Serving Time, at Home with the Kids

Serving Time, at Home with the Kids

Nicole Hall woke up one morning at her home on the eastern end of Bedford-Stuyvesant and sent her 9-year-old daughter, Samara, off to school. It was a Saturday. Third grade is rigorous; Samara goes to tutoring for state tests on weekends. Her younger sister, Rihanna, is in kindergarten. Hall dressed her in a t-shirt with colorful diagonal stripes, and helped tie her hair back in a ponytail. Hall was tired, and wanted to have a restful day. On Sunday she would go to church. Other days, she volunteers at Samara’s school, tidying up the books in the library. She likes to cook curried goat. She doesn’t go out much. “If I don’t have anything important to do, I would rather stay home,” she said. Sometimes, she lingers on the delight of being at her apartment with her kids, which she wouldn’t get to do had she been where she was almost certainly headed, to prison.

For going on five years now, Hall has been living in Drew House, which provides alternative to incarceration housing for women and their children. It was the first place in New York to try this arrangement, and unique among the few programs in the country that allow female offenders to serve out their time while raising their kids. Tenants pay rent based on their income, and their contribution can be subsidized by public assistance. Hall, who is 39, pays nothing. That morning, she wore a turquoise tube top, a hooded sweatshirt, jeans, and white Air Jordans. Her hair is short with bangs that are tinged red, and her dangly earrings seemed to bound back and forth as she walked. Rihanna followed her down from their third-floor apartment. It’s one and a half bedrooms, and the girls share the bigger one. On the first floor, they passed through a yellow doorway into an office that faces the street. Seated at a desk in the corner was Elaine Henry, Hall’s case manager, who set up Rihanna with paper and crayons.

Drew House has five apartments, plus an extra space for a house manager to stay; a big backyard; and the office downstairs, where staff of Housing + Solutions, which administers the program, meet with tenants. There are inspirational quotes on the walls—“In this house we are real, we make mistakes, we say I’m sorry, we give second chances, we have fun, we forgive, we do really loud, we are patient, we love”—books on a shelf, and MetroCards and petty cash in a drawer, in case someone runs out. The women who live in the building gather there about once a month; other times, they’ll have one-on-one meetings with a case manager or a therapist.

When Hall first moved in, she was wary of the setup. “It wasn’t nice because you have to do chores,” she recalled. “There was restriction. To live here you have to clean the building, keep your surroundings clean. You have to meet with your worker. We have women’s group where each tenant meets in here together. We talk about what we could do better for our life. Talking about how to dress, the dress code, how to go out and look at jobs, how to present ourselves. Our kids, how to be better mothers.” She glanced at Rihanna, who was absorbed in her drawing. She went on, “It’s a bit of a burden. It’s good, because you’re out of jail, but you still have curfew. We’d have programs—we’d have to go to programs, and then come back here—and our kids go to school so we’d have to pick them up. But we’d have to be back home at 7 o’clock.” A house manager might knock on the door at 9 in the evening, to make sure everyone was home. The building has a camera and an alarm system. Drugs and alcohol are forbidden—most of the crimes that landed tenants there were drug-related.

Hall’s addiction was drinking. She had to go to counseling every Monday through Friday for a year. “I used to drink, and we’d speak about what we could do better,” she said. “When I just started, I used to laugh at the workers because back home in Jamaica, everybody drinks.” She had left Jamaica in 2001 and settled in the Bronx, on White Plains Road. “I was a street person growing up,” she said. She was living in a basement when she became pregnant with Rihanna. Her landlord wanted her out, so she went into a shelter on Emmons Avenue, in Sheepshead Bay. She continued going out to bars, more than she should have, in retrospect. When Rihanna was about to turn 1, Hall was sent to jail. For the two months she was there, her kids were placed in the care of the Administration for Children’s Services.

Drew House was her way back to them. “When you get into a fight—that you didn’t make trouble, but somebody makes trouble with you—and then you defend yourself, and then you have to pay for it, you do get bitter,” Hall said. “But going down the line, your eyes become more open. And what can I say? You have to be more grateful.”

Rihanna was finished with her picture: a rabbit. She smiled at her work. “Where is that rabbit?” Henry asked. Was it in the yard? At school? The background was limitless green. Rihanna said, “It’s outside.”

“Everybody learns: you break the law, you get punished, you go to jail, you pay a fine,” Teresa Fabi, who has worked at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office since 1985, said. “It’s a different approach to say, ‘Well, this person broke the law because of some trauma she incurred, or has some mental illness that has never been addressed, or is concurrent with the trauma.’”

