Before midnight on August 31, 2018, Michael Tedder’s cell phone died by his side while he slept in his girlfriend’s home. Tedder, then aged 47, left federal prison only four months earlier after he had been incarcerated for more than 11 years for selling cocaine. Since prison, he had been living under supervision and still in custody at a halfway house in Brooklyn. But that Labor Day weekend, Tedder got permission from the house to stay with his girlfriend a few days. It was the first time they had been alone together in more than a decade.
Each year nationwide, thousands of federal prisoners whose release dates are near can choose to spend the final few months of their sentence in prison or at a halfway house. Although residents temporarily living at halfway houses are monitored, they have freedom to leave the complex to find a job, go to work, or see loved ones—if residents like Tedder get staff permission, abide by curfews, and answer all staff monitoring calls.
Many prisoners pick a halfway house for those freedoms.
But when Tedder debated whether to spend the last ten months of his sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution of Danbury, the prison in Connecticut where he was incarcerated, or at a halfway house, he got a surprising warning from his case manager.
“He advised me not to take the ten months [at the halfway house],” said Tedder. “Because being in a halfway house for so long, it can be difficult. Sometimes the halfway house people can be a lot. They can be very, very petty about certain things.”
Confused with the advice, Tedder took his chances. In May 2018, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) placed him at a 160-bed halfway house in an industrial part of Brooklyn. The facility was called Brooklyn House Residential Reentry Center.
During his first few weeks at the complex, things were looking up for Tedder. He landed a construction job and could leave the house for work. He bought a cheap cell phone to take calls from staff, who were required to randomly call residents to check their location while out of the house. But the stress of those calls soon began to wear on Tedder. He said he “constantly” worried about not hearing his phone ring at work—and what would happen if he didn’t pick up.
Then at around 6:30 a.m. on September 1, 2018, over that Labor Day weekend at his girlfriend’s home, Tedder woke up and instinctively reached for his phone. But his phone didn’t turn on.
“I just jumped up and was like, ‘Oh my God, the halfway house!’” said Tedder.
Panicked, he plugged in his phone only to see missed calls from the house. Tedder called back, and a staff member told him to get to the facility immediately. Tedder later found out, and official records verified, that the house by then had already reported him to the federal authorities at the BOP. His non-response had been deemed an “escape.” Tedder was stunned.
“I mean, come on,” he said. “Why would you think that I would escape—or make any attempt to escape—when you gave me extra hours to stay out?”
An incident report, which documents a resident breaking a house rule, stated that Tedder did not answer his phone after repeated calls, so staff could not locate him. That led Tedder to be seen as attempting an escape. This report landed Tedder back in prison without the opportunity to attend his own hearing on his case. For residents placed on escape status, the BOP can conduct hearings without those residents being present.
BOP officials handcuffed Tedder at the halfway house and took him to Metropolitan Detention Center, a federal detention facility in Brooklyn. The BOP soon transferred Tedder to the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, the same prison he came from before the halfway house. He would spend about six months there.
“That six months that they sent me back, that was worse than the whole 11 and a half years that I had already done,” said Tedder. “You sent me back for something that, well, something I didn’t even do. You charged me with escape. I didn’t escape. Because I said that I wasn’t going back.”
What happened to Tedder at Brooklyn House points to a wider failure of federal halfway houses. Private entities, either nonprofit organizations or for-profit companies, operate almost all federal houses as contractors for the BOP. Minimal federal oversight of these contractors, high staff turnover with limited staff training inside houses, challenges securing a house location, and the BOP’s dependence on these facilities to release many prisoners rank among the key problems plaguing this critical yet overlooked part of the criminal justice system.
Over the past decade, criminal justice experts, advocates, and officials at the Office of Inspector General (OIG), a federal watchdog agency, have repeatedly voiced concern over the BOP thinly monitoring halfway house contractors with often little information on how the people inside are treated. The BOP does not provide public data, for instance, on how many, how often, or why residents like Tedder get sent back to prison, known as remanded, from halfway houses.
Yet according to the BOP’s website, halfway houses, or Residential Reentry Centers (RRCs), “provide programs that help inmates rebuild their ties to the community and reduce the likelihood that they will recidivate.” The facilities are charged with supporting people to take their first steps out of prison safely back into society, not back into a cell, exacerbating recidivism.
On October 5, 2018, about a month after Tedder missed his staff calls, he filed an appeal to the BOP from his prison cell, arguing he did not escape the halfway house nor try to do so. Tedder included with his appeal the house’s incident report and a picture of his dead phone. His then-girlfriend, Sharon Thompson, also wrote a letter to the BOP detailing her side of the story.
Thompson wrote that she prayed her written statement would “help prove Mr. Tedder’s honest mishap, that he was home sleeping when contact calls were missed.” She went on to state that Tedder’s construction job helped her make ends meet. “I have lost a good source of financial support and my spouse because of a cheap phone that we should not have bought … We are human beings; we made a bad purchase, that’s all. Please have some mercy on us.”
