Halfway house, part one | David Dorson

By David Dorson

Law360 Canada (July 7, 2023, 2:36 PM EDT) -- My first moments of being out of prison were powerful and positive. But parole is not freedom, by any means. Among the conditions on me, I was required to spend six months living in a halfway house.

For me, and some others, the halfway house requirement seemed pointless as I already had a place to live, a social network and an income. For many men, on the other hand, the supports in the halfway house, while helpful, are not enough to allow them to build any kind of reasonable life. They are isolated and poor, with little prospect of improvement, not exactly the road to rehabilitation.

The house

Halfway houses across Canada are run by non-profit organizations such as John Howard societies, or The Salvation Army, under contract with Correctional Service Canada (CSC). They are required to enforce rules made by CSC.  As a result, they are often caught between their desire to help released prisoners and the demands of CSC, which have mostly to do with compliance with rules (sensible or not) and avoiding any risk or public attention.

The house I was in was a rambling old three-story building on a busy street. It accommodated about 20 parolees. There were no signs as to what the building was. The main door was always locked and staffed, so you could not enter or leave without staff permission. The main floor had a rather bare living room with a huge TV, a library or resources room with a computer with limited Internet access, and a large kitchen and eating area, along with staff offices. 

The bedrooms were upstairs; mostly triple rooms though there were some doubles and even one or two singles. When I arrived they were removing all the wooden beds and replacing them with metal ones due to bedbug problems. There were two bathrooms (one with showers) on the second floor and one on the third floor, and laundry and a workout space in the basement. While I was there, one of the singles was given to a gay parolee; perhaps because other prisoners did not want to room with him, or the staff thought he might be at risk in a shared room. 

Learning the ropes

I knew that all new parolees have to spend the first 24 hours of your release in the halfway house, except that I was required to go check in with the police parole unit, which was located quite far away (a check-in you must do monthly when on parole). I stretched that time as much as I reasonably could, sitting in the sun at a busy intersection drinking a pop and just enjoying the feeling of being out on my own again.

I also knew that when you arrived at a halfway house your clothes and some other possessions would be placed in a freezer for 24 to 48 hours — to kill bedbugs and other vermin that you might be carrying. But because I intended to spend as much time as possible at my own home, I brought no clothing with me, only the minimum items I might need for the 24 hours. The halfway house issued me with dishes and cutlery for my personal use, a towel, bedding and a few items of clothing. The only things I kept at the halfway house were toiletries and one change of clothing in case of need, plus a clock radio. This was very different from the many prisoners who had nowhere else and for whom this place was their home. For lifers, this situation could last years. But the rooms offered very little space for personal possessions.  And there was no privacy at all, ever, either from staff or other residents.

Residents were responsible for their own food, except that the house provided the material for breakfast. The many who had no income could get a very modest food subsidy from the house to buy essential groceries. The kitchen had several fridges and freezers, all with padlocks. Each resident had a key to his own food storage area. TVs were not allowed in any of the rooms, and there was no Internet access except in the library under supervision — especially hard for prisoners who needed, for example, to find jobs. Parolees might or might not be allowed to have a cell phone depending on individual parole conditions. We were also responsible for cleaning; a rota of fairly light cleaning tasks (vacuuming, washing floors, cleaning bathrooms) was distributed by staff and you had to sign each day when you did your cleaning chore. 

Not so easy

As so often in my journey through the system, I was fortunate because I did not have the needs that many others did, such as getting identity documents, finding work, finding housing, rebuilding relationships with family, or dealing with serious physical and mental health issues. Most parolees were expected to find and hold a job, even if it was an undesirable one that paid badly — which is the only thing most could find. Failure to find or hold a job could get you sent back to prison. Going to school was another approved activity for those who were able to do so but this was often difficult for both financial and academic reasons.

After the first day, I could be out of the house all day every day, subject to my other parole conditions and a house curfew, which at first was 9:00 p.m., and then gradually moved to 10:00 and then 11:00 p.m. The exception to the curfew was one day a week when there was a house meeting at 7:00 p.m. which everyone was expected to attend. The meetings I attended never lasted more than five minutes, so had little benefit to anyone, but the house did provide food, usually pizza, on that day. 

You could only leave the house before 8:00 a.m. if that was required for your employment, so after the first day I would leave at 8:00 and go home, either taking our car or by public transit, spend the entire day at home or out doing things, and then go back to the house for my curfew. After a month or so, if behaviour was good, you would be allowed to spend a weekend at home, and then eventually all your weekends.

In the next column I’ll say more about some of the challenges of being on parole and in a halfway house — in particular the many rules and the restrictions on who you could know or talk with. 

David Dorson is the pen name of someone who went through arrest, case disposition, imprisonment and parole in Ontario a few years ago. Law360 Canada has granted anonymity because he offers a unique perspective on a subject that matters deeply to many readers, and revealing the author’s identity would make re-establishment in the community after serving his sentence much more difficult than it already is.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author's firm, its clients, Law360 Canada, LexisNexis Canada, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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