Halfway house seeks to turn lives around

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Dinner at 180 Degrees, a halfway house in Minneapolis, is a lot like dinner at a college cafeteria. Loosely-knit groups of men share gripes about their daily grind and the food. They are keenly aware of each other_s space but share a fascination with female guests. After eating they relax on couches and tell stories.

The odd thing is that most of the guys are fresh out of prison and have 60 days to stay sober, find a job, and find housing — or get sent back.

Located at 236 Clifton Ave. S., 180 Degrees is a three-story house that shelters a program designed to improve parolees’ odds of succeeding outside of prison as well as supervise them while they serve the last part of their sentence.

“Most of our services are an alternative to sitting in jail,” program director Bridget Letnes said.

About three-fourths of the residents come from Minnesota prisons on parole, Letnes said, because of Minnesota’s “two-thirds in, one-third out” rule. According to Brent Salner, a case manager at 180 Degrees, other residents live there on work release until they find a place to live, and a few are on probation or are charged and awaiting trial.

The majority of the residents are from Hennepin County, but a few are from Ramsey, Anoka, and other counties. Sex-offenders can come from all over the state.

The rules are strict and are in place to keep the neighborhood safe, Letnes said. Up to 36 residents get up at seven and must leave immediately following breakfast to job-hunt, work on GEDs or find housing. They must call their case-managers every two hours regardless of what they are doing. If they are not working they must return by 4 p.m. Their belongings and items dropped off by visitors are subject to searches, and they must submit to random drug tests.

Rules are stricter for residents who have been convicted of “person offenses,” including violent crime and sex offenses and are categorized under “intensive supervised release,” Salner said. They cannot leave the house without permission, and they must “punch in” and out. They must fill out a daily planner ,which they must follow exactly, and it must be approved by their case officer and sometimes even their parole officer. They must also call in every two hours. Sex offenders must also wear GPS monitors in the form of ankle bracelets.

“Our main job is to know where everybody’s at all the time,” Letnes said.

On one cloudy morning this spring, residents Donald Mustin, 36, and Aaron Davis, 25, were only too aware of 180 Degrees’ vigilance. Although they agree that 180 Degrees is better than being in prison, they complained that the house rules, especially time limits on phone calls and watching television—one of Mustin’s favorite pastimes—seem petty. “They treat you worse than children,” Davis said.

Supervision was just one of the challenges residents faced. Finding a job is tough for a felon, said Mustin, who is out on parole after serving a year for third-degree burglary. Listing 180 Degrees as your residence on a job application can cause employers to have second thoughts, and 180 Degrees provides no job leads, he said.

Job help at 180 Degrees has been limited to resource books and the Internet since 2000, Salner said, when budget cuts eliminated the resource manager who would actively hunt for opportunities for the residents.

In his first month at 180 Degrees, Davis said he filled out more than 40 applications and received no response. His case officer was putting on the pressure to get a job or get ready to go back to prison. Mustin reported equal difficulty. He was discouraged to find out that he failed the personality tests for Perkins and Applebees restaurants.

Yet the toughest challenge most parolees face is staying clean and sober, said former resident Kevin Byker. He managed to kick his long-time addictions in prison in 2000, but expecting the same from everybody is unrealistic, he said.

“You can’t save them all. Addiction is a very strong, cunning disease,” he said.

180 Degrees tries, if indirectly; one of the few places a resident can regularly escape to is a rehab group or Alcoholics Anonymous, Letnes said.

Davis missed a check-in call one morning while job-hunting. He had to return to 180 Degrees for a drug test. He passed and headed back out. According to Letnes, failing to remain sober is the leading reason residents get kicked out of the program.

Aside from room and meals, 180 Degrees provides bed sheets, laundry detergent, and $91 per month, Davis said. The money comes from the county’s general assistance fund, Letnes said. If residents get hungry between mealss, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are the only thing handy. Davis said residents can also buy bus passes at cost, but that overall resources ae lacking.

“They wouldn’t spit on you if you were thirsty,” he said.

Kris Sprague, a Hennepin County parole officer, said she appreciates the structure that 180 Degrees provides, but many of her clients see it as another form of punishment.

“The whole thing is that they just got out of prison and here they are living among 36 men again,” she said.

Two kinds of residents live at 180 Degrees: those who want to improve their lives and focus their energies and those who could care less, said shift coordinator Max Zink, 37. For the latter, the frustration of not finding a job can be enormous, especially for those who once had a high income selling drugs. “They’re going to commit again; it’s just bound to happen,” Zink said.

Frustrations of all kinds lead to numerous heated discussions, Zink said. But violence at 180 Degrees is unheard of. “We try to keep this place quiet,” Letnes said. “We get the police here in about five seconds if we need them.”

Zink said one way he tries to help residents get back on their feet is by never judging them. He was told in training never to read the residents’ criminal histories so that his perceptions stay unbiased.

“To me, they’re just guys,” he said. “In a lot of ways, everybody gets a second chance.”

Gripes about living at 180 Degrees seem prominent, especially from residents. “We don’t see the positive as much as we see the negative,” Salner said.

Nonetheless, statistics from 2005 showed that 180 Degrees was fairly successful. Some 138 residents “graduated” or transferred from the program, while 44 were terminated for violations. Another 15 abandoned the program and their parole obligations altogether, disappearing from the criminal justice system—for now.

Not all of the residents are negative about 180 Degrees, either. Vergil Wibben, 57, said he has been at 180 Degrees five times and has never acquired any lasting gripes. Staff members have given him rides to job interviews. A maintenance man gave him his current walker, which he needs because he has Parkinson’s disease. He gets respect from his fellow residents, even the young ones.

“I have no complaints,” he said. “Everybody’s just more than decent here.”

The only thing everybody seems to want, Wibben said, was cable TV.
“You have to learn to use rabbit ears,” he said.

Byker, 42, is among 180 Degrees’ most famous graduates. After having served time in every Minnesota prison but Moose Lake, he came from the state prison in Faribault in Oct. 2003 with a faulty prosthetic right leg. The prosthetic extended from the knee down and was the result of being run over by a drunk driver. It sorely limited his mobility, raising questions about how he would work.

He answered those questions four days after his arrival when he landed a job at Rebuild Resources, a nonprofit employer that hires men from halfway houses, provides health insurance, helps them overcome addictions, and builds a work history. He has since become the manager of Rebuild Resources and has been asked to serve on the board of directors at 180 Degrees.

“Once you get to a certain point, people will believe in you,” Byker said. “It gets easier every damn day.”

Yet even he admitted that he could not wait to get his own place while he lived at 180 Degrees for eight months on work release. He would work all day and only return to the halfway house to sleep.

During dinner, which starts at 5 p.m. and ends when the staff locks the refrigerator, the residents talked about continuing life outside the system. A trio of residents discussed an $8-an-hour job that would hardly cover child support. Wibben planned to show his new wife the house he wanted to buy. A younger resident told how he got out of a taxi in a traffic jam and walked 12 blocks to save time and money.

They also intently watched KMSP-9 news. A report on an earthquake in Russia silenced the room, and news of failed school shooting brought murmurs of “sick” and “fucked up.” News of a cop getting attacked by a man in Texas brought a few whoops of support. “Beat his ass!”

Robbie Robinson, an ex-convict, founded 180 Degrees in 1973 “to give everyone a chance,” including level three sex offenders, Letnes said. Funding comes from the Minnesota Department of Corrections, Hennepin County and the federal government.

According to the Minnesota Department of Corrections, nearly 72 percent of the 7,126 people released from prison in 2005 went on supervised release or parole, while 31 percent returned to prison without a new sentence.

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