Life Inside a Pre-Release Center: Like Prison, But More Work
There’s a converted three-story hotel on the industrial south side of Billings, Montana. It’s next to a large funeral home and down the street from the Montana Women’s Prison. From the outside, it looks like a nursing home, painted pink and beige, with a semi-circular driveway, and blue sign bearing the vague name “Passages.” The vibe is therapeutic but definitely not optional. It’s a place without barbed wire or armed guards, but not a place you can just leave.
The building is home to Passages, one of eight privately-owned pre-release facilities in Montana and one of only two exclusively for women. Like all pre-release centers, Passages is owned by a non-profit corporation that operates under contract to the Montana Department of Corrections (DOC). Pre-release centers are a fixture of Montana’s correctional system, and they are also used in other states including Massachusetts, Maryland, and South Carolina, as well as throughout the federal prison system.
When I approach the reception desk, I am asked to surrender my ID, “in case there’s a fire in the building.” The bright hall carpet and the breakfast bar on the ground floor are reminders of the building’s past as a Howard Johnson’s. A sign warns that escape is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
To live at Passages means to submit a 24-hour schedule for each day, subject to approval, accounting for every single minute, around the clock. There’s little privacy; the women sleep four to a small hotel-sized bedroom. The coronavirus is hitting Montana hard and Passages has already seen some cases of the virus. Residents’ mail is screened. Their possessions are rigorously inventoried. They are allowed exactly six bras and three religious items requiring special handling.
The Passages handbook says it offers a “drug- and crime-free lifestyle” in a “therapeutic community” based on the principles of “right living.” That means residents work regular jobs in Billings when they’re not confined to the center’s walls, though “confined” means different things for different women. Pre-release is supposed to be an off-ramp from prison to straight society. Participants must find jobs, pay off their debts to the program, and hopefully start saving enough money to get their own apartments.
This all sounds great, especially given that the alternative is prison. But there’s a dark side to Passages. Residents are called “clients” and the frontline staff are known as Client Advisers, but these terms are euphemisms. These women are inmates, wards of the Department of Corrections. The stakes are high. If they don’t follow the facility’s many rules, they can be detained on the second floor, or even sent back to prison. It’s a perfect compromise for a society that loves mass incarceration and “criminal justice reform” in equal measure.
“Not very many people say that they wish they could spend more time here.”
Places like Passages offer opportunities for women to work their way back into society, but some fail to complete the program and wind up back in prison. It’s usually not because they committed new crimes; more than likely, they’ve committed “status violations,” or rules like veering off-agenda or drinking alcohol, said Professor Tim Conley of Yeshiva University, who has evaluated programs for the Montana Department of Corrections and worked with inmates in the state’s pre-release centers. These infractions are not crimes on the outside, but at Passages and other pre-release programs, they can have dire consequences.
“We are an institution,” said Dave Armstrong, the CEO of Passage’s parent company, Alternatives, Inc. “It is a correctional facility. Not very many people say that they wish they could spend more time here.” This is in part, he explained, because Passages is unpleasant by design to discourage people from coming back.
But according to Lita Pepion, a peer support specialist and community activist who has worked closely with many Passages residents over the years, “None of the people that work there could do what they make these ladies do.”
“I’ve had people who were violated because they were waiting for a bus,” Conley said. “They walked over to the bagel shop, got a bagel and a coffee, came back, […] but they didn’t tell pre-release that they were leaving the bus.”
The pre-release program effectively requires women to be inmates and low-wage workers at the same time. Either role is difficult, but trying to do both at once is mentally and physically crushing, especially for those who have never worked a straight job before.
“Honestly, most people would rather just stay in prison because once you’re done with prison then you’re done,” said 27-year-old former resident Tara Norman. “But in Passages, you have to do so many things after the fact just to stay out of jail.”
Life in pre-release is like a grim resource-management video game where you have to juggle unavoidable rising debt, transportation headaches, ironclad schedules, and severe punishments for small infractions, all at once.
The pre-release program on the first floor is unlocked, but residents are closely monitored. Walking away from this building is a serious crime, as serious as filing your way through the bars of a state prison. The official Passages manual warns inmates that they can be charged with felony escape, an offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison, if they stray by more than 60 minutes from their pre-approved agendas.
