Watkinson House was a huge brick Federal Style house that used to be the mansion of the Lieutenant Governor of the State of Connecticut. Once a fashionable address, it was located directly across the street from the headquarters the Hartford Insurance Company on the edge of downtown. It was a mile – that is a fifteen-minute walk down the hill – to the center of the city and the state capital. To the left on the street were insurance companies and beautiful parks where you could imagine the city just ran out of time and money to save itself. To the right were Sigorney Street, the West Side ghetto, and the Asylum. Prostitutes and drug addicts littered the block and the Projects, and they were impossible to miss in order to leave the house or to walk anywhere – or to catch a bus – or to do anything. This was prison after prison.
As I approached Watkinson House on my first day out of prison, there was a large group of guys hanging out in the parking lot – mostly Blacks and Latinos – with a few whites guys mixed in. It was summer so they were all wearing baggy shorts, long t-shirts, flat brimmed baseball caps and Nike Air Force Ones. I recognized the uniforms. They were probably on a cigarette break, soon to be hustled back inside to watch a few more hours of mind-numbing television. The front porch smelled like old wood in need of a paint job, but the door had a very modern surveillance system. I pushed the buzzer and looked up into the camera. A businesslike yet gentle woman’s voice asked me if she could help. I quickly rifled through my now institutionalized brain for the shortest and most succinct answer possible. “New resident,” I replied. The door buzzed open and I stepped inside. Another large group of men – again mostly Blacks and Latinos – sat in a day-room to my right watching television. The office was to my left where two middle aged women behind a counter. I introduced myself and presented them with my papers and my bag of clothes.
The trip to Watkinson House from Allenwood earlier that day seemed surreal. Almost fourteen months in prison – little contact with the outside world other than letters, phone calls and visits in the visiting room – had ill prepared me for how fast the outside world really moved compared to inside prison. My friends Tom and Peter had picked me up from Allenwood in Tom’s girlfriend Alexis’ Volvo station wagon. Tom, Peter and I had been like three horsemen in our first couple of years of Alcoholics Anonymous. We couldn’t have been more different – Tom was a guy from a blue collar town in New Jersey who had settled into this kind of day-job life as cost accountant where he could show up and get a paycheck and then go out every night, smoke pot and gig as a session drummer. His mom had been dying for years – one day he went to her house to find her begging to be let out of her misery. Tom’s complicity plagued him and sent him spiraling down to a place where he couldn’t eat, sleep or do anything other than drink and smoke pot – he was about 120 pounds when I first met him sitting next to me in the front row of an AA meeting in Greenwich, Connecticut. Tom lied to me – and to all of us – for those first couple of years as he continued to smoke pot during the day while attending AA meetings and hanging out with us in the diner till midnight afterwards. He came clean one night when he was in the shower of my apartment retching up bile. He got honest, and sober, from that point on and then met his girlfriend Alexis who was from a blue-blood local family – a case of opposites attracting I guess.
Peter, on the other hand, was a gentleman, a man of the world – he grew up in Italy, went to Harvard and then spent most of his life in working, drinking, and passing out in places like Hong Kong and Shanghai. Peter’s was a classic case of a guy whose abusive father had such high expectations of him that it kept him anxious and running from life for most of his life. Peter’s plan was to finally put down some roots in Connecticut – at the time I met him he had a wife and a wonderful daughter. His plan was only thwarted by only two miscalculations. First, he chose to marry a woman who treated him very much like his father did – a decision that expedited his alcoholic bottom and then sent him into the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. Second, Peter did not possess a valid U.S. passport. One day while traveling back into the country with an expired work visa, Peter was arrested, locked up by the United States Customs and Border Protection Service and thrown into it’s detention center in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Rampant alcoholism, an abusive father, a loveless marriage and deportation proceedings served as a perfect combination for Peter to complete our merry band of three.
In Alexis’ car with Tom behind the wheel, all the sights, road signs, the rate of speech, ambient radio noise – just about everything – were coming at me way too quickly. I wanted to stay in the back seat and just be quiet for a while. And to acclimate, hide – do anything other than be with people who couldn’t possibly understand what I had just been through. But Tom and Peter would have none of that. They were excited. They had driven 200 miles to come get me. They had stayed overnight in a fleabag motel and eaten cheap fast food. To them this was Tom & Peter’s Excellent Adventure – and they wanted the pay-off. They wanted to know everything, and they wanted it immediately. I asked them to please settle down and to find the highway. And to hand me a cell phone. I wanted to check my voice mail messages – it had been almost fourteen months. I wanted to call my kids.
Five hours seemed like a lot of time to get from White Deer, Pennsylvania to Hartford, Connecticut, more than enough time to stop and have a nice lunch along the way. It had been awhile since I’d had a nice lunch, and I figured that would be the place to catch up with Tom and Peter, share stories about the last year, and answer all of their prison questions. I was soon to learn that I was now considered the “prison guy”, with all the good and the bad that came along with it. Peter had the route all mapped out on MapQuest just in case the directions given to us by the prison turned out to be wrong. He was satisfied that five hours should be enough for lunch. As it turned out, I was not so much in the mood for a nice lunch as I was to not take any chances checking into the halfway house on time. The risk didn’t seem to be worth it.
