A halfway house, or a residential reentry center (RRC), is designed to help inmates readjust to the civilian world. The Bureau of Prisons and the Department of Justice have contracts with private companies that provide housing in local communities for the inmates, counseling, job placement, money management assistance, and sometimes schooling for advance careers. Halfway houses are also supposed to help inmates regain their family and community ties. All these services are provided under the supervision of the halfway house staff and the federal probation department.
To my understanding, the federal government contracts these services out to contractors because they can do it much cheaper than if the federal government does it, according to one of the staff members at the halfway house.
The halfway house I was living in was owned by a company called GEO Care, a subsidiary of The GEO Group. Toward the end of my sentence, the contract for GEO Care lapsed and the government contracted with Cornell Corporation until October 2018, according to their website. However, Cornell Corporation is owned by The GEO Group, which purchased the corporation for $685 million in 2013.
Cornell Corporation had been in the correctional business since 1973 with juvenile operations. As the company grew, they began providing adult community-based programs, such as halfway houses, and then doing adult secure operations, like prisons, in 1984.
GEO Group had been in business for over 20 years and had over 2,700 parolees and probationers in 20 RRCs throughout the country. The group made $1.61 billion in revenue in 2011, according though The GEO Group website, and has operations and facilities in three continents.
I bring up these facts because the Oakland halfway house seemed to offer very little assistance to inmates. The companies seemed to be more focused on making money and not spending money. The job training was terrible, and the counseling did nothing to help us readjust. All these staff members really cared about was making sure their bosses got their checks and the halfway house kept the contract with the government.
GEO Care employees at that halfway house were paid $11.00 at the time I was there, which was pretty low in Oakland. Rumor had it that one employee had two jobs. GEO Care gave the halfway house employees just enough tools to perform their job. The employees seemed very stressed out because of overwork and high demands from their superiors. I overheard many of the employees complain about long hours and working as much as seven days straight. The employees also complained about running out of supplies for themselves and for residents’ chores. It seemed to me that the company barely gave enough supplies, resources, and staffing to do the job. It gave me the impression that the corporation’s plan was to do the minimum needed to keep the government contract.
The assistant director of the halfway house told me that he and the head director made less money than their federal counterparts because the company wasn’t considered a federal or government institution. It was considered a privately owned business. It was basically a low-cost, outsourced prison camp. As I understood it, the government felt that nonviolent criminals were low-risk and safe to interact with the community because of the programming from prison and camp. The house would save the government money by not having to pay federal staff wages and benefits.
The halfway house felt as if it was trying to save money by cutting as many corners as possible. The food was edible but didn’t taste very good most of the time. We were rarely allowed seconds and the portions were according to what was available and the suggestions of the catering company. Although the television was new, the living room furniture and the bedding were cheap like the prison camp’s. The living room had a bookshelf with old board games, dominoes, and books.
To my knowledge, the halfway house made money from the federal government and residents’ payments. Federal money was dependent on the staff teaching and conducting workshops and classes for the residents. Employed residents were required to give the house 25% of their income before taxes. I’ll talk more about that in the programming section.