Hello from Arlington, Virginia! I thought I would write a letter to Loretto to tell you about my experience since going home. I learned a lot about the halfway house process, while the Bureau of Prisons’ bumbling ineptitude was made even more crystal clear after I left than it had been when I was still inside.
Imagine that! I even recently saw a YouTube video of the BOP Director, Charles Samuels, testifying on Capitol Hill. One Congressman asked him the average size of a cell in solitary confinement. He hemmed, hawed, and generally made a fool of himself. The bottom line: He had no idea how big (or small) a cell is in solitary confinement, despite the fact that he’s spent his entire career in the BOP and is a former warden! That says a lot.
I completed my house arrest on May 1 and began three years of probation, or what Ronald Reagan called “supervised release.” (Technically, there is no such thing as probation anymore, although the person to whom I report is called a “United States Probation Officer.”) Anyway, I wanted to tell you how things have gone since I left FCI Loretto on February 3, 2015.
My last hour at Loretto was a little stressful, not because I was anxious to get out (although I was), but because of a little troll who tried to set me up just as I was leaving. The details aren’t important, other than to say that this prison employee was furious when I wouldn’t take her bait. She taunted me and threatened to put me in solitary because I asked to go to the release office at a time other than a formal “move.” And when I just repeated, “I’m not going to let you set me up. I’m going home and you can’t stop me,” she blew me a cynical kiss. (This secretary, the sister and daughter of Corrections Officers, has a reputation for sending prisoners to solitary for “leering” at her. Take my word for it. She’s nothing to leer at.)
I was met in the parking lot by my wife Heather, my three youngest children, and my friend Joe, who took the day off to drive me to the halfway house, where I was to check in before being sent home. We stopped at the nearest McDonald’s for an Egg McMuffin. (I know, I know. But it just goes to show you how sickening the food is in prison when you can’t get to a McDonald’s fast enough upon release.)
Heather, Joe, and I briefly toyed with the idea of stopping for lunch somewhere, but I only had five hours to get to the halfway house, so we decided to drive straight through. I’m glad we did. The trip to Washington is normally three hours, but there was a lot of traffic entering Washington, and I got to the halfway house with only 45 minutes to spare.
The halfway house to which I was sent is called Hope Village. Residents call it Hopeless Village. I’ve seen it referred to in the press as “Abandon all Hope Village.” It’s a former housing project on the worst block in the worst neighborhood in the worst part of Washington. It’s nowhere near a Metro station and transportation by bus is inconvenient, to say the least.
I had done a little research on Hope Village before my arrival. The Washington Post found the facility’s “job training services lacking and access to mental health services anemic.” There is no money for “residents” to use public transportation to job interviews, and cell phones and internet access are forbidden.
In addition, according to Prison Legal News, a 2013 report by the District of Columbia’s Corrections Information Council (CIC) found that Hope Village “lacked the ability to help residents find housing and employment, and hindered them from accessing mental health services. Residents said they felt unsafe and the halfway house did not have an effective system to handle grievances.” The report continued that, “The CIC heard on multiple occasions that incarcerated DC residents would prefer to stay at secure BOP facilities than to reenter DC through Hope Village.” The then-chairman of the CIC added, “I would say that there are some things that are obviously dysfunctional” at Hope Village.
So I was prepared for the worst. I arrived at Hope Village at around 11:45 am and went to the office to check in. I was told that I had to speak to several different people before being sent home, and I was told to go to apartment 301 and wait until somebody came to get me. I told Heather and Joe to go home, and I said I’d call them when I was done.
Several things came immediately to my attention. First, everybody was friendly. And I mean everybody. The staff greeted me with, “Hello, Mr. Kiriakou. Welcome to Hope Village.” The apartment was sparsely furnished, but had everything important: two bunk beds, a couch, two chairs, and a color TV with broadcast channels.
There was a schedule waiting for me. I was to see a case manager, an employment counselor, a drug counselor, and a social worker. That also meant that I couldn’t just check in, check out, and go home. Instead, check in took nine hours. With that said, the food in the cafeteria, which EVERYBODY complained about, was absolutely delicious to me: white bread with a slice of turkey and a slice of cheese. I never tasted anything so wonderful.
The case manager finally gave me a list of 14 mandatory classes that I had to complete in the coming weeks, and then sent me home. I was told that I had to go to the halfway house every day to check in, go to class, and get drug tested. That sounded fine, but became a colossal pain in the ass.
First, I wasn’t allowed to drive, so I had to take public transportation. I had to leave my house, walk to the Metro station, take the Metro to the Eastern Market station on Capitol Hill, catch a bus for Washington’s Anacostia neighborhood, get off on Alabama Avenue, then walk the rest of the way to Hope Village. This took at least two hours each way. I would spend an hour or two at Hope Village, and then make the two-hour trip home. This was killing six hours every day in the middle of the workday. The problem here is that I’m supposed to be working every day. If I don’t work, I get violated, and I have to go back to Loretto. I saw these daily visits to the halfway house as an utter waste of time.