The second floor is a detention and assessment facility—basically a jail. It can be your first stop once you’re convicted and handed over to the Department of Corrections, while they figure out what to do with you, or it can be your final warning before prison if you’re on parole and messing up. Pre-release residents who break program rules can also be sent to the second floor as punishment.
The third floor is a locked drug treatment unit where inmates spend more than 30 hours a week in counseling and group therapy, learning about concepts like “the matrix model” and “victimology” in a bid to break whatever dysfunctional thought patterns supposedly led them to addiction and crime.
It’s common for women to spend time on all three floors during a single stint at Passages. Room and board is $15 a day, so if you start your stay with 90 days of drug treatment, you could be starting your pre-release over $1,200 in debt. You can’t complete the program until your drug treatment fees are paid off.
The average Passages resident earns just over $11 an hour before deductions, but that cash goes quickly. There are endless fees for room and board, counseling, instructional materials, laundry, and other necessities. Months can pass where the inmate is working but has no money left from her check because it’s all going to pay for fees and expenses. Some inmates complain that their financial statements are hopelessly opaque or even flat-out wrong. “I don’t even know what they charge you for half the time. For breathing!” Norman quipped.
Many Passages inmates find work in the service sector. I spoke to women who worked as housekeepers, waitresses, cashiers, cooks, laundry workers, and nursing assistants. The unluckiest pull 8 to 10 hour shifts assembling trays of surgical instruments at a local warehouse called Aligned Medical Solutions (AMS).
“I started working for AMS and you’re practically stationary on your feet for 10 hours, and I wasn’t even supposed to be working ‘cause my [claim for] disability was pending,” 59-year-old Carol Meyers recalled. “I love to work, but there are certain jobs I cannot do.”
Meyers, who was released in early 2019 after spending nearly a year at Passages, said she suffers from severe progressive arthritis and diabetes, disabilities for which she now receives Supplemental Social Security Income (SSI). Meyers finds it excruciating to stand for long periods, but her Passages counsellor pressured her to keep the AMS job because it paid relatively well. (Jan Begger, the director of Passages, said she wasn’t familiar with the details of Meyers’ situation, but questioned whether workers really have to stand at AMS. AMS confirmed that Meyers had worked for them and that her role involved standing for extended periods.)
Residents said finding 40 hours of work per week is a constant struggle. And if they can’t fulfill 80 hours in a two-week pay period, residents are expected to get a second job.
There’s no punishment for employers who don’t deliver the hours they promised, but the Passages orientation manual warns that residents who get less than 40 hours of paid work a week may be assigned up to an additional 40 hours of unpaid work per week at the facility, which residents are expected to complete “readily and enthusiastically.” That’s separate from the chores expected of every resident, which include “Super Clean Day” which starts between 4 and 6 a.m. on Sunday morning. Every resident who isn’t working at least full time is placed on Phase 0, the lowest level of privileges, as is every resident who loses her job, even if it’s through no fault of her own. You can’t move up in the privilege hierarchy unless you’re working full-time.
The end goal is to save up enough to rent your own apartment. But you have to pay back Passages for your room and board fees, drug treatment, and whatever money they advanced you for work clothes, toothpaste, and so on.
“[Passages] is just like jail, except they expect you to live like a regular person while you’re in jail, which is pretty much impossible to do,” said Lita Pepion, a 59-year-old who spent two years mentoring Passages clients as part of her work for a local Native non-profit. She also runs an addiction recovery group in Billings attended by Passages clients.
But “peer support” doesn’t begin to describe everything Pepion did for “her ladies,” as she calls them. She offered a steady stream of advice, advocacy, moral support, rides, jokes, and physical fitness tips. She’s in long-term recovery from a crack addiction that forced her to drop out of medical school in the 90s. She also regularly went head to head with senior officials at Passages and other agencies to advocate for her clients. Shortly after I left Billings, Pepion even convinced child protection authorities to let a recent Passages graduate take her newborn baby home instead of taking the baby into care.