A few months later I found out that my cellie Ricky from Boston had been picked up by his girlfriend Jackie on his release day. Instead of driving directly to his halfway house, Ricky and Jackie pulled into a rest stop on Route 80. I guess everything was going reasonably well while they were having sex on the hood of her father’s car until they discovered that they had locked the keys inside the car. This was not good. After the AAA emergency roadside service, Ricky made it to the halfway house by the skin of his teeth. Our buddy Bobby from the other side of the unit, a nightclub owner from the Hamptons, was not so fortunate. He actually had a reunion with his entire extended family at Peter Luger’s Steak House in Brooklyn on the way to his halfway house. When he arrived at his halfway house fifteen minutes late, they slapped handcuffs on him and sent him back to prison for the remainder of his sentence. I guess he should have order his steak rare.
As we headed onto Route 80 East back to New York and then past to Hartford, I dialed up my voice mail. Since all my friends knew that this was my release date, I figured that I would have tons of congratulatory messages. There was not a single message on my voice mail. In a strange way it brought me back to the reality of the moment and I was more able to talk with Tom and Peter. I handed the cell phone back to Peter and we shared stories for the next four hours. We got to Hartford in just enough time to go out for some pizza around two blocks from the halfway house. There we were, three white guys from Greenwich sitting in a pizzeria in the West Side ghetto of Hartford near the corner of Farmington Avenue and Sigorney Street. I was to learn that in Hartford, Sigorney is pronounced, “Sig-A-Knee,” and its proper use, like all prison lingo, was critical to my survival. I was back in my element and was breathing easy – a little over year in prison had changed my outlook on things. With about five minutes to spare we pulled up to Watkinson House, I bid Peter and Tom good-bye, and I stepped inside. I was home.
The process started all over again. There were forms to fill out and drug tests to take. I had an initial meeting with a counselor. They searched my bag and my body. Aerosol containers, sharps, electric shavers and alcohol-based products were either discarded, or tagged and stored. Once processing was completed, I was escorted up to a room up on the third floor where I would have three roommates; none were in at the time. I was assigned an upper bunk and given a supply of sheets, blankets, towels and basic toiletries – I was an old pro at this already. On each beat up dresser was a television with a clear plastic outer casing. Each television had a picture but no sound. Unlike in Federal prisons, in the Connecticut State prison system inmates could purchase these televisions for about eighty dollars. They were clear so that inmates couldn’t hide contraband or weapons inside of them. They had no speakers, so they could only be used with headsets. When their bids were up, the inmates left prison with the televisions and brought them to the halfway house. When they left, they abandoned them there – after all, there was not much market in the real world for a clear television without a speaker. So there were clear televisions on practically every flat surface of the halfway house.
I started to make my bed and myself at home when my first roommate walked in – a bald Latino named Hector. He looked pretty tough; his arms were sleeves of gang tats. He looked me up and down, and then asked if I was a cop. I said no, and then I asked him if he was a cop. He smiled. I think he liked my response. I could also tell that he was stoned. In fact, when my other roommates showed up it was pretty clear that they were all stoned. Hector pulled out a bottle of some cheap liquor and they all got drunk right there in the room. I suppose that they had a right to be suspicious when I didn’t drink with them, even after I told them that I would be five years sober in a few weeks. Nonetheless, Hector – stoned out, drunk and barely able to speak – had an idea; he had a few tests to put me through to prove I wasn’t a cop.
Hector asked me if he could continue to store his cell phone and charger in a hole in my mattress. He had been storing it there while my bunk was unoccupied. Both he and I knew that cell phone possession charges were among the most egregious offenses in prison. It wasn’t a big leap to guess that they weren’t allowed in the halfway house either and that we could get sent back to prison if we were caught. I told him to forget about it – that I was white, not stupid. He seemed delighted with this response. For his next test, Hector took off his shirt exposing his hairy tattooed body – he explained that he liked to shave down his body hair so that his chest and back were smooth. He proposed that I shave the hair off his back. I figured that this was my Mendoza Line – I was in a halfway house my first night out of prison about to shave the back hair off of a Latino gang member. When I was finished, we wrapped our arms around each other and laughed. He pulled a big plastic box out from under his bunk and showed me this huge cache of sundries. He was running a bodega for the benefit of the guys who couldn’t get passes out of the house. Of course, he marked them up two to three times his cost.
“Go ahead, Poppi.” A term of endearment. “Take one. No charge”.
I went for the Old Spice push-up antiperspirant stick. Things went pretty smoothly with Hector from that point on.
