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Attica, Sing Sing, Marcy. Spend 10 years in these prisons, like James did on a weapons charge, and you experience the hardest of hard time. But when he got out of prison last August, life on the outside presented its own extreme challenges. On the one hand, James feared he would be discriminated against–doors would be closed and opportunities denied. “Coming out of jail after years is like going to one of those Third World countries where everyone is anti-American,” says James, who’s 38 years old. “The way I perceived it, everyone was anti-Me.”

Yet freedom also reminded him that he didn’t just have other people to fear–James believed he was at risk of falling back into the same life that had landed him in so much trouble in the first place. And so when he was released from prison last August, James took the advice of his parole officer and applied for a spot at the Fortune Academy. At this West Harlem residence, he would be provided with a structured living environment while he got his life back together. (At Fortune’s request, this article uses first names only for Academy residents.) “I know myself,” James explains. “I’ve been there, done the drugs. I didn’t trust myself with that amount of freedom. I didn’t feel comfortable with it. I felt, for myself, this was the best place for me to be–a controlled environment. Are you familiar with Pavlov’s dogs? I’ve been conditioned to accept a restricted environment for so long that coming out and not having any restrictions would have been very uncomfortable for me.”

The Fortune Academy is owned and operated by the Fortune Society, a private nonprofit organization working with ex-prisoners. Housed in an imposing stone building on the northeast corner of 140th Street and Riverside Drive–everyone calls it “the Castle”–the Academy serves as a way station on the path out of prison. At any given time, five dozen ex-prisoners live there while they readjust to the outside world.

It is a rigorous environment. James can’t have guests in his bedroom, sexual contact with other residents, or drugs or alcohol. He and his neighbors must spend at least 35 hours a week in meetings for drug treatment, anger management, and education, or doing various chores. In a cupboard at the back of the TV room stands a PassPoint biometric machine that tests for drugs by scanning residents’ eyes.

But for James, all this structure promises an incredible amount of freedom. Most important to him, he can let his guard down. “When I got here, I liked the place,” says James. “It was relaxed. If I was feeling apprehensive, I could come back here and breathe.”

James’ parole officer, Charles Bellamy, likes the Castle too. Although he works down at the State Parole Department’s 40th Street office, most of the Academy’s residents are on his caseload, and he finds that on the whole they are more responsive than other clients he’s dealt with in his six years as a parole officer. “We know where they’re at, and we know where they’re supposed to be at,” notes Bellamy. “There are curfews. We have better controls.” He gets to talk to the Academy’s staff, who can let him know about any problems a resident might be having, before they escalate and get the parolee sent back to prison.

Parole knows its clients are in an environment that’s not just supportive, but closely monitored, helping them avoid spiraling into the kind of self-destructive cycles that lead to crime, arrest and reincarceration. Each month in New York State, about 1,200 prisoners get released to parole–and nearly 500 parolees get sent back to prison for violations.

Though he says it’s too early to tell for sure–he’s been working with Castle residents for about a year–Bellamy suspects his Academy clients are less likely than others to end up violating parole and getting sent back to prison. “I think it is less,” says Bellamy. “I think we will see in the future that there are programs that can work better to reduce recividism.”

Mary Ellen Flynn, director of operations for the state Parole Department, is also a fan. “It’s a win-win for the public, parole, parolee and agency,” says Flynn. “There’s a need for transitional housing in New York City. I don’t know anybody in criminal justice who would tell you any differently.”

Yet two years after it opened, the Academy still remains a one-of-a-kind model. Last year, more than 20,000 men and women were released from New York State prisons. They are more likely than ever to end up homeless, judging simply by the rapid growth of single adults in shelters: up 18 percent in the last four years. When the Vera Institute of Justice recently sought to help a group of men released from prison find places to live, just half of them succeeded.

On their way out of prison, few ever have that chance to breathe.