Pepion let me ride along with her on a home visit last September, where I watched her show recent Passages graduate Cassandra Jackson, 38, how to fill out the family court paperwork that she hoped would get her two kids back, in Jackson’s tidy kitchen. Jackson had recently transitioned from living at Passages to living in her own apartment; the kids were living with their older sister and before that, they were with their dad, whom Jackson suspected of dealing drugs.
Debt is the shadow that hangs over every Passages resident. Most of the women seem to arrive from prison without street clothes, a toothbrush, or deodorant. Passages lends new arrivals $100 to buy supplies and allows them to pick out some donated clothes from the “boutique room.”
But residents said there was no guarantee that the donated clothes on offer will be suitable for the weather in Billings, which can range between 0 degrees in the winter and 100 degrees in the summer. Pepion said she’s bought winter coats for some of her ladies.
Daisy, the mother of a friend of Tara Norman, said she bought Tara a winter coat after she spotted her walking home one night in a zip-up hoodie and tennis shoes during a record-setting cold spell. (Daisy asked to be identified by a pseudonym because her daughter was still incarcerated and might have to return to Passages.)
Passages officials said they do everything they can to make sure that residents have appropriate clothing, including partnerships with local non-profits. But Armstrong told VICE that he can’t guarantee that residents always have appropriate clothing, much as he can’t always be sure his teenage daughter never goes out of the house dressed a certain way, even if he might like to.
If the authorities say an inmate needs to complete addiction treatment on the third floor before they start pre-release, they have to pay for that, too. Once they get to pre-release, it might take a few weeks for them to find a job—all the while their debts are piling up. “Oh, I was probably above $1,300 in debt by the time I got my first check,” Jackson recalled. “It took me one month to get a job and then two more weeks to get my first check.”
In addition to working at least 40 hours a week, residents keep a busy schedule of house chores, classes, and self-help meetings. They can’t drive or accept a ride from a friend unless their license and registration is on file with Passages, and, as Pepion explained, most of her clients’ friends don’t have insurance.
Transportation is a major problem. Other pre-release centers in Montana have a dedicated van driver and women are allowed to buy books of tickets for rides. Passages has a large fleet of custom-painted vans but they say they can’t spare the staff to give rides on request to all residents.
“The employees would drive and make sure the women were at those [mandatory, off-site] group meetings but not drive them back to Passages in freezing temperatures. It was stupid,” Daisy recalled.
Meanwhile, the buses in Billings don’t run at night or on Sundays. Some women can afford a bicycle, but most spend a lot of time walking.
“You start to want to give up after a while.”
When Jackson was working as a short-order cook at the Billings Clinic, she had to leave for work at 3:30 a.m. to work the early shift. She said she often felt unsafe as she walked the mile to work in the dark.
“You see a lot of people out,” she said, “you know, like, weird people.”
The south side is a rough part of town. Passages is less than half a mile from Lee’s Saloon, a notorious local bar where two people were shot in the early morning hours of April 6, 2019 and another woman was stabbed to death outside the bar in 2014.
More specifically, while losing your job through no fault of your own is a minor violation, getting fired for cause is a major violation. If you lose your job through what your employer says is no fault of your own, you will be dropped down to the lowest level of privileges, although the Passages handbook assures residents that this loss of privileges is “not punitive” and serves merely to “motivate” the resident to find a new job. If you get laid off a second time or fired for cause, that’s a serious violation and you may be sent to the locked unit on the second floor. Every day you’re locked up, you’re adding to your debt. Some infractions at Passages can even result in the inmate being sent to real jail, which the resident handbook states she will also have to pay for.
Residents are required to complete drug screenings on demand, but residents complain that the program is quick to penalize them on the basis of preliminary tests with a high false-positive rate. The instant drug tests used on site are the equivalent of an over-the-counter pregnancy test—fast, cheap and reasonably accurate, but not definitive. If an inmate tests positive she must pay for the initial, confirmatory test, as well as any jail costs she may incur.
Angela Branden, 46, a Passages graduate, described what can happen if a urine test comes back with a false positive.
“Oh my, it was horrible, horrible, horrible,” she recalled. Branden works at a local Hilton Garden Inn, where she said she works with chemicals that absorb into her skin. A urine sample she gave tested positive for ethyl glucuronide and ethyl sulfate, and Branden was confined to the second floor while they waited for definitive results to come back from her urine test. “I come to find out, it’s from the chemicals at work,” she said.