More than a million women are tangled in the American criminal justice system. The number of women being sent to prison is rising, at nearly double the rate it is for men, though women are less likely to have committed a violent offense. The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization that promotes criminal justice reform, has compiled these and other statistics about female offenders; one report states that “for many women incarceration may last for a significant part of their child’s formative years, and in some cases lead to a loss of parental rights.” The Justice Department has found that about 66,000 mothers are behind bars. The number of children with a mother in prison—some 150,000—has more than doubled since 1991. A majority of parents are held in facilities at least a hundred miles from where they lived with their kids. Some mothers in prison never get a visit with their children. Many stay in contact with them by writing letters, but never speak on the phone.

While the Justice Department began focusing on this problem, around 2000, Fabi was seeing women in her office who refused to go into treatment programs if it meant separating from their kids. Women who were being sent upstate—often to Bedford Hills, a maximum security facility and the largest women’s prison in New York—didn’t have that option. “If women are going to jail, the children are inevitably going to be extremely damaged,” Fabi said. “Once that damage has occurred, it’s very difficult to repair.”

She proposed an alternative to incarceration program for mothers to stay with their children, which came to be called Drew House after Regina Drew, the mother of Charles Hynes, who was then the district attorney. The program would be open to women convicted of felonies who would otherwise serve their time in prison, often without necessary counseling. More than half of incarcerated women have experienced physical or sexual abuse before they enter prison, and about three-quarters of the women in state prisons have mental health problems, according to the Sentencing Project. These hurdles contribute to the risk of recidivism for women in particular. “There are factors that are highly influential for women that are not even looked at for men: prior trauma, active psychosis, mental illness, parental stress,” Georgia Lerner, the executive director of the Women’s Prison Association, told me. “Family dysfunction is measured for men and women—being in a family situation where you don’t get along with your mother, your brother, or your girlfriend is pregnant. But not parental stress—the anxiety or feelings around your ability to be a parent for your children, your ability to provide the appropriate discipline—that whole range of emotion.” She continued, “Men may have parental stress also. But overwhelmingly, in a single-parent household, women deal with this.”

It took several years for Fabi’s idea to be realized. “The problem was that, because it had not been done, there was not the funding for it,” she said. Eventually, Rita Zimmer, the executive director of Housing Plus Solutions, heard about the program. At the time, she had just received money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to set up a permanent residence for homeless families. The two projects were combined: Drew House would become a home for women who had been homeless and found themselves in the court system on first-time felony charges that could place them in prison for at least two years. It began with five families, in 2008.

“It took us a while to get the first group of families in because there was still some trying to sell it to people,” Zimmer said. There were complications—admitting someone to Drew House can involve a collision of people representing the mother, the city, the children’s welfare. A woman has to admit to her crime and plead guilty. The court completes an assessment—a trauma specialist might be brought in, or someone who can evaluate the woman’s mental health—and, after a period that can take months, during which time the kids are in foster care, the judge hears out a plan for treatment and monitoring. A mother sent to Drew House has her prison sentence deferred, on the condition that she completes her court-ordered requirements. These might include parental training and addiction counseling. Then a case manager, like Henry, would sit down and help set some goals—for how to get a high school diploma, or how to live on a budget—and begin a relationship that, if it succeeds, could help reverse course on a life. Drew House is small still—eleven families have passed through the program. (One was discharged for breaking the rules.) Six have moved on. The five who are living in the building now have become comfortable there, and their charges were dismissed. “Women start taking care of each other’s children,” Zimmer said. “We have four teenagers in the building right now. They have helped out some of the kids with homework or shovel the snow.” One of them, she added, is in college, and another is applying.

The cost of putting someone up in Drew House is around $37,000 a year. Incarcerating a woman in New York can cost $60,000, and sometimes tens of thousands more. At Rikers Island, the city spends around $100,000 per inmate. Factoring in foster care, the amount grows to at least $129,000. “The cost is exorbitant,” Fabi said. Add to that the emotional toll: children of incarcerated parents might never return to live with them, and, Fabi went on, wind up funnelled back into the criminal system. “We’re always looking to see if we can explore alternatives to incarceration,” she said. “It’s the way of the future.”

Alternatives to incarceration are gradually gaining acceptance in state courts—there are more than a dozen such programs of various types in New York City, targeted towards women or juveniles or offenders on probation—but they’re not found in many federal jurisdictions. In the fall, Eric Holder, the outgoing Attorney General, visited the Federal District Court in Brooklyn to cast some attention on its paths away from prison. While he was there, along with Kenneth Thompson, the District Attorney, the New York Times reported that Holder said that national expansion of alternatives is “a no-brainer.”