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Much like other supportive housing, which combines a residence and specialized social services in one place, the Castle is the product of persistent, entrepreneurial effort. It was inspired by research suggesting that between one-third and one-half of state parolees were being released into homelessness and were rapidly returning to crime and drugs. These men and women simply moved from prison to the Big Apple’s violence-prone and overcrowded shelter system.

So in 1996, Fortune pulled together a planning team to look into buying a building to house an alternative. They looked at 22 sites before finding the 140th Street building–an abandoned school that hit bottom as a crack house in the 1980s. The organization bought the building in 1998, for $1.28 million, using a combination of cash it had on hand and a mortgage from Fleet Bank. The organization had never developed a residence before.

From the beginning, Fortune Executive Director JoAnne Page and her colleagues worked hard to make sure no one in West Harlem would balk at the idea of criminals moving in next door. Fortune had vowed to locate in a friendly neighborhood, where residents would support its goal of successfully reintegrating residents into the free world. Whether it was neighborhood groups, Community Board 9 or local police, “We were there; we didn’t miss meetings. We took all the ridicule,” recalls Edmund Taylor, an ex-drug dealer and prisoner from Harlem who is now a senior staff member at Fortune. “Church and block parties, Harlem Week…we had raffles, literature, we got out and had teams up there, and stopped people and engaged them. And we never, ever sold them a dream.”

Most skeptical were residents of a nearby housing complex on Riverside. “We had an overabundance of these facilities,” says one initial opponent, L. Ann Rocker, of the locally based North River Community Environment Review Board. “They keep putting them here–facilities come into the neighborhood and take prime property. We wanted housing, some condominiums or something. That’s what should have gone there.” But in the two years the building has been open, Rocker has been mollified by the good behavior of the program’s residents. “If we have any kind of problem, we report it to them and they take care of it immediately,” she says. “One of the provisos before they came here was ‘no violence.’ No violence, no trashing of the community. Get your act together and go about your business. They have an excellent program there.”

Page helps set the tone. A lawyer by training, she has a remarkable ability to generate good will and optimism–most of all among her beleaguered clients. Page makes residents feel respected, important, meaningful on the human stage. She is on a quest to remake their very understanding of themselves in the world. “How do you create an environment that supports deep human change?” she asks. First, Page says, answering her own question, one has to accept the idea that “change isn’t linear, that people work in spirals, that you don’t get silver bullets for long-term, deep-seated stuff. A lot of the clients here either have burned their bridges or don’t have any bridges.”

Page was determined to open her program to any released prisoner who showed the motivation to stick with it. That took some doing. Aside from a few state programs for small halfway houses, there are no public funds designated for housing ex-offenders. Page also decided not to take money from the state parole or corrections departments, since any relationship with the policing agencies might make clients feel coerced into participating. Taking dollars from parole would also have barred Fortune from its practice of hiring former parolees to counsel current ones. “We deliberately don’t take funding that influences how we run the program,” Page explains.

There’s other money out there for supportive housing: money for people with AIDS; for people with disabilities, for drug addicts; for homeless people. Page obtained some of each, along with low-income housing tax credits and historic preservation funds to restore the building. “We cross-funded the hell out of this,” Page states proudly. “That’s why we’re able to take in everyone we want.”

Clients stay in the program for several months, sometimes more than a year, always working toward an exit. The goal: to rent an apartment, paid for by money earned from a job. On the top floor, 19 emergency beds are available, dorm-style, to men and women fresh out of prison and looking to be admitted to the program. On the floors below, another 43 beds, in smaller, more comfortable, shared rooms, house long-term residents, who will live at the Academy from six to 18 months. Living here, in these shared rooms, say residents, is a crucial part of their return to society.

Always, staff are taught to treat residents with respect. When new clients come to be interviewed, no matter how ratty they look, no matter how down-and-out their manner, Page heartily welcomes them, looks them in the eye, asks if they have any questions, and, at the conclusion of the interview, holds out her hand to give them a handshake. Her body language is clear: You’re valuable; you’re among equals here.

