Debi Smith is on a mission. It began four years ago, in March 2013, when she dropped her son off at a halfway house in North Philadelphia following his release from state prison.
It was supposed to be a short stay.
Maurice “Reese” Ingersoll had struggled for years with mental illness and substance abuse issues. Growing up in the working-class Philadelphia suburb of Bensalem, he had frequent encounters with the law. His record shows a string of low-level arrests, mostly for possession of small amounts of marijuana.
In fall 2007, however, he made a grave error of judgment that would change the course of his life.
In retaliation against a neighbor who Ingersoll believed was selling drugs to his younger brother, he constructed what a police officer described as two “very poorly-put-together Molotov cocktails,” and placed them under the man’s trailer home. The devices failed to catch but Ingersoll was identified as the perpetrator and arrested for the crime.
In 2008 he pleaded guilty to a charge of attempted arson, a felony. He was sentenced to five years in prison, released after three, and — in a narrative that has become all too commonplace in the American justice system — was soon back behind bars for violating his parole.
Ingersoll was sent to the State Correctional Institution at Frackville, a maximum-security prison near Pottsville, in Pennsylvania’s coal country. There the months stretched on, and by the end of 2012, he was once again preparing to reenter society. This time, he promised, things would be different.
At 39, Ingersoll was engaged to be married. But like many people newly released from prison he lacked stable housing. So he was paroled into one of the more than 40 halfway houses operated or contracted by Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections to provide residential reentry services.
Ingersoll landed at Community Corrections Center #2 (CCC2) in Philadelphia — one of 14 halfway houses managed by the state’s Department of Corrections. Located in an industrial corridor just north of Center City, CCC2 houses approximately 45 recently released men in a nondescript building just a stone’s throw from the parking lot of a popular Philadelphia music venue. The facility is close to public transportation, and within walking distance of the state parole and probation office; but until recently it offered no onsite programming.
As soon as his home plan was approved by his parole officer, Ingersoll intended to leave the institutional facility and move in with his fiance to start a new life.
But he would never get that chance.
Not long after he entered CCC2 he was found dead in his bunk in the dormitory-style room he shared with two other parolees. Toxicology tests revealed heroin metabolites, along with traces of the sedative clonazepam in Ingersoll’s blood. Seven tiny puncture marks were discovered on his neck. A coroner ruled the death an accidental overdose.
Ingersoll had been out of prison just 47 days.
“Reese was my best friend as well as my son, and I drove him to his death,” says a teary-eyed Smith, who blames herself for not advocating harder for her son during his incarceration. “He never had a good life. I had my first child at 14. I was a single parent and I worked a lot.”
Smith has spent the past four years telling anyone who will listen about how the system let her son down.
“He was only there five weeks and he had seven needle marks on his neck? How is that possible? No one was paying attention,” she says. “He was a drug addict, he was an arsonist, nobody cared.”
Maurice Ingersoll is not the only person to die while transitioning from prison back into the community. Studies show that in the first weeks following release from prison, an individual’s risk of death is one dozen times that of the general population. A quarter of those fatalities are attributed to drug overdose.
In Pennsylvania, from 2010 to 2015, about five ex-offenders died of a drug overdose while in the custody of a state-run or contracted community corrections facility, according to a review of DOC data released under a right-to-know request to the Abolitionist Law Center.
That’s a pretty good track record for a system that houses more than 2,000 recently released individuals at any given time, many of whom struggle with substance abuse issues. But in-custody deaths are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the numerous problems plaguing the nation’s network of residential reentry facilities — where tales of rampant drug use, violence and sexual assault have drawn widespread media attention in recent years.
Five years ago this month, The New York Times conducted a 10-month investigation of halfway houses in New Jersey, blowing the lid off a system in crisis.
The series of articles, titled “Unlocked,” focused on a network of facilities run by a private firm, Community Education Centers (CEC), and revealed a stunning lack of oversight, high rates of absconding and low morale among overburdened staff members. (CEC, which oversees five contract facilities in Pennsylvania, was recently acquired by private prison firm The GEO Group.)
The scrutiny prompted a number of states, including Pennsylvania, to reexamine their inmate reentry practices. Last year, the Keystone State’s DOC hired a new director of community corrections to launch a sweeping overhaul of its halfway house system.
