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PLN associate editor quoted in article re CEC halfway houses in NJ

The Record, Jan. 1, 2012.
PLN associate editor quoted in article re CEC halfway houses in NJ - The Record 2012

Analysis: Christie's lingo on halfway houses is missing something

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Record

Governor Christie has a reputation for speaking bluntly and directly: “Get the hell off the beach,” he told those in the path of Hurricane Irene. “Dr. Kevorkian of the numbers” is what he called a budget analyst. “Idiot,” was his response to a vocal critic during a public meeting.

But when his administration talks about the people who by one means or another disappear from state halfway houses, words are chosen very carefully.

So carefully that there’s one word that’s almost never used: “Escape.”

People “walk away” from halfway houses. They “abscond.” Fourteen of them were described by the facility’s operator as having “exited” one in Newark during superstorm Sandy.

And that’s even though “escape” is the core charge people face after being recaptured.

Terminology is critical in the packaging of political issues and government initiatives. That seems strikingly true of the state’s sprawling halfway house program, a system within the state corrections system that, after years of problems — including thousands of what most people might well deem escapes — has become a focus of attention in Trenton.

A group of Democratic lawmakers in the Assembly put forward a series of bills last week that would revamp the program, and Christie has said he is open to signing legislation he considers appropriate.

Each year, the state spends $65 million on halfway houses, which members of both parties describe as a lower-cost, more rehabilitative alternative to prison. State and local officials award contracts to vendors, the largest among them maintaining strong connections to New Jersey politicians.

There are 18 facilities around the state, some easily as big as prisons and surrounded by fences and barbed wire, as is common across the country, but they are called halls, or centers, terms that hark back to the concept’s early days, when halfway houses were widely viewed as smaller, more nurturing alternatives to standard lockups. Thousands of people are housed in them on a given day, but they are called residents, not inmates.

Although halfway houses have flourished under six governors of both parties, Christie has a particularly strong connection to them. A video of him praising a facility affiliated with Community Education Centers, the largest of the outside contractors associated with the program, appeared on the company’s website. One of the company’s former top executives, William Palatucci, is a close adviser to the governor.

To administration officials, the other terms serve to define the program’s distinctions with precision. But, intentionally or not, the choice of words can also serve to insulate the governor and lawmakers, or deflect attention, from the serious problems with the operation of the halfway houses, which are privately run but publicly funded.

In recent years, at least two people have been killed by those who disappeared from halfway houses.

Escapes, officials say, involve far more than an inmate simply leaving an unlocked room or failing to return from a work-release program.

“An escape occurs due to a fundamental breakdown in security or because established procedures aren’t followed, and, by definition, requires concerted effort, subterfuge and planning by an inmate in a facility with a level of security far higher than that of a halfway house,” said Deirdre Fedkenheuer, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections.

“A walkaway, in contrast and implied by the name itself, is far more passive, and occurs when someone willingly chooses to leave a program or fails to return from a specific community appointment, including employment,” she said.

The term “absconder,” meanwhile, specifically refers to a halfway house inmate who is on parole and then leaves without permission, she said. But using words like “walkaway” and “abscond” can also obscure or downplay “a public safety failure,” said Alex Friedmann, an associate editor at Prison Legal News, which covers the corrections industry. More meaningful is what people will be charged with if they flee a halfway house, he said. In New Jersey, the likely charge is escape.

“There is no ‘walking away’ charge,” said Friedmann, a national expert on private prisons. “It’s semantics, basically.”

For Benjamin Dworkin, a political science professor at Rider University, the use of terms like walkaway reveals a side of Christie largely obscured by his more blustery verbiage — the Christie who knows how and when he can benefit from using “more subtle language.”

“This is no different than any other politician,” Dworkin said.

Yet, within the corrections field, there are those who say terms like abscond have a firm place, even if their use may sound like parsing to the layman. Such terms have become institutionalized because they portray clear distinctions in the corrections field, said Martin Horn, a lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

A parolee staying in a halfway house is “technically at liberty,” unlike a prison inmate who has yet to fully serve out his sentence, said Horn, a former commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction and Department of Probation.

That’s why abscond does not have the same meaning as escape to those involved in corrections, he said.

“That is certainly a widely used term of art,” he said.

900 walkaways

In all, there have been more than 900 walkaways from New Jersey halfway houses over the past four years, including 78 since late June, after a series in The New York Times brought the halfway houses back into the news.

But who gets recorded as a walkaway by the state is also limited by bureaucratic definition. The state’s totals don’t include those who disappeared after being placed in the facilities by other agencies, such as the federal Bureau of Prisons and the state Parole Board, and county governments, including Essex. Those people are listed as absconds or exits, with disappearances that are not publicized or as easy to track down as those on the state’s list of walkaways.

The latest incident calling attention to the halfway house system came during superstorm Sandy, when 14 inmates took off from Logan Hall, a halfway house in Newark that had lost power on Oct. 29.

Some witnesses and corrections union officials have portrayed the events of Oct. 29 as a near-riot, but officials have been much more selective in their descriptions, using words like disturbance and incident.

Christie downplayed what happened when asked about it recently by reporters, saying, “When you lose power, things are going to happen.”

Among those who left the facility on Oct. 29 were 12 parolees, said David Thomas, executive director of the state Parole Board.

“A small number of residents absconded,” Thomas said. All 12 were recaptured, he said.

Also brought back after getting out were two inmates placed in Logan Hall by Essex County, said Phil Alagia, Essex County’s chief of staff.

“There was an incident,” Alagia said. “We’re describing it as an incident.”

“All the specifics are under investigation,” he said.

Community Education Centers, which operates the Newark facility, said in a statement that “a small number of the 547 residents did take advantage of the storm to create a minor disturbance.”

Vending machines were damaged and several inmates “exited the facility,” the statement went on to say.

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