Former inmates just call the Castle home

New York provides place to live for those with nowhere to go

July 08, 2002|By Alan Feuer | Alan Feuer,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - Mike woke up in his own bed. It was just past 6 a.m. He cooked himself some breakfast with his own pots and pans and sat down to eat at his own kitchen table. He ate slowly and with profound enjoyment. He ate with his own plate and fork and knife.

These may seem like small pleasures, but they are hardly small for a man like Mike, who, just two months ago, had nothing of his own except a murder conviction and a bunk inside an upstate prison cell. In truth, he had another thing to call his own. He was nearing the end of a 17-year term at the Fishkill Correctional Facility and had a gnawing fear of getting out and moving on.

Where Mike wound up - by luck and with his family's help - was in his own room at a brand-new home for ex-offenders that sits on a bluff above the Hudson River on the western edge of Harlem. The place is the first of its kind in the country to accept men and women leaving prison with no strings attached, its owners say - the jobless, the homeless, drug addicts and AIDS patients, those with no family or no prospects, those with nowhere else to go.

The place is called the Castle, and its 59 beds - accompanied by hot plates, private showers, mini-refrigerators and a river view - are a crucial but tiny hedge against the flood of inmates who are getting out of prison now or will be leaving in the next few years. Nearly 20,000 people are released each year from New York prisons; the number is close to 600,000 nationwide. Imagine the entire population of Milwaukee. Now, imagine those people being sprung from their cells en masse.

A tide floods out

The crush of inmates about to leave the nation's prisons will put places like the Castle to the test, experts on incarceration say. In New York, for instance, the Rockefeller drug laws filled state prison cells in the 1980s and 1990s. As these people finish their terms in the coming years, the tide of convicts that once flooded in will begin to flood back out.

Mike, who requested that his last name be withheld as he gets his life back together, is one of the Castle's first permanent residents and expects to stay as long as a year. He was released from Fishkill on April 17. He had no job, so he couldn't find his own apartment. He has a sister in New Jersey, but, under the terms of his parole, he cannot leave New York.

"My first thought when I found out about the Castle was relief," said Mike, who, at 53, is big and brawny with the sweet, slow nature of an aging hound. "It was a dream come true, believe me. I was getting out with nothing. I was getting out with no place else to go."

A former inmate can do little without a roof above his head. Looking for work is tough without an address. Reconnecting with the family is equally as hard.

Three months ago, in fact, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public housing officials could evict entire families if a single guest, or someone in the household, was found guilty of a drug offense. Consider that 86 percent of state parolees have a history of drug abuse, according to the New York State Division of Parole. It means that hundreds, if not thousands, of convicts cannot go home to public housing without putting their loved ones back at risk.

"We've known for years that housing was a desperate need," said JoAnne Page, the executive director of the Fortune Society, an inmate advocacy group that owns and operates the Castle. "People are coming home, and the question is whether they'll come as a resource or a risk."

Page and her group bought the Castle - formally known as the Fortune Academy Residence - in 1998 after it had sat abandoned on the corner of Riverside Drive and 140th Street for 25 years. It was built in 1913 as a Catholic girls' school. It fell to seed in the 1960s when it decayed into a crack den, a decrepit spot where local dealers stashed their drugs.

There are a handful of places around the country set up to handle ex-offenders - halfway houses, homes for AIDS patients getting out of prison, treatment centers for convicted drug addicts - but none are like the Castle, Page said. The difference, she explained, is that the Castle takes all comers. There is a screening process to get in, but the only real requirement is a willingness to change.

At first, some local residents were not convinced that willingness to change was enough to keep them safe. The neighborhood was already inundated with the dangers of the drug trade, and they saw no reason to bring ex-offenders into the mix. Page said she attended dozens of community meetings and eventually won at least some of her critics over by listening to their concerns. It helped that a member of her community relations team was a former dealer who had served a prison term for selling and stashing drugs inside the Castle before it was rebuilt.

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