Perhaps out of laziness or perhaps out of rebellion, I didn’t sign up for any of the classes the first two weeks that I was home. These classes included Life Skills, Kicking Your Drug Addiction, Suicide Prevention, Prison Rape Prevention, How to Write a Resume, and others. I frankly didn’t need any of them. I’ve never done a drug in my life, my life skills are just fine, etc. I told the case manager that the prison rape prevention class should be given BEFORE the person goes to prison, not after release. It seemed like closing the barn door after the animals get out.
At the end of the second week, I got a call from my case manager. “Come to Hope Village right away. We need to do a team meeting.” I had no idea what this meant, but I began the long trek to Anacostia. When I got there, I was ushered into a dilapidated conference room. Sitting around the table were the director and deputy director of Hope Village, the case manager, the employment counselor, the social worker, and a representative of the Bureau of Prisons. The case manager angrily said, “You haven’t signed up for a single class since you got out. Unless you want to be violated you better start taking the life skills classes!”
I paused for a moment, looked at her, and said, “Have you ever seen the episode of The Simpsons where Homer has to take a life skills class? He walks into the classroom and the instructor is saying ‘put a garbage can lid on the garbage can, people. I can’t stress that enough.’ Is that what you’re going to teach me in your life skills class? To put a garbage can lid on the garbage can?” There was silence for a moment, then the director asked me to step outside for a moment.
I stood in the hall for about a half hour, and then I was called back in to the conference room. “OK,” the director said. “We’re waiving all the classes. You don’t have to take any of them.” I thanked him, and continued: “There’s another thing. I want permission to drive. I kill four hours in travel time, plus however much time I spend being here every time I come up. I can drive here from my house in 15 minutes. I can use the rest of that time to work. And isn’t that what I’m supposed to be doing?” There was another period of silence. Then the director said, “OK. You can drive. Give the employment counselor a copy of your license, insurance, and title. I’ll approve it.”
I later made one more minor complaint to my case manager. I told her that our meetings, by then three times a week and scheduled in the middle of the day, further interfered with my ability to work. She moved them to Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7:00 pm. Again, BOP take notice! This is how to treat people.
Hope Village’s employees showed leadership, flexibility, pragmatism, and respect. It’s a recognition that some newly-released prisoners need less help and oversight than others. It’s a recognition that resources are better spent on some prisoners than on others. I can say cynically that I’m happy to waste as much of the Justice Department’s time and money as I possibly can. But that’s not really true. I simply don’t need the oversight or the hassle.
So for 87 days, from my release from Loretto on February 3 until the end of my house arrest on May 1, this was the deal: I couldn’t leave my house except to go to Hope Village or the doctor. The halfway house’s “officer in charge of quarters” called me every morning between 7:10 and 8:00 am to make sure I was home. There was a second call every night between 9:15 and 10:15 pm. They called as late as 11:20 pm. The “employment counselor” stopped by the house randomly, usually on a Tuesday or Wednesday, to make sure I was home. If I left the house for any reason whatsoever, even for an emergency, I had to call Hope Village and say, “John Kiriakou leaving the house,” even if it was to go to Hope Village. I also had to call when I got home to say, “John Kiriakou. I arrived home.”
The only exception to movement was on weekends. On Saturdays and Sundays I was allowed to leave the house for five hours, I had to return home for at least an hour, and then I could go back out for four hours, for the purpose of “family reintegration.” I could go to a movie, a restaurant, the park, whatever, with my wife and kids.
Every Tuesday I had to meet with my case manager and give her a copy of my proposed movement for the week—a list of doctor’s appointments, movement to Hope Village, or meetings with my attorneys, and plans for the weekend. I also had to give her receipts from the weekend to prove that I did what I said I would do, and a copy of my monthly phone bill.
I also had to pay “rent” to Hope Village for the bed I didn’t use. That rent is 25 percent of my gross pay. You see, like all halfway houses, Hope Village is a for profit enterprise. Lip service to job training, mental health, and reintegration are fine, but the truth is that the goal of Hope Village and every other halfway house is to get released prisoners in and out as quickly as possible.
Every resident has to pay rent, and the only way the halfway house can make any money is to rent out the bed to three, four, or more people at the same time. The goal, then, is to get people into home confinement quickly. That way they don’t cost the halfway house anything in the way of food or other resources, but they still pay rent.
You would think that would be an incentive for Hope Village to help people find a job, but it’s not. Aside from a bulletin board in the office listing job openings at fast food restaurants, car washes, and motels, there is no program to get anybody a job. Just get a job—any job—on your own, and go home and pay your rent.