But a shrinking prison budget and an influx of new parolees — many of them juvenile lifers who are expected to be released under 2014 Supreme Court guidance — threatens to hamper those efforts.
An inmate can reenter society just by walking out the door, but to reintegrate is something different.
For Philadelphia, the success of reform efforts carries meaningful consequences. About 40 percent of the state’s parolees live in the city, many of them in unmarked and largely ignored facilities. While the number of state inmates paroled to Philadelphia has declined slightly since 2013, current departmental projections predict that statewide the parole population will increase by 2,057 individuals through 2020. If trends continue, the number of people returning from prison in the city would push above 4,500.
Without some innovative thinking, there are limitations to what can be achieved and communities like Philadelphia will continue to bear the burden of a broken system, experts say.
“An inmate can reenter society just by walking out the door, but to reintegrate is something different,” says Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at the Marron Institute of Urban Management at NYU, and an expert in community corrections.
That has Kleiman and others questioning whether it’s time to do away with the halfway house model altogether in favor of an “outpatient” model offering a more individualized approach to prisoner reentry.
“An Abject Failure”
While charitable organizations have sponsored group homes for ex-convicts for more than a century, so-called “halfway houses” came to national prominence in the 1960s, when Congress passed the Prisoner Rehabilitation Act of 1965 — authorizing early release into community corrections settings for federal prisoners.
State corrections agencies followed suit, and by 1977 there were roughly 400 halfway houses around the country, serving an estimated 10,000 offenders.
According to a paper released by the Department of Justice in 1977, the primary goal of these facilities is to “assist in the reintegration of ex-offenders by increasing their ability to function in a socially acceptable manner and reducing their reliance on criminal behavior.”
A raft of studies released in the 1970s and 1980s demonstrated that community corrections produced modest success; some studies found that group housing improved outcomes even for high-risk offenders.
But as criminal justice policies stiffened in the 1980s — giving way to truth-in-sentencing laws and the growth of mandatory minimum sentences — the focus of corrections shifted away from reintegration. Many states eliminated discretionary parole; those that didn’t released people into the community with fewer resources thanks to wholesale disinvestment in prison programming (in particular, inmate education).
Some urban ZIP codes are literally saturated with individuals recently released from state prison. In many cases they struggle to find work, and grapple with untreated mental health and substance abuse issues.
Laws passed in the 1990s closed off a number of avenues to reentry, including banning most felons from living in public housing. In cities like Philadelphia, this created another hurdle for people returning from prison to overcome as they struggled to find stable housing on the private market without a paycheck or, in many cases, a credit history.
Meanwhile, prison populations began to swell with low-risk, nonviolent offenders who were ensnared in an escalating drug war.
“Forty years ago, going to prison was pretty rare. It was reserved for bad dudes,” says Kleiman. “As we’ve quintupled our inmate population, we’ve expanded the number of people who don’t need to be there. There are a whole bunch of people you can afford to let out. Period.”
As these men and women left prison, those who landed in residential reentry facilities found themselves bunking with hardened career offenders under far less supervision than they had in prison. By the early 2000s halfway houses had become havens for illegal activity, and rates of recidivism had increased — particularly for low-level offenders.
Faced with the mounting fiscal and social costs of mass incarceration, a number of states began launching so-called “justice reinvestment initiatives” designed to reduce inmate populations and improve reentry outcomes by diverting funds to community-based interventions.
By the time Pennsylvania passed its own Justice Reinvestment Initiative in 2012, however, many public officials were close to writing off community corrections as a monumental failure.
“No one disagrees with the intention of helping people reenter society as productive citizens,” said former New Jersey Assemblyman Charles Mainor, during hearings held that year in the wake of the Times reporting. “But when escapes, gang activity, drugs and sexual abuse are widespread, something is terribly wrong and unacceptable.”
Today there are more than 1,000 residential reentry facilities across the United States, Most are privately managed, but roughly a dozen states operate their own community corrections facilities.
Pennsylvania has among the highest number of state-run halfway houses in the country, with the DOC responsible for a third of the state’s residential reentry population. The remainder are housed in privately run contract facilities.
In 2013, a Pennsylvania DOC study found that people released into these facilities fared, on average, worse than those who returned to live in the wider community.