The political appeal of reform has been surprisingly broad. A year ago, Rick Perry, then governor of Texas, and former New York City Police chief Bernie Kerik (who did time for tax fraud and other charges) shared the stage at a Conservative Political Action Conference panel on criminal justice, and took turns avowing the merits of cutting back on incarceration. “You want to talk about real conservative governance? Shut prisons down. Save that money,” Perry said, according to a report in The Nation. Kerik concurred, “We’ve got to create alternatives, and we have to stop putting people in prison that don’t necessarily have to be there to learn their mistake.” Even the Koch brothers, part of a bizarrely aligned cast—with members of the Center for American Progress and the American Civil Liberties Union standing alongside Ted Cruz and Rand Paul—have backed criminal justice reform, with a new organization called the Coalition for Public Safety. Last week, Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer testified before Congress, harshly criticising the penal system. “The corrections system is one of the most overlooked, misunderstood institutions, functions that we have in our entire government,” Justice Kennedy said. He added, “This idea of total incarceration just isn’t working, and it’s not humane.”

Yet alternatives to locking people up are still largely viewed as an experiment. The prison system sets boundaries for society and, it would seem, its walls must be hard to scale for a reason. When Fabi started with the DA, in the narcotics department, there were no treatment options. “It seems like it’s obvious, but it’s complicated,” she said. “It’s an uphill battle.”

A sentence is meant to come to an end: you complete your requirements, you carry on. You would, in other circumstances, exit the cell. Henry, who started working at Drew House a few months ago, told me, “When I came here, all the ladies had completed their program. They’re free, they can move about. They’re not under the jurisdiction anymore.” She continued, “Now it’s at a standstill a little bit, because this is like affordable housing, and it’s hard for these ladies to find affordable housing. So it’s at a standstill now.”

“The first group of women who lived there had other options for moving,” Zimmer said. One woman got married and moved to Florida. One started bunking with the godmother of her son. Another got a housing subsidy from Section 8 and moved with her two boys. The apartments cleared out, and new families moved in. One current Drew House tenant, a mother of three, is beginning to look for a new place. She has a steady income.

But the rest are stuck. “The women aren’t getting jobs that would allow them to pay for apartments,” Zimmer said. Brooklyn is expensive; bringing up kids is expensive. The amount it takes to raise a child here—to cover housing, food, health care, taxes, and other costs—is $55,059 a year for a single parent with one preschooler; in northwest Brooklyn, which is even pricier, the total is $62,385. These figures were released last year in a report from the Women’s Center for Education and Career Advancement, which also found that a single parent from Brooklyn with two young children needed $67,427 to be considered self-sufficient, up from $44,594 in 2000. Helping tenants look for affordable housing only can do so much good if they aren’t working and have no way to contribute to rent. “Drew House is permanent housing,” Zimmer said. “We have an obligation let them stay there until they do find some other option.” It’s a paradox built on the best intentions: these women cannot leave their refuge from prison.

Drew House has no vacancies. The program is limited by its investment in those who make it through the door. Hall completed her program requirements and graduated. Her record was cleared. She got work in the day care center that Rihanna used to attend. Years passed. “It’s not like everything changed overnight,” Hall said. “It takes time to see. They show us how to live like we are a family. They don’t treat us like tenants.” She has remained at Drew House contentedly, attending house meetings, barbecuing in the backyard, befriending her neighbors. She also goes on Facebook, where she checks up on two children she left behind, in Jamaica. She has a 21-year-old daughter and a 19-year-old son, she said matter-of-factly. She has not seen them in person since she left the country. “Of course I will see them again,” she laughed to herself. “Things happen in due time.”

Two years ago, the Brooklyn district attorney’s office announced a new program for women who plead guilty to felonies and are facing at least six months in prison, to allow them live with their families in their own homes. JusticeHome, as it’s called, would be administered by Georgia Lerner, of the Women’s Prison Association. “It’s the only program we’ve found of this kind,” she told me. “There are people from Europe who came to visit us when they heard about this.”

