In N.J., Christie Calls for Halfway House Reform

June 18, 2012; Source: New York Times

In an in-depth report on conditions at Trenton, N.J.’s Albert M. “Bo” Robinson Assessment and Treatment Center, the New York Times has found stories from this halfway house about staff raping female inmates, nearly three-fourths of inmates testing positive for drugs, inmates asking to go back to prison (because they found it safer than the halfway house), staff not providing job training or other kinds of support because “they had neither the skills nor the time to do so,” staff falsifying inmate records, and gangs running much of the facility by threatening and shaking down other inmates. The gangs reportedly even controlled access to the inmates’ use of the facility’s pay phones.

The details of the Times story are horrific, sounding more like the story lines from HBO’s “Oz” (a fictional maximum security prison) rather than a facility for people transitioning out of prison.  If the Times reporting is correct, Bo could adopt the Oz slogan without hesitation: “It’s no place like home.” “Bo is like the projects,” one former inmate said. “I’m walking down the hallway from mess and I’m getting approached by everybody selling everything. ‘I’ve got batteries, T-shirts, weed, heroin, coke.’”{loadmodule mod_banners,Newswire Subscription Plea}

The entity that runs “Bo,” Community Education Centers takes strenuous issue with the Times charges, calling the reporting “riddled with errors.” While some commentary has argued that, as a for-profit, Community Education Centers is more interested in the bottom line than the conditions and futures of its halfway house residents, a CEC spokesperson referenced the firm’s “nonprofit arm…[that] has an unbroken 18-year contract history and growth in the New Jersey half-way house business spanning six governors preceding governor Christie—four of them Democrats. In fact, Community Education Centers has strong ties with Republicans in the administration of Gov. Chris Christie, but also with Democrats, even getting Vice President Joe Biden to meet with execs and to issue a press release praising the halfway house.

Since the New York Times article about Bo and other parts of its series on halfway houses, Gov. Christie has called for stepped up inspections and enforcement at the state’s halfway houses, sort of sidestepping charges that the state’s lax oversight allowed this to happen. If the Times reporting is accurate, Gov. Christie, the tough-guy governor known for accepting nothing less than top quality results, seems to have overlooked a chaotic dynamic in this essential component of the state’s justice system. To be fair, however, we wonder whether the Times might have filed similar reports had it gone digging in other states. According to its website, Community Educational Centers runs residential and non-residential facilities in 17 states and in Bermuda. What do you think the Times might have reported had it looked at halfway houses in your state?—Rick Cohen