Corrections Secretary John Wetzel called the system “an abject failure.”
“The focus has been on filling up beds,” he told the The New York Times, “it hasn’t been on producing good outcomes.”
The DOC’s report substantiated findings from a study published in 2009 by criminologists at the University of Cincinnati that found deficiencies in 93 percent of Pennsylvania’s community corrections programs. These included an absence of effective programming, poor risk-assessment metrics and low staff engagement.
Overall, halfway houses run by the DOC produced better outcomes than privately managed facilities, with one glaring exception: CCC2 — where Maurice Ingersoll would take his last breath.
That facility produced the highest recidivism rates in the state. More than a quarter of the men housed at CCC2 were rearrested or reincarcerated within their first year of release, and 67 percent reoffended within three years.
Since her son’s death, Smith has waged a frustrating one-woman campaign for justice. She blames officials at CCC2 for failing to provide a safe environment for her son.
Smith says his counselor at the facility was frequently absent, and had a habit of losing his paperwork. It took a month for Ingersoll to begin receiving medication for his mental health issues, according to copies of his prescriptions provided to Next City.
A photocopy of a request he made for a one-night home pass to visit his fiance a week before his death shows that it was returned to him 10 days after he submitted it — five days after the visit was supposed to take place. His paperwork was returned to him the day before he fatally overdosed. Scrawled on the bottom was the message from his counselor: “This date passed in my absence.”
When Ingersoll attempted to advocate for himself, Smith says his counselor became adversarial.
“She told him she could make trouble for him, that he should just keep quiet and deal with it,” Smith says. As the days passed Ingersoll — who had bipolar disorder — became increasingly agitated, other facility residents reported. Smith believes his mental state contributed to his relapse to heroin.
By far the biggest mystery, though, is how Ingersoll obtained the drugs that killed him, and why — in a DOC facility that is required to drug test residents twice a month — no one at CCC2 noticed he was getting high.
In the months following Ingersoll’s death Smith filed an official complaint with the DOC, wrote letters to the medical examiner about inconsistencies she says she discovered in her son’s autopsy report, and even consulted with attorneys about filing a civil rights lawsuit. They concluded there was not sufficient evidence of deliberate indifference to Ingersoll’s well being.
“My son told me, and I told state investigators, that everyone in the place was selling drugs, even the staff, but the state says they didn’t find any cause to suspect it was true,” she says.
Richard Gallagher, who was transferred to CCC2 a year after Ingersoll’s death, substantiated some of Smith’s claims regarding drug use at the halfway house.
“We had to get a pass just to get out at first, and when you came back you passed through a metal detector, and were given a breathalyzer test. Then they would search your person,” he explains. “But they weren’t doing that every time. People could always sneak stuff in and there was stuff in there. I never saw guards selling anything, but there were drugs. Something’s not right there.”
The DOC’s own investigation of Ingersoll’s death revealed a series of breakdowns at CCC2, including a failure to administer required bimonthly urine tests despite “repeated email orders” to do so.
In February and March 2013, for instance, CCC2 officials conducted fewer than half of the required drug tests, the DOC’s investigators found. During his nearly two months at CCC2 Ingersoll was tested only once, by his parole officer.
Smith is convinced that with better management and oversight her son would still be alive. She bristles that no one was ever held accountable for his death. (Ingersoll’s counselor received “coaching sessions for work performance issues” following his death. She has since left the DOC. The center’s director at the time, Sharronna Holmes, is now a regional director of drug and alcohol services for Gaudenzia, a private facility. Attempts to contact Holmes for comment were routed to Gaudenzia’s corporate office. As of press time, phone messages were not returned.)
“There was just too much inconsistency, nobody cared. … The state protects itself,” Smith says.
The issue of community corrections reform is complicated by the extent of misunderstanding that some have about the DOC’s goals and responsibilities. The majority of individuals housed in either DOC-run or contract community corrections facilities aren’t prisoners. They are, for all intents and purposes, free men and women on parole who simply don’t have an approved environment to go back to.
Community corrections facilities are designed to provide a secure living environment that allows residents to seek employment and appropriate housing options.
While there are rules and structure, residents are largely free to come and go as they please. Their time is loosely managed. There is a daily curfew, and individuals are encouraged to look for work. But once they leave the front door — which most do daily — there’s nothing keeping them from getting in trouble.
