one of the worst in the city. Many homeless people lived outside the halfway house. People urinated and defecated in the streets. There was a robust market for street drugs. Besides the immediate vicinity outside of the halfway house, they said, inside was just as bad.
I’ve written extensively about my quarter-century odyssey through America’s prison system and chronicled it all in my book Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term. Those who’ve read my work know that I concluded my final decade in minimum-security camps, including Taft Federal Prison Camp, Lompoc Federal Prison Camp, and Atwater Federal Prison Camp.
People who served time in minimum-security camps did not have documented histories of violence. That wasn’t going to be the case in a halfway house.
In the halfway house, I was told I would have to mix with prisoners of all stripes, people who came from prisons of every security level. That didn’t bother me so much, as I served the first decade of my term in higher security prisons, and I’ve walked through many puddles of blood. So violent prisoners didn’t intimidate me to the same extent as others in minimum-security camp.
The housing conditions, I was told, would be horrible in the halfway house. Staff members would be intolerant. I was told to expect that the halfway house would be some of the worst time that I served, and I was scheduled to serve my final year inside of a halfway house.
None of those descriptions deterred me. When Carole picked me up on the morning of August 13, 2012, I was filled with optimism. I was excited to spend those three hours in the car with my wife, and to embrace whatever change was to come at the halfway house. All I knew was that the halfway house would offer more liberty than prison, and that was good enough for me.
Carole dropped me off outside the halfway house at 111 Taylor Street in the early afternoon. Just as I’d been told, there were many homeless people loitering around the corner. When I left the prison, administrators passed me a few dollars from my commissary account and I was so giddy about being free that I passed them out to some guys on the corner, hoping they used it to buy food rather than drugs.
The halfway house is an old hotel, I think. I walked inside and a staff member introduced herself as Sally. Sally? I didn’t understand. She shook my hand. That didn’t make any sense. In federal prison we weren’t allowed to interact with guards in such a way. Prison policies discouraged any type of relationship between prisoners and staff; they preferred to keep a strict separation between staff members and offenders. I loved it when Sally shook my hand and called me by my first name, and introduced herself by her first name. Things were looking up.
When I checked into the halfway house, I was allowed to bring personal belongings inside with me. That included an iPhone. I couldn’t believe it. My wife had purchased an iPhone for me, but I didn’t really think that I’d get to carry the phone inside. But Sally told me it would be fine. She checked me in and showed me to my room.
I was assigned to a two-man room. It had a bunk bed and its own bathroom. I could close the door and be alone because my roommate, whom I did not know, was at work. The door to my room had a lock on it. For the first time in longer than 25 years, I had privacy. Although others spoke horrendously about the halfway house, from my perspective, it was the Palace of Versailles.
Within a few days, I received my first pass to leave the halfway house and walk to the DMV. I needed to get valid identification. Since I had a job waiting for me upon my release from prison, four days after I checked into the halfway house, a staff member authorized me to go to work. I couldn’t believe it. Whereas only one week previously I was being reprimanded for chewing gum in prison, suddenly I was free to navigate my way around the magnificent streets of San Francisco. That pass allowed me to leave the halfway house early in the morning and I didn’t have to return until the early evening. It was extraordinary, better than anything I’ve ever known since 1987, when my federal prison term began. I didn’t even mind going back to the halfway house because I had my iPhone with me. I spoke on the phone, or experimented with the Internet. It was the first time I sent a text message, an email, surfed the Web, or watched a YouTube video. These experiences felt amazing, more than I have the skill to describe with words.
Not everyone has the same halfway house experience. In fact, others with whom I’ve spoken detest their time in the halfway house. All they see is frustration. Some have told me that they would prefer to return to prison. Others have returned to prison rather than stay in the halfway house.
Like anything else, time in the halfway house is a matter of perspective. Since I served decades in prison, without any privacy at all and with the iron boot of corrections pressing down on my neck, I had a different perspective from most others who experience the halfway house. But then again, since I’m gone for more than half of every day, I’m only there to sleep. I’ve never eaten a meal there, nor have I ever accepted a visitor there. Why should I? I leave every day, and now I’m spending weekends at home. In February of 2013, I will transition to home confinement. I’ll still be under the conditions of the halfway house, and I understand that I’ll have to wear an ankle bracelet, but for the first time, I’ll be able to live with my wife. That seems incomprehensible to me. Children have a word for the feeling, I think. It’s supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.