No Longer Home for the Holidays: Trump’s Budget Cuts Keep Mothers Behind Bars Past Release Dates

(Image: Lauren Walker / Truthout)(Image: Lauren Walker / Truthout)

Alicia Siller had been looking forward to Christmas, the first one she’d spend with her children in over 13 years. Siller, who had been sentenced to nearly 22 years in federal prison for drug conspiracy, received clemency from then-President Barack Obama in October 2016. She was scheduled to be transferred from prison to a halfway house in Fort Worth, Texas, on December 14, 2017, less than two weeks before Christmas. There she would spend six months, a first step in her readjustment to life on the outside after more than a decade behind bars.

Her children, who had been ages eight, seven and five when she went to prison, are now adults. They were just as excited as Siller about her return for Christmas. Her daughter arranged for time off work so that she could drive the three hours to the federal prison and pick up her mother, who she had not seen in seven years. Though Siller would not be allowed to leave the halfway house on Christmas, the family was still eagerly looking forward to being together. Her children planned to bring her a home-cooked meal and her youngest child, who she had not seen since her incarceration, had bought her a car for Christmas.

For many leaving the federal prison system, halfway houses are a required first stop before going home.

Then, in October, less than two months before her release date, Siller began hearing rumors that other women’s halfway house dates were being postponed. She went to her prison case manager, who told her that, because of budget cuts, her own halfway house date was postponed: She would not be released from prison until February 2018.

Crushed, Siller called her children to tell them the news. “[My daughter] Miranda’s first word when I told her was WHY?” Siller told Truthout via electronic message.

A similar scenario played out in federal prisons across the country. The reason? Budget cuts to the Bureau of Prisons, leading to the agency not renewing contracts with 16 halfway houses. As of November 20, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has contracts with 166 halfway houses, or Residential Reentry Centers (RRCs). For many leaving the federal prison system, halfway houses are a required first stop before going home. In 2016, of the 43,864 people released from federal prison, 79 percent were released to a halfway house or to home confinement.

Shortly after the cuts were announced, BOP spokesperson Justin Long told Reuters that the cuts would only “affect areas with small populations or underutilized centers;” would not reduce referral rates or placements, and only “impact about 1% of the total number of beds under contract.” No further information has been released about how many people these cuts have actually impacted; the Bureau of Prisons has no announcement about these cuts and closures on their website. But from what people inside prisons have told their families and outside advocates, these cuts have created lengthier waits at the remaining halfway houses, resulting in longer waits to return home and reunite with families.

These cuts have affected men and women incarcerated throughout the federal prison system, disrupting long-awaited reunions with their families. For many mothers, however, prolonging their imprisonment — even by a few months — has acute consequences. After years of separation from their children — and countless missed birthdays, holidays and milestones — many were looking forward to spending their first Christmas together. For children who have grown up without their mothers, like Siller’s daughter Miranda, waiting these additional months has been devastating. “They have been waiting for their mother to come home after all these years,” explained Siller. “I can do this time. It is my children that have been suffering.”

“My Children Asked, Would I Cook for Them on Christmas?”

Siller is far from the only clemency recipient to have her holiday hopes dashed. Carolyn Ann Bell received clemency the day before Obama left office. She was originally sentenced to 21 years in prison for possession of crack-cocaine with intent to distribute; clemency shortened her sentence, making her eligible to go to a halfway house on December 14, after nine years in prison.

During those nine years, Bell has seen her four children twice a year. She was not only eagerly awaiting her first family holiday, but also the opportunity to see her children and extended family every week while at the halfway house. Her sister and daughter had already taken the day of her release off from work to drive the five hours from Lawton, Oklahoma, to the federal prison in Bryan, Texas, to pick her up.

At first, Bell’s case manager told her that the budget cuts likely would not affect her release date. The halfway house to which she was assigned was the only one in Oklahoma, where Bell had lived with her family before her arrest. It was not on the list to be closed nor was it in an area hit by a hurricane. “Originally, we were given the impression that people were being shifted to other halfway houses or [that] those scheduled to leave [for] Houston, Beaumont and a couple of places in Florida wouldn’t be able to leave due to the hurricanes that hit Texas and Florida,” explained Bell. Her case manager printed the confirmation and Bell called her family to prepare for her release date.

“My children asked, would I come home to cook for them on Christmas,” she told Truthout via electronic message, recounting that, before her arrest and imprisonment, she had done all of the holiday cooking. Her children also planned to revive other holiday traditions with their mother this year. “They told me that they wanted to make gingerbread cookies and a gingerbread house with me this year,” she said, recalling the many holidays when they stayed up late baking cookies and drinking eggnog.

Two weeks later, Bell saw a line of people standing outside the case manager’s office and learned that he had received a list of women with changed release dates. “I stood in line and we were called in five at a time for him to check if our dates were changed,” she wrote. When her group entered, they learned that the four women slated to leave on December 14 would now be staying in prison until February 2018. For Bell, the postponed date not only means missing another Christmas with her children, but also shortens her halfway house stay from six months to four months. Bell, who had been relying on the full six months in the halfway house to ease the transition into a much faster, more tech-savvy society, is concerned that the shortened period won’t be long enough.

