|Not Sam's Halfway House. Thank God.|
This is the sixth in a series of stories about my friend Sam, former owner of the Premium Fireworks Company. He was sentenced to 18 months in minimum-security prison (unjustly) for selling fireworks for which he did not have a valid license to sell. If you want to start the series from the beginning:
The Homecoming. Well, at Least a Lot Closer.
Sam has been in prison now 13 months of his 18-month sentence. The Department of Corrections let him know recently he was eligible for early release (through a bizarre and byzantine set of qualification rules no one understands; although I’m not questioning them now). A few days ago I was able to pick up Sam from his minimum-security prison and take him to a halfway house back in this area.
Sam’s sister, Janet, and my and Sam’s mutual friend Jennifer* met me at 5:30am in order to drive three hours south to the prison. We had to be there by 9:00am to drive him directly back to town by 12:30pm. Most prisoners take the bus to a halfway house, but a relative or close friend can drive them with special permission. To get that permission, I had to jump through all kinds of hoops. I had to email copies of my driver’s license and an insurance card a few weeks back immediately to the DOC with around an hour’s notice. In addition, I had to provide details on my car down to how much change was in the ashtray. I scanned my license and insurance card, which was recently expired, but said I would have a current one when I arrived at the prison.
Janet, Jennifer and I had some deep conversations on the three-hour drive south. A main topic was favorite 1960s sitcoms ... Janet was an I Love Lucy girl, Jennifer preferred I Dream of Jeannie. Those are fine, but the greatest ‘60s sitcom was of course The Andy Griffith Show. I shared that anecdote recently with my comedian friend David, and his reply was, “Do you know why everyone on The Andy Griffith Show was so happy all the time? Why? Because none of the characters were married!” True. I think Otis was, but he spent his nights drunk in a city jail cell, so I suppose he found relief his own way. But I digress.
We discussed Sam’s mental health and if he would be allowed to return home for the rest of his sentence. He has to be incarcerated until August 10th, either at the halfway house or at home. In this case, the entire halfway house business is nonsense. Halfway houses are effective for folks with no place to live and no job. They offer education, social assistance and a step up to reintegrate back into society. Sam is a successful businessman with a home and large support system. Sending him to a halfway house instead of home (probably to make room for real criminals at the prison) was yet another insult and unnecessary punishment. Indeed, Sam suspected he might be able to “check in” to the halfway house and go home almost immediately. That happened to someone else he knew a few weeks back, so it was a possibility.
We arrived at the prison in plenty of time. Sam was being released from the maximum-security building; I had never been there before. When we pulled up, Sam’s meager belongings were already gathered outside the door in perforated white sacks and he was in the lobby. He was ebullient about getting out, even unsure where he was going. Then it was the usual bureaucratic “hurry up and wait” scenario, with lots of papers to be filled out and officials consulted. No one ever spoke to me or asked me for my driver’s license or updated insurance card. I could have arrived in a clown car for all they cared.
Due to the delays, we were a bit late getting on the road. Sam was like a kid on Christmas day, unfamiliar with the area (we were all very familiar with it by now, a remote Kentucky town) and taking in the feeling of (temporary) freedom. It was the first time he had been in a car in thirteen months. I put down the windows and let the air blow. Freedom. The trip flew by, with all of us catching up and chatting like old women. Sam received several pre-planned phone calls, from his family and from our mutual friend Kenneth, who lives in Viet Nam. Sam desperately wanted to stop and get a real hamburger, not one that still had marks from where the jockey was hitting it. But ultimately we decided not to take any chances getting to the halfway house on time.
We arrived back in Northern Kentucky. The halfway house was over the river on a hill in a seedy part of town, next to other older homes now used for various government functions. We all got out and entered the lobby. The staff seemed polite and helpful. But there was no chance of going home that day, or the immediate future. Of course there was all sorts of government red tape to wrangle with, mandatory classes to attend and visits with his caseworker. Again, these are legitimate functions for some folks who need such help. Sam didn’t and it was a total waste of city and state resources. Visiting hours are on weekends from 1-5pm, but visitors had to have yet another background check and be approved before visiting. I was just approved to visit a federal prison, why did I have to be approved again to visit a halfway house? Answer: It’s the rule and one size fits all. We left Sam with some reading material and promised to bring him some clothes from home and a cell phone, which he was allowed to have.
It’s been a few days and Sam is staying put for now. After approval from his caseworker, parole officer and the DOC, and a home inspection, he may be able to go to home incarceration until his August 10th deadline. After that he’ll be on probation for three years. Meanwhile, this former adjunct college professor has to sit through mandatory classes on how to write a resume and how to shake hands and look someone in the eye at a job interview. A huge waste of time and resources, but try telling that to the government.
To conclude, overall a good day. Sam tasted freedom for a few hours. He may be able to come home soon. The halfway house allows a lot more flexibility than prison. And visitors are allowed to visit and order food from local restaurants; we can finally enjoy a meal together. He has a cell phone and we talk regularly. He’s much better off than he was a week ago, and my friend is a half hour away rather than three hours. We’re all a little happier with the current situation.
Next: Hopefully, home.
*Not her real name.