Toxicologist Ryan Marino, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, did not examine Branden, but said her story is plausible: Common cleaning chemicals can seep into a person’s skin and give a preliminary false positive for alcohol, he said. Branden was lucky: she didn’t lose her job, but did lose several days’ pay and a promotion that she’d been counting on. And, according to her, Passages didn’t even apologize for the error.
(Jan Begger said that she wasn’t familiar with the details of Branden’s case but she agreed that drug tests do sometimes return false positives. She also confirmed that women are confined to Passages after a preliminary positive test until the final results come back.)
Today, Jadi Jo Reynolds is working at Western Montana Mental Health Center in Missoula, Montana, helping high school students resist addiction and studying for a master’s degree. But her life hasn’t always been so stable. Reynolds said she started experimenting with drugs when she was 10, had her first brush with the law at 12, and was functionally homeless by age 14. She kept going to school, though, and even turning in homework. She had no career ambitions, but she liked learning things, and besides, if she showed up at school, her adoptive mom who taught there would know she hadn’t died.
Reynolds was sentenced to a lengthy prison term in 2000. For the first several years, she bounced from pre-release to pre-release and back to prison. “We call it the DOC package,” she said. “I would use drugs every time and get sent back to prison.”
Along the way, she spent almost a year at Alpha House in Billings, which is owned by the same company that owns Passages, back when the facility was co-ed. As at Passages, it took several months before an inmate could even start saving up the money she needed to move on.
“I [was] just stuck. Like I couldn’t get the money to level up. I couldn’t meet the requirements to get the passes I wanted,” she said. “You start to want to give up after a while.”
Finally, after several years of failures, Reynolds was sent back to the Montana Women’s Prison to serve the last four years of her sentence. She got sober on her own behind bars. A special program working with dogs made a big difference for her. So did having a daughter and wanting to give her a better life.
On the outside, Reynolds enrolled in Salish-Kootenai tribal college and used her love of learning to reintegrate herself into the straight world.
“I would sit in the parking lot and cry often because I [could] barely make myself get into a classroom,” she said. “I thought I [had] this sign on my forehead that said “convict” or “felon.’” College got easier as she slowly started making friends who introduced her to some of the spiritual and cultural practices that she’d been missing.
In 2017, she got a job as a client advisor, or CA, at Passages. CAs are the frontline security staff; they sign women in and out of the facility, monitor their behavior, and write them up when they break the rules. Reynolds says she quit after two weeks, because despite having been free for a decade, she knew a lot of the women she was supervising from her time in prison, which became a source of unwanted drama. But while she was there, she got a staffer’s perspective of the facility and its rules. (Jadi Jo showed VICE a tax return indicating that she was paid as an employee of Passages’ parent company, which is located at the same address as the Passages facility, and her former spouse recalls her working at Passages while the two were living together. Passages maintains that Jadi Jo completed a training program to become a CA but asserts that she was never an employee.)
Reynolds was reminded how easy it was for residents to pull themselves deeper in debt by getting sent upstairs to the sanction floor for anywhere from a week to 30 days at a time. You can be sent upstairs for one major infraction, or three minor infractions. A minor infraction could be as small as a candy wrapper in your shared bedroom, making too much noise, using “excessive” profanity in earshot of a staff member, not making your bed, or being a few minutes late to a group. The second floor is like jail, she said, but worse in some ways because there’s extremely limited phone access and no canteen. Of course, every day you’re there, you’re adding to your debt from rent, losing out on wages, and putting your job at risk.
Passages maintains that all these fees and rules are just a preparation for real life, but Reynolds is skeptical of that rationale. To her, in many ways, life at Passages is harder than what’s expected of people in the straight world: It’s easy for residents to get overwhelmed and stop trying, or even reoffend to get back to prison. What are the ethics involved in charging people for services received while they are confined against their will, or in some cases literally locked up, she wondered? Inmates at the Montana Women’s Prison down the street don’t have to pay for rent or drug treatment—why, she asked, should the women on the locked floors of Passages have to?
Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist. Her photography has been published in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times’ City Room, Time, and other outlets.
Co-published with VICE News.