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Across the country, there’s a growing understanding among government officials that more needs to be done to help ex-offenders reintegrate successfully into the community and economy. Those views are changing largely because incarcerating the same people over and over again is extremely expensive. Even President Bush says he’s on board: In his State of the Union address, he promised his administration would commit $300 million to help ex-prisoners reenter society.

That has yet to translate into an expansion of supportive housing for ex-offenders. Bush’s pledge is a game of musical chairs: $25 million is being taken from existing funding for housing for the homeless. The small government funds already designated for reentry have tended to be spent not on housing but on other pressing needs, like job searches and drug treatment. The Serious Violent Offender Re-entry Initiative, begun by the Department of Justice in 2001 with funding from the Department of Health and Human Services, provides about $2 million in grants to each state, to help reintegrate violent offenders into their communities; however, few states have chosen to make housing part of their programs. “It’s considered an afterthought,” says Richard Cho, a policy analyst with the Corporation for Supportive Housing. Cho notes that other sources of federal funding could be more successfully tapped for housing dollars, including the Violent Offender Truth in Sentencing Act and the Edward J. Byrne Memorial Fund.

New York officials are at least talking about what to do with their own budgets. Last year, the state commissioner of criminal justice, Chauncey Parker, convened a task force with officials from correction, parole, housing, addiction, labor, welfare, mental health and other agencies, and they are looking at a broad range of ways to help prisoners reenter communities, including pooling funds to create and maintain transitional housing. Actual facilities, however, appear to be far off. “There have been reports written, there have been agreements reached,” says Flynn of the parole department. “There are no bricks and mortar yet. The expectation is that those things are going to come. And ‘the hope’ is a better way to put it.”

Elsewhere in state government, a few dollars are already flowing (though significantly fewer than the more than $2 billion New York State spent on operating its prisons last year). The state welfare agency currently funds seven projects, housing 164 people, and recently approved $8.8 million to cover start-up costs for six more projects intended to house another 168 ex-offenders coming out of the state’s prisons. Most are in New York City. And five years ago, the state and New York City also agreed to begin a High Service Needs Initiative that would ultimately provide $90 million in funding for about 800 units, dotted around the state, and house mentally ill individuals leaving psychiatric institutions and prisons. So far, however, these are all still in development.

Page and many policy advocates would like to see aggressive “justice reinvestment” to create new sources of funding to house and help ex-offenders. Money could be raised by issuing bonds–that’s how the prison-construction binge of the 1990s was financed–or diverted from budgets for corrections, courts and homeless shelters. This would, they point out, be an extremely cost-effective investment: A 2002 study commissioned by the Corporation for Supportive Housing found that homeless adults cost taxpayers $40,500 a year–much of this related to criminal justice costs. (Page claims a year at the Academy adds up to “about what a shelter bed costs.”)

It’s not outright impossible to replicate the Academy. Page says she’s had about 20 organizations visit to take a close look at the operation, two or three of which are reportedly “not far at all” from launching their own transitional housing facilities. And in New York, a couple of smaller projects both house and help ex-offenders remake their lives. In East New York, Hogan’s Residence provides shelter to 17 men over the age of 28. It’s run on a shoestring budget by recovering addict and one-time military jail inmate Phillip Hogan, who was arrested for petty larceny while serving in the armed forces. “Many men are coming back into a community they are not familiar with, into an environment that has changed,” says Hogan. “They need a supportive environment to give them empathy and support, to transition from a correctional institution to mainstream society.” Hogan used his own savings to buy the house and set up the program.

“I came to Hogan’s after being in detox, coming to rehab,” says 58-year-old long-time heroin addict Rigoberto Diaz, sitting in a small room. “This is the longest I’ve been clean. I’ve been at Hogan’s about 17 months. No drug relapse, no nothing. What I’ve done here, I haven’t been able to accomplish in the past on my own.”

