By gabriel sayegh
When my brother Malakkar was finally released from federal prison, his family and friends were of course relieved. But we were also nervous, because the ordeal wasn’t over. He still had to serve the remaining six months of his sentence at a halfway house, and then faced five years of supervised release. This reentry period was a harrowing experience, because so many of the rules seemed designed to trip him up. At every turn, the officials who were supposed to help Malakkar seemed intent on sending him back to a cage.
Malakkar’s experience wasn’t unique. Almost 4 million people in the United States are under some form of “correctional” supervision in the community: probation, parole — or in the federal system, community corrections and supervised release. Every year, millions of them are sent to jail or prison not for a new crime, but for violating the conditions of their supervision — breaking or allegedly breaking a rule like missing an appointment with a parole officer or using alcohol or marijuana. A late bus or a family emergency can quickly lead to the extraordinary outcome of being locked up.
After getting out, Malakkar had to report to a “community correctional center” on Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn, to serve the remaining six months of his sentence. This halfway house was run by GEO Group, a private prison firm. All of the residents at this halfway house had served time in federal prison — some for decades — and were required to look for work as a condition of their release or be sent back behind bars. For many residents, knowing how and where to look for a job, let alone finding one, was a daunting challenge. But the halfway house, run only for profit, provided little support. Residents were left to figure things out on their own. Many had nothing to wear but the clothes they were in when they left prison, and no money to buy new ones. This made securing a job even harder for someone already facing overwhelming odds. I lived close by and could bring Malakkar new clothes and help with his job search. Others weren’t so lucky.
Malakkar was fortunate in other ways too. As a white person, he didn’t have to worry about being profiled by the police or targeted because of his race. But he did have to worry that if he were late returning to the halfway house because of a delayed train, he would likely be returned to prison. In many jurisdictions, noncriminal violations of supervision rules — or even an allegation that a rule has been broken — leads to incarceration. For someone in the federal system, that could result in another 12 to 36 months behind bars. In some state systems, the period of incarceration can be much longer.
Millions of people face the daily threat of going to jail or prison for a noncriminal violation of their supervision rules. And the routine use of incarceration for technical violations has dramatically increased the number of people in cages. Nationwide, among those who entered state prisons in 2017, almost one in four were locked up for a violation (or alleged violation) like being late for curfew. Most of the people in Connecticut prisons from 2018 through 2020 were there because of probation violations. In New York, 40 percent of those who were sent to state prisons in 2019 were behind bars for noncriminal technical violations of parole. Re-incarceration for these infractions is devastating for someone on supervision and for their family — and can even be deadly, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
For most people under community supervision, the system is a trap and extremely difficult to escape. Malakkar found a job opportunity, but his potential employer, a nonprofit, had to agree that federal agents could come to the workplace at any time to check on him and confirm his whereabouts. Fortunately, people at the organization were understanding; they agreed to the conditions and my brother got the job. But this created new problems with the federal authorities. “My supervised release officer hated that I got a ‘good’ job,” Malakkar said. “She repeatedly told me that I should have been working as a janitor or a fast-food worker because I didn’t ‘deserve’ anything better.”
Traveling to and from his job in Manhattan was a source of profound stress for Malakkar. Trains in New York City can be unpredictable and are often delayed, and if he were late returning to the Brooklyn halfway house from work, he could face a violation and be re-incarcerated. To avoid public transit, Malakkar sought and received permission to use a bicycle. One evening after work while riding back to Brooklyn, he crashed and fell off his bike. Bloodied — and now late — he got back on the bicycle and raced to the halfway house to make his curfew. Before entering the facility, he cleaned the blood off his hands and arms and hid his injuries under a sweatshirt, hoping the staff wouldn’t notice. For most of us, an accident wouldn’t lead to incarceration. But if the guard at the check in desk didn’t believe Malakkar’s account — and, for example, accused him of having been in an altercation and not a bike mishap — it could lead to a violation and more prison time. Luckily, the staff didn’t notice his injuries.
To get out of the halfway house, Malakkar applied for home confinement. Before he could be granted permission to live with me, federal probation officers came to my apartment to “inspect” it and interview me as the family sponsor. “You sure you want a criminal living in your home?” one of the officers asked. I paused, taken aback by the question. “He’s my brother,” I said. “Yeah,” she said, leaning against my kitchen counter, “but he’s a felon now,” the word rolling off her tongue like a curse. Such indignities, particularly in your own home, are enough to make you erupt. But I kept my mouth shut. I wasn’t about to rock the boat when they had the power to deny his home confinement — or worse, send him back to prison.
Once Malakkar came home, he had to abide by a curfew. Fair enough. But federal probation officers could show up at our apartment unannounced, day or night, to conduct a search. We had to install a landline, and if they ever called and he didn’t answer it, he would be in violation and sent back to prison. He had to turn over 25 percent of his gross earnings from every paycheck to the feds for home confinement “costs.” These rules were standard practice. And he didn’t even have to break the rules to be punished; if he were just accused of not complying, his supervised release could be revoked and he could be sent back to prison. Even if an alleged rule violation occurred at the very end of his five-year supervision, Malakkar would be sent back to prison and afterward would have to restart the entire five-year community supervision period from scratch. The process could be endless.
The consequences of this abysmal punitive system are staggering: half of all adults in the United States have had a family member incarcerated. For Malakkar, as for far too many others, the experience of years under community supervision were defined by daily dread and the looming possibility of prison. Family members shared his dread. But he made it through community supervision without being re-incarcerated. And frankly, even though the probation officers hounded him and caused constant stress for our family, Malakkar didn’t have it nearly as bad as so many others do. “I didn’t get an ankle bracelet, because I’m white,” Malakkar said. “I can’t prove that, but I know it’s true.”
Even though people on community supervision and their families can’t always stand up to individual officers, we can fight back to change circumstances and the system. These fights are happening across the country, part of a growing national movement. And increasingly, we’re winning.
Last year in New York, a coalition of community groups and advocates scored a major victory with the passage of the #LessIsMoreNY Act. The new law limits the use of incarceration, refocusing on community-based solutions to address allegations of breaking a parole rule. People accused of a technical violation are no longer automatically jailed and can go before a judge at a hearing in the community. New incentives allow people on parole to cut their supervision time in half. Already, thousands of New Yorkers who are incarcerated for these noncriminal violations of parole have been released from incarceration. And just a month after the law went into effect, nearly 8,000 people were discharged early from parole. Other states — and the federal government — should follow suit.
Community supervision shouldn’t be a nearly inescapable trap. Nor should it be a driver of mass incarceration. People don’t need years of harassment and rules that set them up to fail; they need support and a fair chance.
The more of us who get engaged, and the more we work together, the faster we can make change. To get involved, find a community group near you that’s working on these issues. In Connecticut or New York, get involved with us at the Katal Center. In New York, you can volunteer with the #LessIsMoreNY coalition — or encourage your organization to sign on as a supporter.
gabriel sayegh is the co–executive director of the Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice. He lives in Brooklyn.