“People that have been incarcerated for nearly a decade like me are institutionalized,” she explained. Bell has already gotten a taste of how difficult the transition might be. In May, she was allowed a 12-hour furlough (or temporary release) to spend Mother’s Day with her children. “My family drove six hours [to Bryan] and reserved a hotel,” she recounted. They spent the day eating, swimming, shopping and walking around a park. But, she added, those 12 hours made her realize how much being confined had changed her ability to navigate the outside world. “I found myself overwhelmed,” she remembered. “My anxiety levels were high in stores as I waited to be checked out. Every time I heard keys, I was looking around to find the guard.”

Bell refuses to return to her old neighborhood, which would increase her chances of relapsing and returning to prison. “I made the decision to relocate to Oklahoma City because I didn’t want to find myself around the old family and friends who are still engaging in a lifestyle of crime, drugs or alcohol,” she said. She also noted that three of her children are still minors — ages 12, 13 and 15 — and will be dependent upon her. (Her oldest daughter, now 23 years old and a new mother, lives in her own apartment.)

Bell worries that the combination of being in a new city, learning to navigate 21st century life and finding a job and apartment large enough for her family in only 120 days will be daunting. “I need ALL of my halfway house time to get me a place for my kids and I to live,” she wrote. “I also need beds for us to sleep on and the necessities to keep our hygiene up. I also need a car to get to work. How is it possible to get all of these things in four months?”

“They Just Slapped Me in the Face … Again”

It’s not only clemency recipients who are hit by these budget cuts. The grassroots organization CAN-DO (Clemency for All Nonviolent Drug Offenders) has heard from at least 15 people incarcerated across the country whose release dates were postponed; they also confirmed that many of the men and women in these prisons were in similar situations. In other words, the number of people affected most likely reaches into the hundreds.

Lori Kavitz is one of those people. Kavitz’s first disappointment came on January 6, 2017, when she was denied clemency. The 57-year-old grandmother has been serving a sentence of 24 years and four months for conspiracy to distribute meth since 2001. However, under the Drugs Minus Two sentencing reduction, her sentence was reduced by nearly seven years. Her release date to a halfway house in Sioux City, Iowa, was scheduled for November 17 of this year.

“After 16 years, my sons and I were excited to say the least,” she told Truthout via e-message. “My [other] family [members] are all deceased and my sons and grandchildren (whom I’ve never had the opportunity to meet) are the only ones left. I’ve not seen them in 12 years due to the fact that the BOP has located me in Florida for the last seven years and it is too far for young families to afford to travel from Iowa and Minnesota.”

Kavitz’s sons bought her a plane ticket to fly from Florida to Iowa. Her 27-year-old son, who was 12 when Kavitz was arrested, asked the tenants who had been renting Kavitz’s house to move out so that he could begin preparing for his mother’s return.

In September, Kavitz was called into her case manager’s office and told that her November release date had been postponed until March 1, 2018. She is now scheduled to remain at the halfway house for only two weeks before being placed on home confinement.

“The call I had to make to tell [family members] that I was being denied until March was tearful to say the least,” she recalled.

“It’s never this chaotic,” said CAN-DO founder and president Amy Povah, who was granted clemency by President Clinton. Under normal circumstances, she told Truthout, the Bureau of Prisons issues a memo to its prisons informing case managers of changes in policy. The case managers, in turn, relay this to the people incarcerated at that particular prison. But in many prisons, this chain of information didn’t seem to occur, foiling families’ plans for holiday reunions.

“You’ve got a fixed picture in your head of what you’re gonna do,” said Povah. “Then it’s ripped from you. It’s ripped from your heart.”

But in a small handful of prisons, crushing disappointment has been followed by relief. At the end of November, Povah received an e-message from Crystal Matter, who is incarcerated at the federal prison in Waseca, Minnesota. “There was a couple people here who got their halfway house time taken a couple days ago and yesterday they called them in to tell them it was a mistake and they will still be leaving as scheduled,” wrote Matter, who had not personally been affected by the budget cuts and confusion. “One of them had 10 months’ halfway house time and she got it all back! This is such great news. I hope that it keeps happening.”

At the federal prison in Elkton, Ohio, Cedric Dean, whose November 6 release date had initially been postponed, was quietly released three weeks later.

Still, many people are not getting their initial release dates back. Siller, for example, has not had her initial release date restored, though she’s heard of it happening to other women in the prison. At the federal prison in Bryan, Texas, Carolyn Bell has heard that some women have had their dates restored; she, however, has not.

Some lawmakers are taking notice of these closures, arguing that they threaten formerly incarcerated people’s ability to successfully transition from prison to society. On October 26, days after the cuts and closures were announced, eight senators sent a letter to Bureau of Prisons Director Mark Inch and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, urging them to refrain from closing the halfway houses. On December 13, 2017, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will be holding a hearing on the halfway house closures. BOP Director Inch is slated to testify.

Lawmakers may be taking notice and pushing against these cuts, but in prison, Kavitz received even more disappointing news. On November 30, she wrote, “Just yesterday, the administrative secretary was telling me that it seemed like the storm had passed and they were giving the people their time back. The Unit Manager called me in this morning and said she’d received an e-mail to inform her that they no longer had room for me on my March 1st date and my date was moved to sometime in May.” Devastated, Kavitz said that the rest of the conversation went by in a blur. “After all this time, I feel like they just slapped me in the face … again.”