A recent midday visit to CCC2 revealed a clean and orderly facility with inspirational messages stenciled on a bright orange wall. Residents can access computers to look for work. A bulletin board offers information on offsite reentry support. A common room includes a large screen television and a pool table; but only a handful of residents were present. Most were working, or were out (ostensibly) looking for employment.
A resident encountered outside the facility spoke well of CCC2’s support systems.
“The counselors here want us to succeed,” he said. “It’s a mind-set with a lot of these guys. If you don’t use the resources available that’s on you.”
Some resources are still lacking. Most contract facilities provide on-site mental health and addiction treatment, but in state-run facilities, support services are provided off-site for those who need it. Residents are required to feed themselves.
When University of Cincinnati researchers visited Pennsylvania’s CCCs in 2009, they discovered only a handful had on-site programming.
With the exception of housing inmates on “pre-release” — a program the DOC eliminated in 2013 that allowed some offenders to transition out of prison early — the evidence suggests that state-run halfway houses in Pennsylvania have served as little more than warehousing facilities for parolees without a home.
Gallagher, who was at CCC2 as part of the State Intermediate Punishment (SIP) program for drug offenders, spent 11 and a half months at the halfway house and was eventually sent back to Graterford Prison for violating his parole by driving a car to work.
“It would have been nice to get out of there, that was supposed to be part of the program was that during my SIP time I get used to being outside on my own,” he says. “I spent most of my time at CCC2. I couldn’t get out except to go to work and back.”
Critics say that conflicts with the original mission of community corrections.
“It is important to keep in mind that halfway houses are expected to do more than be safe havens for people transitioning from prison to the community,” said Nancy Wolff, director of the E.J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers, in testimony before the New Jersey legislature. “More generally, they are expected to facilitate and support the reintegration process by providing reentry related programming.”
Last year the DOC hired an outsider to help move the agency closer to this goal.
George Little has spent decades in corrections administration, and was most recently the chief administrative officer and chief of staff for the city of Memphis.
Prior to that he served as the commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Corrections, and assistant to the executive director of the Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole.
Little says one of the first things he noticed upon taking his new role was a lack of synergy between the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole (PBPP) and DOC’s community corrections staff.
“One thing that jumped out at me was the disconnect in terms of our role and parole supervision with the vast number of reentrants,” says Little. “It’s like running a bed-and-breakfast where we set the table but we didn’t have any say over who showed up or what they ate.”
Indeed, parole officers are the de facto gatekeepers to the community corrections system. By far the largest number of reentrants in halfway houses can only get out one of two ways — with the approval of their parole officer, or by maxing out their sentences.
CCC2’s newest director, Jacqueline Rupert, explains that the majority of reentrants in her facility are working to establish home plans.
“From here they can submit a plan to go anywhere, a friend or relative or their own place, and then we submit it to parole and they do an assessment,” says Rupert. “If it’s a suitable place to live [parole] lets us know and they get released from here.”
She says the average stay for a reentrant is three to six months.
Yet there are a number of factors that can negatively impact a home plan.
Individuals who vouch for a returning inmate must own their own home, or else get permission from the landlord they are renting from — which disproportionately challenges low-income offenders. Public housing is frequently off limits, as are homes with large dogs, or cases where a proposed home provider does not acknowledge the offender did anything wrong.
One online commenter on a prison talk forum claims her husband’s parole agent denied his home plan due to a restraining order she filed against him 10 years earlier. She also happened to be the woman sponsoring the plan.
Everyone that comes into these programs has a story. They might not tell you about it, but this isn’t happening in a vacuum. This is a community problem.
These formalities can extend the length of time an individual spends in a halfway house.
Employment is another barrier. While more than 99 percent of parolees are considered “able to work,” only about a third have jobs.
“The challenge is getting the inmate the services that are appropriate, and there is a limited number of treatment offerings and job programs,” says Rupert. “The biggest challenge is employment. If I could have one thing it would be jobs for all these guys. There just aren’t enough of them.”
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney has said that increasing employment opportunities for returning citizens is a priority for his administration. The Mayor’s Office of Reintegration Services (RISE) is just two blocks from CCC2 and coordinates employment support for the facility’s residents.
