Edwin Rivera is an active member of Behind the Walls, Providence grassroots organization Direct Action for Rights and Equality’s (DARE) prison reform committee. Rivera was released from the Adult Correctional Institution (ACI) three years ago, after spending 25 years in prison. He still feels the effects of incarceration. “I can’t get housing. I’m living in a dump,” Rivera told the Independent. “Sometimes I want to go back to prison, because, you know it’s hard, it’s not easy.” Upon his release from the ACI, Rivera was unable to live with his mother because she lives in public housing. The Providence Housing Authority (PHA) told Rivera that she would be evicted if he moved in with her, preventing him from caring for his mom in her old age.
Ron Doyle, who is also a member of Behind the Walls, was released from the ACI in 1992. He has applied for public housing for himself and his two children seven times, only to be repeatedly denied by the PHA.
Rivera, Doyle and many others are released from prison eager to integrate into ‘free society’ only to find that the odds of successful reentry are stacked against them. The stigma of a prior conviction severely limits their access to public housing, employment, and social services.
At the March 16 Providence Housing Authority public hearing, nearly 50 people packed into the PHA’s office at 40 Laurel Hill Avenue carrying signs with slogans such as “PHA, when will the sentence end?” The group of concerned community members gathered to demand that the PHA change their discriminatory application and eviction policies that target individuals with prior convictions, such as Rivera and Doyle.
Recognizing that the carceral system disproportionately targets people of color, the United States Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD) released a report on April 4, 2016 warning that public housing policies that target people with records violate the Fair Housing Act (FHA). The 1968 act “prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental, or financing of dwellings and in other housing-related activities on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status or national origin.” People of color are disproportionately represented in the carceral system due to its discriminatory foundations, policies and practices. Thus, restrictions on access to housing based on prior convictions are likely to unfairly burden people of color. Although the FHA does not prohibit housing providers from taking into account an individual’s prior convictions, “arbitrary and overbroad” restrictions are likely unjustified, according to HUD.
As part of the report, HUD released new, less restrictive guidelines for the public housing application and eviction processes for those with prior convictions. Local agencies are not bound to adopt HUD’s new recommendations, though. By changing their guidelines, the federal government sent a message to public housing agencies like the PHA that there ought to be a shift in our treatment of formerly incarcerated people.
Hundreds of people are released from the ACI each month, and they, as well as those who have been out of prison for decades, face immense barriers to obtaining housing.
Acknowledging the pain that the denial of public housing inflicts on formerly incarcerated people and their families, Behind the Walls took up a campaign to demand the PHA follow the example of HUD and change their policy. Sophia Wright, the co-organizer of Behind the Walls, described the group’s advocacy process to the Independent: “The entire time we’re working in consensus, trying to make decisions that are directly informed and lead by folks who are directly affected by the issue.” Over the course of two years, Behind the Walls conducted research, referencing New Orleans’ progressive public housing policy as a model, and partnered with other community organizations and advocates to draft policy recommendations for the PHA. The committee then brought the demands to the PHA, asking them to change their outdated policy.
Wright says that although Behind the Walls tried to communicate directly with the PHA, the PHA replied with dismissive emails and did not respond to the committee’s numerous requests to meet. In fall 2016, the PHA released a draft of their 2017 policy changes, which included some of the changes that DARE had recommended. For example, the PHA agreed to shorten the lookback period (the period of time during which arrests or convictions can justify disqualification from public housing) from ten to five years (a few years short of the requested three year lookback) and eliminated the lookback for misdemeanours, except for those categorized as drug crimes. The authority changed their definition of “currently engaging” in drug use from a person who has used drugs in the past two years to a person who has used drugs in the past six months.
The policy ignored many of the demands of Behind the Walls, such as allowing formerly incarcerated people to live with their families in public housing and creating a multi-step denial process that provides formerly incarcerated individuals with adequate defense opportunities. By the time they arrived at the PHA, the demands had already been curbed to increase the chances that the PHA would be receptive. DARE ideally preferred to put forth a policy that does not treat people differently based on the nature of their prior convictions. Behind the Walls, however, was aware that they were working within the constraints of a system that is extremely resistant to change, and hoped to reduce the immediate harm for at least a part of the formerly incarcerated population through their proposed policy. The PHA policy remained far stricter than the recently published HUD guidelines.
At the hearing, the chairman of the PHA welcomed Behind the Walls members, representatives of organizations such as the RI American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), RI Legal Services, and other supportive community members:“This is a really cold night. It would be easier to stay home and just let it pass, but you took the time to come and I thank you for that.”
Although not intentionally malicious, the chairman’s welcome assumed that all those gathered in the room have a home, and beyond that, a home that is warmer and more comfortable than the room in which they stood—an ironic welcome to a group of individuals gathered to advocate for those who do not have access to affordable housing. Numerous individuals who testified asked the PHA to clarify aspects of their policy and incorporate the rest of the Behind the Walls demands into the final draft.
Marcella Betoncur of the RI ACLU told the Independent that the PHA’s 2017 plan lacked a clear process for handling denials, since it said that they would be reviewed on “a case-by-case basis.” She believes that “especially when it comes to larger organizations like [the PHA], there needs to be a policy behind it and it needs to be written down...when you take things on a case-by-case basis, what happens if your director changes or your deputy director changes? Then the policy and how it is handled might change.” Betoncur asked that the PHA clarify the denial process in writing to hold the PHA accountable.
