Halfway house, part two: Complications of living in halfway house | David Dorson

By David Dorson

Law360 Canada (August 14, 2023, 12:47 PM EDT) -- On my first day in the halfway house I ran into a guy I had known fairly well in prison. “This is a strange place,” he told me. ‘You remember K from the prison? Soon after I got here, he showed up and met a buddy from inside. They gave each other a hug, and within an hour K was told he had to move to a different house. Apparently they don’t want anyone here to be friends with anyone else.”

“But that makes no sense,” I wanted to say, but didn’t. After my time in the system I no longer expected anything to make sense.

Being in a halfway house is definitely better than being in prison. Well, what wouldn’t be? But it also has lots of limitations and reminders that you are not a free person.

Dumb rules

One challenging rule was that when you were out of the house, you had to phone in three times every day, at specific times, and these calls had to be made from a landline, not a cell phone. This was a problem in multiple ways. First, you had to remember to make the call within the required hour, say noon to 1 p.m., regardless of what you were doing. Those who were working had to find a way to do this during their work day but nobody wanted to disclose their criminal record status if they did not have to, since having a record makes it very hard to get any but the most menial work. At one point I heard the counsellor in the house tell one of the residents to try to avoid declaring that he had a record if he possibly could.

Even for someone like me, with a more flexible schedule, calling from a landline could be a problem just because there are fewer and fewer of them. Payphones, which used to be ubiquitous, are now hard to find. Most restaurants, for example, don’t have them anymore. On one occasion I was having dinner with friends only to find out, when I needed to make my call, that they no longer had a landline. I had to drive to a local coffee shop and ask to use their phone in order to comply with my requirement. Fortunately I had left myself enough time to do so.

So every day you had to remember that you needed to call and to make sure you were near a landline at the required time — something many did, ironically, using their cellphones to remind them. Thankfully, if there were no problems, this demand was gradually reduced — to twice a day, then once a day, and eventually not at all.

No fraternizing

Another hard to understand requirement of the halfway house was that you were not allowed to fraternize with any other residents outside the facility. I could spend all day talking to the people in the house, but I could not do go down the street for a coffee with any of them. And as the opening story shows, you weren’t supposed to have any friends in the house either. Another resident and I were participants in the same external support group that met every week, a condition of our parole known and approved by the system. Yet we were not allowed to leave or return to the house together from those sessions; doing so would have got both of us reported. And when a report can lead to your being sent back to prison, that matters! 

One of the many contradictions in the Correctional Service Canada (CSC) approach to “rehabilitation” is their view that any post-prison contact with anyone with a criminal record is a bad thing. Given that prisons are places where you learn a lot about crime and meet a lot of criminals, in one sense that view is not unreasonable. But we also know that social ties are vitally important to any kind of positive and meaningful life, and for many who have spent years in prison, other prisoners are almost the only people they do know. 

An alarming fact about leaving prison is how high the death rate is for former prisoners in the period shortly after release. At least one person I knew in the prison, a young man, died of an overdose within a week or so of his release. The reality is that people need social contact, and they will go where they can get it. A blanket policy of restriction has stupid results. An individual assessment and rules set by the halfway house staff in consultation with the prisoner would make a lot more sense. 

Can’t leave city

A third frustrating rule had to do with leaving the city. While on parole you are restricted to being in a particular geographic area unless you have prior permission from your parole officer. This may have made sense at some point in the past but does not work in urban areas that contain multiple municipalities — which is where most people live. If a friend or family member lived just outside the municipal boundary — say in Richmond instead of Vancouver or in Markham instead of Toronto – I could not visit them without prior approval. As another example, in cities like Vancouver or Toronto or Edmonton, the airport is outside the municipality. So every time I wanted to go to the airport to pick up or drop off a friend or family member I had to get advance permission from my parole officer. Here the problem is that there is little consistency in how parole officers do their job, as I’ll explain in a future column. So as a prisoner you can never be sure what entirely innocuous actions might land you in trouble.  

For some men, the halfway house is an essential place — the bridge between prison and whatever comes next for them. And given the burdens of a criminal record, what comes next is often not very good. In prison I heard many dreams about life after release, but the reality is that many policies and public attitudes make those dreams very hard to achieve.

For me, being in the halfway house was pointless, just another imposition by the system to make my life harder. I had my own place to live, a strong social network, an income, positive things to do. Living in the halfway house did nothing to help me and potentially set me up for failure.  
This is the second instalment of a two-part column. Part one: Halfway house, part one.

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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