Out of Prison, Into Alt-Prison

The industry profiting from prison halfway houses.

Katie Rose Quandt April 15, 2020

(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

HOUS­TON — Hen­ry Thig­pen left prison in 2017 for the South­east Texas Tran­si­tion­al Cen­ter (ST TC), a 500-bed halfway house in Hous­ton oper­at­ed by GEO Group, a com­pa­ny bet­ter known for its pri­vate pris­ons. Halfway hous­es are meant to ease the tran­si­tion from incar­cer­a­tion to inde­pen­dent liv­ing, offer­ing res­i­dents access to employ­ment, hous­ing, coun­sel­ing and oth­er reen­try ser­vices. Some fin­ish up prison sen­tences there or go as an alter­na­tive to jail. Thig­pen and the oth­ers at STTC were parolees with no home plan,” required to stay until they found sta­ble employ­ment and housing.

When Hur­ri­cane Har­vey hit Hous­ton in sum­mer 2017, GEO Group didn’t evac­u­ate. Thig­pen says he awoke to a flood­ed first floor with staff nowhere to be seen. We had water every­where,” he says. I’m talk­ing up to our knees. And the guys in wheel­chairs, they were just sit­ting there.” Fear­ing they would be sent back to prison if they fled, res­i­dents say they spent the next four days in the flood­ed facil­i­ty with­out food or water. 

GEO Group and Core­Civic, which oper­ate 80% of U.S. pri­vate pris­ons, are fac­ing increas­ing back­lash with law­suits and alle­ga­tions of abysmal con­di­tions in their pris­ons and immi­grant deten­tion cen­ters. Less atten­tion has been paid, how­ev­er, to the ways these com­pa­nies prof­it from sup­posed alter­na­tives to incar­cer­a­tion, used by the two-thirds of peo­ple in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem on parole or pro­ba­tion. Over the past decade, GEO and Core­Civic have pub­licly embraced the lan­guage of crim­i­nal jus­tice reform while acquir­ing small­er com­pa­nies and non­prof­its that spe­cial­ize in com­mu­ni­ty cor­rec­tions,” includ­ing day report­ing cen­ters, elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing, and drug and alco­hol treat­ment programs. 

GEO and Core­Civic sup­port­ed the fed­er­al First Step Act, for exam­ple, signed into law Decem­ber 2018. In addi­tion to mod­est sen­tenc­ing reforms, the leg­is­la­tion encour­aged pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ships to car­ry out a $375 mil­lion expan­sion of reen­try ser­vices. As of 2018, GEO boast­ed 48 res­i­den­tial and 66 non­res­i­den­tial reen­try facil­i­ties, and Core­Civic oper­at­ed 27 reen­try cen­ters in six states. In addi­tion to gov­ern­ment con­tracts, the com­pa­nies often col­lect fees from res­i­dents. Thig­pen says he was required to turn over 25% of any wages he earned to STTC. 

Many court-ordered halfway hous­es, includ­ing those oper­at­ed by states and non­prof­its, have his­to­ries of mis­man­age­ment and unsuc­cess­ful out­comes. One 2013 Penn­syl­va­nia study found that peo­ple sent to halfway hous­es— pri­vate and pub­lic — were actu­al­ly more like­ly to recidi­vate than those released direct­ly from prison. But some data sug­gests high­er rates of recidi­vism in pri­vate­ly run reen­try pro­grams, accord­ing to a 2019 overview in Crim­i­nol­o­gy & Pub­lic Pol­i­cy.

Prison rights advo­cates argue the fun­da­men­tal busi­ness mod­el of pri­vate prison com­pa­nies puts them in con­flict with the goals of reen­try. In some cas­es, cor­po­ra­tions have the abil­i­ty to hold peo­ple to stricter stan­dards than the court ordered: In 2017, one com­pa­ny was ordered to stop forc­ing pro­ba­tion­ers in Geor­gia to sub­mit to (and pay for) non-man­dat­ed drug testing.

At Thigpen’s flood­ed halfway house, he says res­i­dents car­ried those who weren’t mobile to high­er floors. All the peo­ple on psych med­ica­tion, we had them in one area,” he says. They were freak­ing out. Hol­ler­ing, scream­ing all night, say­ing they need med­ica­tion or just break­ing out and try­ing to run into the water.” With­out his own med­ica­tion, my blood pres­sure was so high, I could feel it. I was dizzy. I was throw­ing up.”

When the water final­ly reced­ed, Thig­pen says, armed staff returned and took them to prison. If that’s not trau­ma­tiz­ing, I don’t know what is,” he says. After he was released four months lat­er to the repaired halfway house, Thig­pen col­lect­ed affi­davits and med­ical records from fel­low res­i­dents and filed an ongo­ing, 200-plain­tiff law­suit, alleg­ing that GEO com­plete­ly and utter­ly failed them dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Harvey.”

There has been some local push­back against the com­pa­nies’ move into reen­try. In August 2019, Den­ver Coun­cil­woman Can­di Cde­Ba­ca led a sur­pris­ing vote to reject renewed con­tracts for GEO and Core­Civic halfway hous­es. Den­ver is now weigh­ing alter­na­tives, includ­ing chang­ing its zon­ing for halfway house con­struc­tion and pur­chas­ing the pri­vate­ly owned facil­i­ties to lease to a com­mu­ni­ty-based non­prof­it— although Cde­Ba­ca not­ed the com­pa­nies com­mand a high price.”

Cde­Ba­ca said pri­vate prison com­pa­nies’ move into reen­try has been bril­liant, actu­al­ly, to see how they adapt­ed, not only to dom­i­nate halfway hous­es but also ankle mon­i­tor­ing, drug tests — all of those ele­ments asso­ci­at­ed with fake free­dom’ — and all the while ful­ly expect­ing them to cycle through the revolv­ing door back to prison.”

Advo­cates are up against pow­er­ful forces. As Thig­pen says of GEO, This is a world­wide com­pa­ny that has these kinds of facil­i­ties all over the world.”

Katie Rose Quandt is a Brook­lyn-based reporter who writes about social jus­tice, pris­ons and inequal­i­ty. Katie Rose Quandts work has appeared in Slate, Moth­er Jones, Bill​Moy​ers​.com and In These Times.
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