Those who believe in the potential of federal halfway houses describe them as bridges into a better life for federal prisoners. They are essentially transitional housing for inmates leaving federal prisons before they are released back into society. The United States Bureau of Prisons funds these residential reentry centers to assist prisoners in making the transition. Federal halfway houses are paid for by the government, but are actually run by private contractors. They insist that inmates follow strict halfway house rules and provide round-the-clock guidance to program participants. Halfway houses must meet the construction standards of the communities in which they are situated.
What Is a Halfway House?
Halfway houses are also called community correction centers or residential reentry centers. They are a part of the federal Bureau of Prisons. People sent to prison may spend some of their sentence in a halfway house and some might even spend all of a sentence there, although this practice is no longer common. Many prisoners serve a period of time in these correction centers after being released from federal prison and before they are permitted to reenter the community.
Although time in a halfway house counts as incarceration, these residences are very different from prisons. First, halfway houses are not isolated behind barbed wire or high walls like federal prisons can be. Instead, they are residences placed in communities, and the inmates living there enjoy much more freedom than they did behind bars.
Read More: Halfway House Regulations
How Do Halfway Houses Work?
Imagine how difficult it would be to spend some years in federal prison, then wake up one morning, pick up your belongings and walk out into the world. After so long behind bars, inmates may not remember how to function as members of society, much less get jobs, get apartments and make their way through life again.
The primary purpose of halfway houses is to help prisoners prepare for reentry into normal society. The focus of the program is to help them make that big step by getting drug treatment as well as job training. To that end, residential reentry centers have detailed rules, treatment programs for various substances, work requirements and curfews. Most of the prisoners sent to a halfway house from prison are required to leave the residence to go to work every day or to take part in drug rehabilitation efforts. But halfway houses do not have medical care, and inmates released to halfway houses must pay for their own medical care or buy health insurance.
What Goes on Inside Halfway Houses?
The types of programing and services available at a halfway house run the gamut from very few basic ones to many diverse programs. Most houses have substance abuse programs and job preparation services, but some also provide a wide swath of educational programs, like behavior medication programs, cognitive therapy groups, financial counseling, anger management classes, spiritual programs, domestic violence counseling, life and parenting skills classes and programs for sex offenders.
The physical layout of a halfway house is not the same from one to the other. Conditions vary quite a lot. In some halfway houses, inmates have private rooms, while in others they are housed with roommates. Some rooms have doors, others just curtains, and still others don't have any type of door at all.
Do Prisoners Have a Right to Go to a Halfway House?
It is the goal of the Bureau of Prisons to help all prisoners transition into life on the outside, but prisoners do not have a right to demand to serve time in a halfway house. The statute requires that the director of the BOP attempts to get all prisoners to spend part of their sentences in conditions that ready them for reentry, and that includes time in a halfway house. But halfway houses have limited space, so this is not always possible.
Some prisoners are not eligible to be sent to halfway houses, including some sex offenders; those who are labeled deportable aliens; prisoners with serious medical, psychological, or psychiatric issues who need in-patient treatment; prisoners who do not complete the Drug Abuse Education Course; and those serving short sentences.
Other prisoners are evaluated by their unit teams that make recommendations about halfway house placement about a year before the prisoner’s release date. These recommendations go to the BOP Community Corrections Manager who recommends a particular halfway house, usually one near the home community of the prisoner. The final decision is made by the warden.
How Long Do Prisoners Spend in a Halfway House?
Technically, there is neither a minimum nor a maximum amount of time a person can spend in a halfway house. It is legally possible for a person to serve an entire sentence in a halfway house, but many prisoners don't get more than two weeks, or no time at all. Under the codes, the BOP can place any prisoner in any place of imprisonment, and residential reentry centers are places of imprisonment.
Despite this, it is not practical in the prison system to allow a prisoner to spend more than a year in reentry programming, whether in a halfway house or home confinement. So generally a prisoner will not spend more than 12 months in a halfway house. Those prisoners at risk for recidivism, such as those without strong community support systems, may be allowed to serve more time in a halfway house since the BOP prioritizes high-risk prisoners to get these services.
Who Funds Transitional Housing?
The BOP largely funds halfway houses, but a part of the expense is paid by the prisoners themselves. Each prisoner is obliged to pay "rent" toward the halfway house fee equal to 25 percent of the prisoner’s gross earnings. However, this is cappped at the amount of the average daily cost of their halfway house. And remember that the prisoners must cover their costs of medical care or health insurance.
What Is Home Confinement?
Home confinement is another way that prisoners can adjust to being out of prison. A prisoner in home confinement, also called home detention, is still imprisoned and under the control of the BOP. Like those in a halfway house, prisoners in home confinement have to keep a work schedule outside of the residence, as well as a curfew. They also pay their own medical expenses or insurance and must fork over a home confinement fee. It is the same as the halfway house fee, equal to 25 percent of the prisoner’s gross income. Those who get home confinement may have to attend drug treatment programs and sometimes they have to report to a prison facility several times a week for drug testing.
The BOP usually cannot allow a prisoner to serve more than six months in home confinement or 10 percent of the entire term of imprisonment. A prisoner serving a 40-year sentence would only be eligible for four months of home confinement since it is 10 percent of the total sentence and less than the alternative six months. But this is not a guarantee that a prisoner will get home confinement. High-risk prisoners may receive little or no time on home confinement. But many prisoners transition from prison to halfway housing and from there to home confinement before they are released into the community.
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.