Once a week, the 43 reentrants at CCC2 meet with one of the facility’s two counselors to discuss their progress. Individuals who are struggling are provided extra support or directed to outside services that have contracts with the DOC.
Rupert explained that residents with mental or physical disabilities (like Ingersoll) often have the hardest time transitioning out of her facility.
“The guys that are here longer, the ones we have the most issues with, are those that are disabled,” she says, “because they can’t find employment and they have to apply for Social Security, and sometimes that can take well over a year for that whole process.”
Beyond diagnosed mental health conditions, experts say that many former inmates returning to the community show symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder that present unique challenges.
“We hear all kinds of stories, but overall I think people get in the system and they don’t know how to get out,” says LaTrista Webb, a social worker and executive director of the group The Elevation Project. “Everyone that comes into these programs has a story. They might not tell you about it, but this isn’t happening in a vacuum. This is a community problem.”
The Coming Surge
In 2016, thanks to the impact of its Justice Reinvestment Initiative, Pennsylvania saw its largest decline in prison population in four decades. Yet over the past five years the state’s parole population has swelled.
The state parole board currently supervises more than 40,000 people, and has the largest number of ex-offenders under supervision in the nation. It also has among the highest rates of juvenile lifers — more than 500 — many of whom will wind up in halfway housing following resentencing.
The DOC will soon be required to do more, with less. In February, when Governor Tom Wolf released his latest budget proposal, it included a new round of belt-tightening for the Department of Corrections.
In addition to closing two state prisons, the budget calls for cutting $40 million from its contracted community corrections budget. The state plans to cut its current capacity of more than 3,000 residential reentry beds in half.
Little says the place to start is addressing issues while people are still in prison, and emptying community corrections beds of people who don’t need them.
“I want to get [the DOC] more reentry focused. You begin preparing the inmate for reentry the day they arrive in prison,” he says.
As for halfway houses: “Low-risk reentrants need to go home,” he says. “We’ve already identified hundreds of individuals who could probably be in the community.”
Kleiman, of the Marron Institute, says that “raises the question of whether you can run prison on an outpatient basis.”
This summer, Kleiman will help the state of Illinois begin piloting an innovative new model of community corrections known as “graduated reentry.”
“What’s wrong with the release process? It’s way too sudden,” says Kleiman. “We know, for instance, that there are enormous stress levels among prisoners before they are released. So we asked how we could make the transition more gradual.”
Graduated reentry, which Kleiman refers to as “training wheels for freedom,” involves letting inmates back into the community six months before their minimum release date and housing them in individual apartments under close supervision.
Reentrants under the pilot program will be assigned a corrections officer to monitor their activities and a mentor in the community to guide them through support services.
The program will make use of technology, including webcams in each living unit, as well as GPS monitoring. Instead of many boundaries on behavior, graduated reentry will make use of a small number of very stiff rules, such as a curfew.
“The basic problem with community supervision is you have too many rules and not a lot of ways to enforce them,” says Kleiman. “The more rules you have, the more opportunities there are to break them. And there has to be rewards built in for good behavior as well.”
A report on justice reinvestment in Pennsylvania reinforces the potential of this approach — finding that reductions in prison terms can create savings for reinvesting into community interventions.
But since the state has eliminated pre-release by statute, developing a graduated reentry program in Pennsylvania would require legislative action, says Kleiman.
Since introducing new performance metrics for private vendors, the DOC has experienced double-digit reductions in recidivism at its contracted halfway houses. That’s helped drive the average three-year recidivism rate for state parolees below 50 percent.
The goal is now to create a uniform approach that can drive similar improvements in state-managed facilities like CCC2.
“On the whole, if we’re not there now, which we might not be, I think the goal is to get us all on the same level, and to all have the same rules,” says Rupert, who has been at CCC2 for about a year. “Leadership is really important. I try to explain to my staff the importance of what we do and why we do what we do and I think for the most part they are on board with it.”
That news is bittersweet for Smith, who says the changes have come too late to save her son.
“I’m very sad and very angry that it took the death of my child to make them decide it was time to make a changes,” she says, “but I hope that because of all the trouble I stirred up — and believe me I stirred up a lot of trouble — that maybe I was able to save somebody else’s life.”
Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.