Tedder’s sister, Shannon Tedder, also wrote a letter to the BOP for her brother’s appeal. After house staff could not reach Tedder or his girlfriend, staff called Ms. Tedder after midnight on September 1, 2018, asking her for his whereabouts. Official records verify this call took place.
“It will be extremely devastating to us as a family to have Michael taken away from us once again after losing so many precious years,” wrote Ms. Tedder in her letter to the BOP. “Both of our parents are elderly moreover, and our father is disabled. I am requesting that you dismiss all charges against Michael referencing the above reasons. For this whole ordeal was nothing more than a misunderstanding.”
On February 19, 2019, more than five months after Tedder filed his appeal, a BOP official got back to Tedder with a letter stating, “inmate was found to not have committed the prohibited act,” referring to the halfway house escape. By its own admission, the BOP had reincarcerated Tedder from a mistaken incident report at Brooklyn House.
But the news came too late for Tedder. He had already almost finished his second round of prison time, serving six months in a cell after the house sent him back. With his return to prison, Tedder lost his job and said that he suffered strained relationships with family members.
“Because my son was like, ‘Dad, I hope you’re not going back again.’ And I’m like, ‘Nah, boy. I’m home. I’m not going back in,’” said Tedder. “It was just that halfway house, had I known it would have been that way, maybe I would have listened to my case manager and just taken the six months [in prison].”
To criminal justice advocates and experts, Tedder’s story is a familiar one.
“We get lots of calls from people in halfway houses or just out of them saying that the conditions inside are bad, they’re over-surveilled, or they’re getting sent back to prison for something small or that they didn’t do,” said Wanda Bertram, spokesperson at the Prison Policy Initiative, a think tank for criminal justice public policy. “But these are only anecdotal. The bar is really low around data collection at houses. No centralized source of information on them really exists.”
Those data holes make it difficult to know not only how many stories like Tedder’s are out there but if halfway houses are doing their jobs. Yet nationwide, there are more than 150 federal halfway houses, or RRCs, that together can hold more than 9,700 residents.
On any given day in 2018, RRCs had 9,600 residents (out of the more than 180,000 federal prisoners that year). The total number of residents annually is not reported regularly, but a BOP document stated 32,760 people spent time in federal RRCs in 2015. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, that suggests high population turnover inside facilities.
Halfway houses also cost taxpayers millions annually. Based on fiscal year 2020 data, the BOP reported $35,663 as the average annual cost of incarcerating a federal inmate inside a halfway house. That is about 9% lower than the average annual cost of incarcerating an inmate inside a federal prison—$39,158—based on the same fiscal year data.
“It was really a revolving door,” said Clevelyn Murray, a former Brooklyn House employee from July 2017 to October 2018 during Tedder’s placement there. “You have to really mess up to go back. And it’s the BOP, they’ll remand you. It’s not up to staff. We will bring it to the BOP’s attention, but it’s always up to them whether or not they remand the person.”
At Brooklyn House, Murray’s job title was quality assurance specialist. When a social services coordinator left the facility soon after she started, Murray took on that role in addition to her own. She quit in less than a year, saying her responsibilities went beyond her job description. Murray also said that she did not know Tedder.
“You’re given a case worker who is overloaded with too many cases,” said Saul Serrano, aged 50, who was a Brooklyn House resident for about three months in 2019 after he had served 13 months in Metropolitan Detention Center. “They’re always understaffed. We talk about the ‘spin’ there. They tell you something, then it doesn’t happen. They spin you. You’re treated more like a criminal there than at prison. The system there can be a lot better.”
According to the late Dr. Edward Latessa, professor emeritus at the University of Cincinnati and former director of the University’s School of Criminal Justice, Murray and Serrano’s reports of overburdened staff are not atypical for federal halfway houses.
“Well-run halfway houses are much more effective,” said Latessa. “They have good staff. They have good leadership. They provide treatment. A lot of states have pushed their halfway houses to do that. The feds have not.”
Before Latessa passed away in 2022, he was interviewed for this story as one of the nation’s leading experts on halfway houses and recidivism. He noted staff turnover tends to be high at federal houses, and the BOP does not have staff training standards. These issues are not new.
“Years ago, the Federal Bureau of Prisons met with me because they wanted to improve their halfway houses,” said Latessa. “I told them what they needed to do. And they said, ‘Well, we really can’t do that. We have them all over the country. Even if they’re not well-run, we need the contract.’ And I said, ‘Well, then, you can’t fix them.’ And I sent them on their way.”
The BOP audits halfway houses, but Latessa explained that those audits focus on operations (i.e., if fire extinguishers are up to date). The quality of the staff, the leadership, the behavioral management system, and the treatment provided to residents go relatively unexamined. The same goes for recidivism.
“My guess is they don’t track recidivism,” said Latessa of federal halfway houses. “They’re not very good at that. Those are different questions.”