Benjamin Seymour, who researches fair housing in Providence for RI Legal Services, expressed additional concern with the denial process. He testified at the hearing and argued that, like the Housing Authority of New Orleans, Providence ought to include pre-denial hearings, so that, before an individual is rejected, “they have a chance to clarify their experiences.”
Pre-denial hearings serve as a very important tool for individuals to advocate for themselves and put a human face to the files that the PHA reviews. Fred Brissette began his testimony, “Currently I am the VP of the Student Association Commission at Charter Oaks State College; I am on the Board of Directors for the Charter Oaks Foundation and I’m also the student representative. I’m currently working to earn my graduate degree. I’m graduating in May with high honors. I’m also the founder of the Freedom Project, an organization that is working towards incorporation in the state of RI to work with people that are coming home from the prison system.” Brisette has engaged in all of these projects in the past three and a half years.
“According to this background, and according to your policy, I’m a perfect candidate for housing,” Brissette continued. “However, 17 years ago I was incarcerated for a violent crime. That negates me.” Brissette explained that when they decided to give him parole, the parole board looked at his situation, and felt that he had appeased his sentence requirements. Speaking to a board of politicians, Brissette emphasized that he and others released from prison are deemed fit to reenter “free” society by the established legal system. Brissette pleaded that the PHA not evaluate an individual based on a crime for which they were already judged, but instead based on their rehabilitative process, which individuals released from prisons work to regain the humanity that prisons take from them. This process allows for formerly incarcerated people to move forward and contribute to their communities.
While Brisette's argument runs the risk of legitimizing decisions made by a legal system that is fraught and oppressive in its foundation, it works to gain the sympathy of those who believe in the justice system and see those who are convicted as needing “reform.”
Considering the immense barriers formerly incarcerated people in Rhode Island face when trying to restart their lives as citizens, it is no surprise that about 52 percent of those released from the ACI return within three years of their release, according to a 2012 report by the RI Department of Correction. This percentage is significantly higher than the 43.3 percent recidivism rate that the Pew Center cites as the national average.
One action known to reduce recidivism rates is through family reunification efforts, which is made difficult by current PHA policies. Rivera and many others are unable to move in with their families post release because their families live in public housing, often leaving them homeless. During the public hearing, Wright asked the PHA to consider “the ways in which a family support system is critical to people getting out of prison,” when finalizing its policy. Not only is family support essential for the formerly incarcerated person’s rehabilitative process, coming out of this abusive institution, it also allows people such as Rivera to care for their families, a right that all ought to be afforded.
The hour-long hearing was filled with emotional testimonies and demands by supporters and those whom the housing policies directly affect. Many thanked the PHA for the changes it agreed to make, but emphasized that the PHA needed to clarify its policy and include the other demands made by Behind the Walls before it was finalized. Only then would the policy truly expand access to public housing for formerly incarcerated people and their families. Behind the Walls ended the hearing by reiterating their demands a final time. They asked the PHA to clearly outline the denial process and include pre-denial hearings in the process; change the felony lookback period from five years to three; exclude all misdemeanors including nonviolent drug crimes from lookbacks; eliminate denials and evictions based on arrest records alone; and support family reunification by allowing formerly incarcerated individuals to live with their families in public housing.
The PHA provides about half of RI’s public housing, making it the largest housing authority in the state. PHA policy can inspire other RI public housing authorities to make similar changes, and further “send a message that we do care, [that] we care about returning citizens and we see them as human beings who can make wonderful things out of their life, even if they may have made a mistake, bad or good, in a prior time, like all of us” as Reverend Doctor Joyce Penfield, pastor and Director of Blessing Ways, a recovery and reentry service agency, expressed in her testimony to the PHA.
In his own testimony, John Prince, co-organizer of the Behind the Walls committee reflected on the feelings he experienced post-release: “I looked at myself as I was homeless, coming out of prison, living in an abandoned house, eating tuna fish out of a can with my hands…I’m getting a little choked up, just a flash back. Us folks that go to prison, we’re told that we’re misfits, we don’t belong. Put ‘em in a box. Get ‘em out of the way. For a long time I felt that I didn’t belong.”
Despite overwhelming support of the additional changes advocated for at the March 16 hearing, the PHA did not incorporate them into their final policy for 2017. Wright told the Independent that Behind the Walls is happy to see that the PHA made some changes, but remains committed to fighting for the elimination of discriminatory housing policies.
In a conversation with the Independent, Bruce Riley, former organizer of Behind the Walls, who helped drive the Housing Authority of New Orleans’s policy changes, emphasized the importance of “making sure people learn that the proper theory of change is not just that we need better charity or that we need more experts from Brown to do a study…[Instead,] we need to listen to the people who are being impacted by these programs whether it be policing or housing or whatever.”
The PHA and other authorities must center the needs of the community and commit to working collectively to make sustainable change. Preparing for a possible review of the policy in a year from now, Wright left the Independent with the following: “The PHA doesn’t recognize that we’re not there just to be a thorn in their side. We want to build a community that is safe and secure for everyone… I want to encourage folks in [non-elected] positions [such as the PHA] to think creatively and lovingly about those communities they work with... because a lot of the time, the people… don’t have family support. That’s why they end up looking for public housing, not because they are less than, but simply because they don’t have the same support that sometimes we take for granted.”
SOPHIE KUPETZ B‘19 asks that you donate to DARE at www.goo.gl/rbtahg to support work that centers the voices and experiences of marginalized folks.