Chanting “Whose house? Our house!” over 120 students and community members rallied at Isla Vista’s halfway house early Friday afternoon, refusing to let the 20-year program close quietly.
The rally, held in protest of today’s scheduled closure of Working Alternatives halfway house, located at 6575 Trigo Rd., began with a march from campus and transitioned into speeches, singing and chanting. The Federal Bureau of Prisons gave the home’s 11 residents a 10-day advanced notice of the closure, which was ordered due to recent budget cuts and the house’s insufficient use of its 25- to 32-person capacity. Word of the prison bureau’s decision sparked an outcry of support from a number of UCSB students and faculty involved in the house’s ClearWater Project. For the past 10 years, the nonprofit ClearWater Project connected local students with residents of the halfway house to break down stereotypes and teach life skills.
Chris Bickel, a UCSB sociology graduate student who works with the ClearWater Project and organized the rally Friday, said protesters should phone local representatives, including Congresswoman Lois Capps and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, to complain about the prison system’s planned transfer of the Isla Vista residents to houses in Los Angeles County.
“The halfway houses they’re going to in Inglewood or Echo Park have 100 folks, and they don’t have any of these resources,” Bickel said. “We’re having [protesters] pressure Dianne Feinstein and Lois Capps … the cost of running [Dianne Feinstein’s] office is more than running this house.”
As of Sunday afternoon, Bickel said the facility is still scheduled to close early today, despite the hundreds of calls placed to local and prison representatives and the 260 signatures gathered on a petition opposing the closure.
Bickel said another protest will be held in front of the house today at 7:30 a.m. while its residents are being transferred. While there is some hope for a last-minute reversal of the decision to close the home, Bickel said, ClearWater is considering opening its own halfway house if the program does shut down.
“We’ve got a 10 percent chance that it’ll stay open,” Bickel said. “We’ll be there [today] to make sure they don’t forget us … what Clearwater is trying to do is open up our own halfway house – it’s in the idea stage.”
Marcus Lego, a resident of Working Alternatives, said he has made many strong contacts in Santa Barbara and at UCSB since he began his stay at the house Jan. 3, and he said being sent to Inglewood would erase all of the progress he has made.
He said he chose to speak to the press without permission from the Bureau of Prisons despite the sentence of up to 18 months of prison time he could possibly receive for doing so, because the decision to close the halfway house will force residents out of an area they see as home.
“Where they’re going to send me, I’ll tell them to send me back to prison anyway,” Lego said. “We’re supposed to transition into a community, but they’re asking us to transition into a community we’re not part of.”
Lego said I.V.’s halfway house is one of the most positive and helpful in California, and if it closes there will only be two halfway houses left between Los Angeles and Eureka. He said the halfway house monitors residents’ movements 24 hours a day and provides job placement, food, transportation costs and counseling.
“[The supervisor] runs a tight ship, but she runs a humane ship,” he said. “We’re treated like human beings. She takes as good care of us as she can, as she’s allowed to. I can take this money and put it on that table and the next day it’ll still be there, unless someone who knows it’s mine finds it and gives it back to me.”
Lego said it costs less for taxpayers to maintain halfway houses than prisons, as each resident costs the state $87 a day and pays 25 percent of their gross pay before taxes back to the house. He said houses like the one in I.V. provide an environment that helps its residents stay out of prison and rebuild their lives.
Dr. Helen Meloy, head of the ClearWater program, said the prison system is set up such that 50 percent of all prisoners who get out of jail end up going back before long. She said without resources such as the positive environment of the I.V. halfway house and the ClearWater program, newly released prisoners can quickly fall back into destructive patterns.
“When people are in prison, they learn how to survive in a violent environment,” Meloy said. “When you come out of an environment that’s that violent and that shaming, you need some help … they’re being set up, if they don’t have skills to make it on the outside, then they slip back in … they’re on their own. They get depressed and they start coping, and for a lot of people their coping mechanisms are drugs and alcohol.”
Shanna Maschmeier, a fourth-year English and Asian American studies major, spoke at the event and said halfway houses were a necessary resource for those coming out of the prison system.
“If the prison-industrial complex is going to continue, then houses such as these need to continue,” she said. “Prison is such a dehumanizing process, and these houses allow people to become human again.”