The creation of JusticeHome was credited in part to the success of Drew House, as documented by researchers at Columbia University in a frequently cited study from 2011, which recommended that the mother-child incarceration alternative model be replicated and scaled up. The difference, though, is that while Drew House retains a sense of institutional barriers, in a monitored building, the new program would take place in the context where women came from, and where they would have to return. For some fifteen years, the Women’s Prison Association has operated a residential program for female offenders to live in an East Village townhouse. “One of the requirements that every woman had was she had to find a place to live and find a way to support herself when she moved out,” Lerner said, adding, “A barrier to completion of the alternative to incarceration program was finding a place to live. Women in the program were facing the same re-entry issues as women who were coming home from prison.”

The program takes a progressive leap: serving time while staying home. Penalty is supplanted by rehabilitation. With no substantial infrastructure to pay for, it costs $16,000 a year per person. A woman paying rent at her own place keeps paying rent; if she has a job, she keeps working. There’s no risk of getting stranded once you make it out. “Real life is really the best classroom to practice new skills and apply what they’ve learned,” Lerner said. “In a lot of cases, women are the parents of young children. And if we can keep children from being separated from their parents, we want that.”

The first participants enrolled in the late summer of 2013, and there have been 30 women in the program so far. Twenty-six live in Brooklyn. They had charges of assault, forgery, drug crimes. JusticeHome uses a scripted curriculum, “Moving On,” with twelve weekly group sessions and work in between. The counseling addresses problems like abuse trauma, addiction, and difficulty with parenting. Participants also have to keep a journal. “It’s hard to do this work. Many women have been doing drugs for years to get away from the issues and trauma,” Lerner said. Often, they’ll hesitate to speak up in meetings. The sessions offer practice in controlling their emotions. “Our clients have had so many people respond to them in a negative way, and haven’t figured out how to ask for help in a way that makes people want to help them,” Lerner explained. The script runs through someone’s expectations and replies, “so she doesn’t get caught up in feeling disrespected.”

Not everyone who has come through JusticeHome has a stable place to live. “We’ve had women living in shelters, and we’ll try to help people find apartments.” Lerner said. One family in the program had three adults living in one room in a shelter. Others were victims of domestic violence.

Progress can feel slow. “We had a women in the program come in one day, she was sort of in a rage,” Lerner said. “She walked in and her case manager wasn’t there. She hadn’t made an appointment to see her. The reaction of people in the office was that she should get kicked out of the program. But this was a woman with violent charges, and she wasn’t being violent.” Lerner added, “The women with a history of being violent and comes in and doesn’t do anything except being loud—that’s progress I think.”

So far, fourteen women have graduated from JusticeHome, and sixteen will complete the program soon. A graduation ceremony is planned for June. “If we’re trying to promote public safety, we should be trying to prevent crime,” Lerner said. “Isn’t it better to teach skills in the real setting where it’s going to work?”

Nicole Hall, seated in the office at Drew House, possesses the calm of a believer. “I am going to minister to people,” she said. “People need help. You have to smile a while and give your face a rest.” She went on, “Your life speaks for itself. I was a drinker. I was a smoker. I don’t do those things anymore. Your life is a message.”

When speaking about other things, she occasionally interrupted herself to mention that she is blessed. But Hall doesn’t have a work visa, which means that unless something changes, she can’t get a job, at least officially. She can’t visit her older children in Jamaica. She’ll say, “For now, I have to live here,” as if there is an imminent alternative.

Another woman in the house, who came to the United States as an undocumented immigrant, recently got a visa because she had been brought in as a sex trafficking victim. “She will be able to work,” Zimmer told me. “She has a partner, she has someone that she’s seeing and at some time may get married, and move out. That may be in a couple of years. That will allow her, for the first time in thirteen years, to leave the country and visit her family: visit a parent who is dying and visit a son who is 17 and she hasn’t seen since he was about 4 or 5.”

Hall imagines herself staying put. “I would love to have my two other kids with me as a family, and perhaps have my own house one day,” she said dreamily. If she could live anywhere, she’d choose Brooklyn, she added, “Brooklyn has changed my life a lot.”

Betsy Morais is on the editorial staff of the New Yorker. She lives in Brooklyn.

Zach Meyer is a freelance illustrator. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Juxtapoz, Playboy, and Popshot Magazine. He lives in Clinton Hill.

Also in this issue

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Capturing the faces of strangers on the streets of New York. Photos by Benedict Evans

Q&A: City Councilmen Brad Lander and Jumaane Williams

The two representatives on why it’s the best of times and the worst of times for Brooklynites. Interview by John Surico

Q&A: Quardean Lewis-Allen, of Made in Brownsville

A Brownsville native uses architecture and design to help locals take ownership of their neighborhood. It started with a t-shirt. Interview by Maggie Astor