By David Cruz
In the aftermath of a damning New York Times series, efforts to bring change to the state’s halfway house system seemed to get a boost, but as we found talking to operators and others, so far, nothing much seems to have changed.
Community Education Centers (CEC) VP Bill Palatucci says that when The New York Times claims more than 1,300 New Jersey halfway house residents escaped over the last two years, they’re using the wrong terminology. He says halfway house residents are not prisoners and are approved to be out in the community, looking for work, seeking medical attention or being with their family.
“Now, they may be required to come back to a facility by a certain time and if they happen to be late they are termed to be an ‘absconder’ because they’re late returning,” Palatucci explained. “The New York Times went out of their way to term that person as an escape, when that’s not the proper term.”
We meet at Talbott Hall, a lock-down 500-bed assessment center where residents are evaluated before they can transition to a halfway house. The halls here are clean and orderly and residents get computer training and other job skills.
“We call them residents,” points out Sheila Leonardo, Talbott Hall’s director. “They’re called inmates obviously in the system, but they have to be disciplinary-free, have appropriate psychological evaluation, as well as medical clearance before they can transfer to a halfway house.”
Jenette Thomas is a CEC alumnus. A CEC PR person insisted on being in the room while we spoke with her. Thomas was a drug abuser sentenced to treatment at Delaney Hall after pleading guilty to fraud. She says CEC got her clean and ultimately saved her life.
“Eighty percent of the friends I have now are alumnus that have successfully completed treatment in one of these facilities,” she says proudly, adding, “but having said that I’m not going to be unrealistic and say that some people have not used, have not relapsed, have not re-offended because they have.”
David Goodell is a Delaney Hall alumnus, too. But he’s not in the alumni association. Police say that in 2010, Goodell faked an illness to get to a hospital, from which he escaped. He’s charged with killing his former girlfriend, Viviana Tulli. Through a Facebook page and media appearances, Viviana’s sister, Stella, has become a strong advocate for victims.
“There’s nothing I can do to bring her back,” she says. “The fact remains I go to her grave. She’s not coming back, but hopefully this will help others. It’ll prevent another tragedy from happening. There’ll be tighter security. I mean how do you hire people with no security background to guard inmates who have been arrested for crimes?”
CEC admits that its halfway house staff members are not corrections officers. It’s one way they’re able to save money. A halfway house resident costs the state about $75 a day; a prison inmate costs about $150. Palatucci says violent crimes by “absconders” are rare. He won’t say how often residents abscond, or even how often the state inspects his sites.
“Listen, they’re assessing all the providers in the system in New Jersey. Not just the department of corrections; parole has a number of facilities and vendors and contractors, so you need to talk to those agencies,” he said. “To quantify it, you should talk to the departments for the actual numbers. But there are surprise inspections.”
Everyone we talked to for this story agreed that the system is not perfect. The flaws have led to real tragedies, but the halfway house operators insist that the alternative — parole without preparation — is not a viable alternative and would do nothing to address the underlying problems that lead offenders to go from prison to the street and back again.