For me that was no big deal. I had a job lined up before I even left prison. This was, however, a temporary job. I set out immediately to find something permanent. I was finally offered a job as an associate fellow with Washington’s preeminent progressive think tank, the Institute for Policy Studies. IPS is one of the oldest and most highly-respected independent policy institutions in the city. Its experts appear on network news programs all the time, they publish countless books, magazine articles, and syndicated columns, and they speak around the world on issues as varied as the Middle East peace process, climate change, gender equality, human rights, civil rights, and the environment. My job would be to write articles, papers, and op-eds on prison reform, intelligence reform, torture policy, terrorism, and the Middle East.
I’ve always admired IPS and the work they do, and I was excited at the prospect of working there. I filled out the relevant paperwork for the halfway house. The employment counselor visited the office to make sure there was such a place and that they knew I was a felon. (They had approached me, incidentally.) No problems there.
But two weeks later my case manager showed me a note from the Bureau of Prisons regional office in Baltimore. It said, “We feel it is inappropriate for Inmate Kiriakou to work in a job that would allow him to comment on foreign affairs and prison reform, given the nature of his crime.”
The BOP’s opinion is, of course, nonsensical. First, there’s that pesky issue of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, as in “freedom of speech.” Second, it’s not up to the Bureau of Prisons to decide where I can and can’t work. I could have gone to court to file a motion overturning the BOP’s decision. But that would take months, so I decided to wait them out. The BOP no longer controls me, and on May 4 I start my job with IPS.
My only other problem also has been with the BOP. When I got home on February 3, I tweeted a photo of myself sitting on the couch with my three youngest kids, and the caption, “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last. MLK, Jr. (And John Kiriakou.)” That tweet was picked up by the major alternative news websites, as well as the Russia Today television news network, Aljazeera, and others. Consequently, I received dozens of interview requests over the next couple of weeks.
Before I accepted any of them, I looked at the BOP’s regulations related to press interviews at www.bop.gov. The regulations were clear. I needed to get BOP approval for interviews while incarcerated. I then checked the halfway house’s website. It said that residents of Hope Village had to get the director’s permission before speaking to the press. I was neither incarcerated nor a resident of the halfway house. So I accepted a number of interview requests, including with Democracy Now, RT, and several print outlets. Within days, I received a call from a BOP official in Baltimore. He said that he was “very concerned” that I had had unauthorized contact with the press. I told him that, on the contrary, I had read the regulations and I knew that I did not need BOP approval. Furthermore, I had read the Hope Village regulations, and I didn’t need their authorization either.
The BOP guy said that while that may be true, he was insisting that I get approvals. If I continued to grant interviews without his approval, he would violate me and send me back to prison. Again, a motion before the court would take months to get a hearing. And I likely would have had to argue it from prison. I know when to make a strategic retreat, and I did so. Fine. I would bury him in paper.
That’s what I did. I sent him as many as a dozen forms per week. I put him in touch with every blogger, podcaster, reporter, and photojournalist I came into contact with. There were reporters from most major American news outlets and a dozen foreign countries. There were radio hosts from the far left, the far right, and everything in between. I even did an entire one-hour radio program on how folk singer Pete Seeger influenced the course of my life.
This turned out to be too much for the BOP guy. He just ignored many requests when he was too busy. I resubmitted them. And when he told one freelance journalist that he couldn’t speak to me because he wasn’t a “real” journalist, I countered that I then didn’t need to ask permission to speak with him. After all, it would be a conversation between two private citizens. The BOP guy backed down. Again, if I needed to, I could just outwait him. He only controlled me until May 1.
So now I’m home and, generally, free. The future looks promising. I intend to make a living writing, speaking, and teaching. I will write op-eds for IPS’s syndication service and other outlets, I’ll write articles for The Nation magazine, I’ll speak at colleges, universities, non-profits, and other groups, and I’ll teach a course I’ve developed on ethics in intelligence operations.
My voice will be heard on prison reform no matter how much of a pest I have to make of myself. Our country’s prison system is broken. It is racist. And it needs to be torn down and rebuilt. Overcrowding is unconstitutional and out of control. Sentences are draconian, especially for minorities. And the quality of medical care is criminal. There’s no other word for it. The Bureau of Prisons’ neglect of sick prisoners is tantamount to abuse and, in some cases, manslaughter. I hope to help put an end to that.
In the meantime, I want to say thanks again to the more than 700 people who wrote to me in prison. Thank you for remembering me. Thank you for your support. Please also remember those still inside.
Please stay in touch by signing up for my occasional newsletter at www.johnkiriakou.com.
*All of John Kiriakou’s previous “Letters from Loretto” can be found here.