On the Lower East Side, the Women’s Prison Association works with women who are seeking to reunite with their children. Like the Academy, it houses clients for about a year and half before they move into their own apartments. Unlike the Academy, this facility isn’t geared to treat addiction: residents must be drug-free for at least six months before moving in.

And in the South Bronx, the organization CASES has broken ground on housing specifically for mentally ill offenders. Mentally ill people make up an estimated 16 percent of state prison inmates nationwide, and, says CASES executive director Joel Copperman, benefit noticeably from careful support following their release. “We know from our program experience that the rate at which people commit crime once they are in a program, the re-arrest of our clients, is dramatically lower than it is for these same clients a year earlier, before they came into our program.” The program is the Nathaniel Project, which helps mentally ill ex-offenders find housing and provides intensive supervision. An evaluation found that as a group, the participants were arrested a total of 101 times in the year before they started with CASES–and only seven in the year following.

Part of the difficulty in getting housing for ex-offenders off the ground is that federal funding is in large part only available to people coming out of the homeless shelters. A major federal funding program, Shelter Plus Care, provides grants for housing and treating homeless people with disabilities, but only if they are already living in a shelter. So most supportive housing doesn’t work exclusively with ex-offenders and typically recruits clients from public shelters rather than prisons.

To Page, restrictions like those are not acceptable. Precisely because it is in those first weeks and months after prison that a person is most at risk of returning to drugs and getting caught up in a cycle of recidivism and reimprisonment, the Castle works to move people directly from prison to the supportive environment and focuses immediately on dealing with urgent needs–like breaking down barriers to employment and navigating parole. Page’s group “has the most flexibility of anybody out there,” says Richard Cho. “Fortune has control over their own housing.”

Fortune is just now starting to take Shelter Plus Care dollars, and Page admits she’s still not sure how to handle the restrictions. “We’ll probably need to talk” with HUD officials, she says. “We’re hoping to work our way through it. And if not, just find some other source” of funding.

It’s not every director of a supportive housing facility who is willing to boldly declare she’ll walk away from a major funding opportunity rather than compromise her vision. “We are,” says Page, “inventing it as we go along–and we don’t need to be safe politically. We have so much freedom. We have people half a minute after they get out of prison. We put people in internships. We hug people.”

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To the frustration of those who would like to see more money out there for transitional housing, no one so far has produced hard data showing the benefits of the Academy. While the Parole Department is not alone in suspecting that clients commit fewer crimes and other parole violations, Fortune has not invested any of its scarce dollars in commissioning stats and studies.

Instead, it has testimonials like this one to offer. “This place is like a home. It’s a nice, beautiful place,” says Dejuan, who is 21 and lives at the Academy. Originally from South Carolina, Dejuan came to the Fortune program after being convicted of attempted robbery, flunking out of a mandated drug-treatment program and ending up homeless on the streets of New York. “I didn’t really have a family. I had a family, but I was by myself. I got a lot of ignoral from my family. One of the reasons I did the things I did, I felt no kind of love or sympathy or nothing. I felt that nobody cares. I had a mother and father, but I didn’t feel they were my mother and father–they weren’t talking to me, asking me about school, how I’m doing. Those are things I’d like to hear but never got. Here, it just feels good to hear someone say ‘Dejuan, man, how was your day? Did you do everything you wanted to accomplish?’ It feels good.”

As he says these words, Dejuan shuts his eyes and sighs. “We share the house. It’s the first place I even been into like this. And the thing about it is all of us have been incarcerated–and the three months I’ve been here, I just don’t see half of these people doing years and years in jail. Everybody does what they’re supposed to.”

Sasha Abramsky is a Sacramento-based freelance writer and author of Hard Time Blues: How America Built a Prison Nation. Research funding provided by the Open Society Institute, in support of a Housing and Criminal Justice Policy roundtable hosted by the Center for Urban Research and Policy at Columbia University.