Dr. Mindy Schweitzer Smith, senior research associate and deputy director at the University of Cincinnati’s Corrections Institute, made a similar point.
“I don’t know of an audit that requires programs to track recidivism,” she said. “To be very honest, a lot of halfway houses are private, so their rules and regulations can really differ. There isn’t a lot of consistent oversight and requirements.”
The BOP’s inconsistent oversight also connects to prisons’ dependence on houses. Without enough house beds, people can stay in prison longer, backing up a strained system. That can lower incentive to scrutinize contractors.
“If there’s only one halfway house in South Dakota, and it’s not very well-run, and they have to release inmates in South Dakota to a halfway house, what are their options?” said Latessa.
It can also be difficult to secure a halfway house location due to zoning permissions and stigma.
“Most people, if you ask them, do they support rehabilitation, reintegration, they’ll all say yes,” said Latessa. “If you ask them, do they support halfway houses, many will say yes. But they don’t want them next door to them. And that’s one of the biggest challenges: siting.”
The BOP can be reluctant to break ties with a contractor that already has a halfway house site.
But these problems pile up. In 2016, the Office of Inspector General (OIG), a federal watchdog agency, released an audit of the BOP’s management of halfway houses. Officials raised alarm over how little the BOP had been checking if contractors were doing the work of rehabilitation, of helping residents reenter society, not prison.
“The BOP does not have performance measures that evaluate the efficacy of these programs, and the BOP does not have adequate procedures in place to monitor the services provided by halfway house contractors,” said Michael Horowitz, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Inspector General, in a statement with the 2016 audit’s release.
In 2015, the OIG also audited Brooklyn House and found consistent paperwork errors, which can negatively impact residents like Tedder. For example, out of 49 residents’ case files that the OIG had reviewed in a sample, 18 residents’ release plans were late, incomplete, or missing.
Yet since 2013, the OIG has released only eight audits of the more than 150 federal houses in operation. Advocates like the Prison Policy Institute argue intensive monitoring of contractors—and the BOP’s management of them—should be routine.
More than four years after Tedder’s time at Brooklyn House, the contractor behind that halfway house, a nonprofit named CORE Services Group, faced scandals of its own. Until March 31, 2022, CORE ran a network of New York City homeless shelters alongside Brooklyn House. A 2021 New York Times investigation found the nonprofit’s CEO conducted unethical business practices, personally profiting from taxpayer funds. New York City’s then-Mayor Bill de Blasio responded by not renewing shelter contracts with CORE. The nonprofit meanwhile claims the city owes it $37 million.
With a focus on CORE’s New York City government contracts, little attention has been paid to its federal halfway houses. The nonprofit still runs Brooklyn House on a ten-year, $60 million contract that the BOP awarded in 2020. CORE is set to open another federal halfway house in Washington, D.C. on a multi-year, multimillion-dollar contract. To critics, the continued contracts suggest that holding federal halfway houses accountable remains elusive.
After more than two years, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests filed to the BOP for Brooklyn House’s remand rates in 2018 and 2019 have gone unfulfilled. The BOP’s Residential Reentry Manager of New York, who oversees Brooklyn House, did not respond to requests for comment on how remand decisions are made at Brooklyn House. In addition, Brooklyn House’s then-director and CORE’s CEO did not comment on Tedder’s remand, did not provide Brooklyn House remand data from 2018 and 2019, and did not confirm if or how remands are tracked.
Whether federal houses more often help or harm people like Tedder goes unanswered.
“Where would I have been had that not happened? I’m never going to get any of the time that I’ve done back,” said Tedder on his remand from Brooklyn House. “Even when I hear guys are going to the halfway house now, I wonder if anybody is going through what I went through. Or if they have made any changes since then. A light needs to be shone on this.”
Stakes are high for the future of federal halfway houses. Since the First Step Act became law in 2018, more taxpayer dollars have headed to these facilities. That legislation works to release more low-risk people early from federal prisons. Halfway houses are key to such reentry efforts.
With an influx of federal funds, some private prison companies have expanded into the halfway house business. GEO Group, one of the country’s biggest private prison companies, runs about 30% of federal houses today compared to only a handful a few years ago. In early 2021, when President Joe Biden issued an executive order to not renew federal prison contracts with private companies, a loophole left halfway houses out, allowing private contractors to continue running these houses.
Several experts and advocates are watching to see if the latest policy shifts will invite greater scrutiny of the BOP and house contractors. But if Brooklyn House’s operations under CORE despite a recent exposé is to be any indication, that overhaul of house oversight may remain out of reach.
“It’s just sad,” said former Brooklyn House resident Serrano. “I have friends and family to help me adjust to life after prison. But a lot of people don’t. I’ve talked to guys who were in there with me. We can remember going into the house, getting your fingerprints, getting your clothes, going upstairs to your bed, but we can’t remember another day until the day we left. We block it out.”