The halfway house had a culture unto itself, but with none of the checks and balances of prison. Quickly dissipated was any prison culture that honored respect. For example, in prison – if I was television room and put my book down on my chair – nobody would have touched it for hours. At Watkinson – my book was pushed onto the floor and I found a guy sitting in my seat. In prison – phone calls were calls were automatically cut off after fifteen minutes. In the halfway house – guys hogged the phones for hours even though there were lines of other guys waiting. In prison – meals were served in a line and doled out somewhat systematically. In the halfway house – it was a cattle call of first come, first served. I wound up eating a lot of cereal and peanut butter those five weeks. Watkinson House did however have AA meetings most nights, and took us to even more meetings in the van. As Federal client I was eligible for a pass in three days (it took Connecticut clients twenty days to get a pass). As soon as I was issued a pass, I could go outside on my own.
I had not been on a computer in fourteen months. Since I had no luck with my voice mail on the ride from prison, I was hoping that I’d at least have some email. I met with my counselor to find out how and where to do that. There were no computers available to clients at the halfway house – the only place that she could think of was at the State of Connecticut Employment Agency, called CT Works, which was a pretty far bus ride from downtown. Clients who achieved Level Four status were allowed to go to the public library downtown and use the computers there – but I was short-termer and only had a Level One status. I received instructions for a pass, and then filled out a request. I explained exactly where I wanted to go, included the address and phone number I got from the Yellow Pages in the office, and why I wanted to go there. My pass was approved and then I had to wait three days for a pass. On my assigned day after breakfast, I was handed a three-hour pass – barely enough time to accomplish my mission – and directions to CT Works on the Hartford/Windsor border. I walked out the door of the halfway house a free man.
It was my first taste of freedom and here I was alone in the Westside Hartford ghetto. I figured I’d better hightail it downtown. The one-mile walk to downtown felt great. I couldn’t help but contrast it to the monotony of circling the track at Allenwood. I caught my first sight of the Connecticut State Capital Building, a pretty cool rib joint, and the arena where the Hartford Whaler’s used to play. But mostly there were people, real people, and they were going to work, wearing work clothes, and sitting on benches eating breakfast. I got to the center of the city, and found the bus stop on Main Street in front of the State House where I would catch the No. 40 bus to CT Works. I asked a few people on line to make sure I was waiting for the right bus – with only a three-hour pass I didn’t have any room for error. I’m certain that they were being very kind given that I was dressed like a guy only a few days out of prison. The ride up North Main Street to the North end of the city was though mostly more ghettos. It took about a half hour to get up to CT Works – it was in a large factory building that had been restored and repurposed into a business incubator housing all sorts of services for poor people. I had to register, become a CT Works client, and then wait in line for a computer. By the time I finally got on a computer, two hours had passed since I left Watkinson House, and I was worried about getting back in time. I logged on to my Yahoo account – I had lots of spam but no messages.
Now I had to hustle. The bus stop for the No. 40 bus back downtown was across the street. Standing there waiting for the bus was a pretty drunk old timer and a young Latino woman with a crying baby. Every minute seemed like an hour, as I waited for that bus to come from Windsor back into Hartford. Finally, the bus pulled up and I let the lady, baby and drunk get back on the bus first. I asked the driver if the bus went downtown, and he pointed to the sign up above the front window. Time seemed to slow down as I thought about the repercussions of arriving at the halfway house late. When the bus got downtown, I still had twenty minutes to walk up the hill back to Watkinson House. But the bus had let me off on Main Street in front of Burger King. The Oreo Shake poster in the window looked so good it practically had my name on it. I knew I was not supposed to stop anywhere unless I had a pass for it – that definitely included Burger King. But it was as if my body had a mind of its own. I couldn’t help myself. I found myself on the line at Burger King, ordering the biggest Oreo Shake they had. Soon, I was walking up the hill and slurping down my shake. At the corner before I got back to Watkinson House, I licked the last drops off the straw and threw away the remnants in a dumpster behind one of the housing projects.
I walked in to the house on time and the women behind the desk were practically falling out of their chairs laughing. They couldn’t control themselves. I asked if everything was okay? One of the women said to me that it was a good thing I was leaving in five weeks – that I would never make it there if I couldn’t figure out not to not to drink a Burger King shake on the streets without a pass. She said that at least five people saw me. The blood drained from my face. I was busted. Was I going to go back to prison over a milk shake? She told me to relax, that the Feds were way too busy to bust guys over something like this. But, she warned me: you never know? They sometimes would take away the people they don’t like for the smallest things. The people they like they leave alone – the people they don’t like they take back to prison.
She turned out to be right. In my five weeks there, there were shakedowns where they would overlook stuff from some guys, but handcuff and take away others.
After an addiction to prescription opioids and serving almost fourteen months in a Federal prison (2006 – 07) for a white-collar crime he committed in 2001 when he was a lawyer, Jeff started his own reentry – earning a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, majoring in Social Ethics. After graduating from divinity school, Jeff was called to serve at an inner city church in Bridgeport, CT as Associate Minister and Director of Prison Ministries. He then co-founded Progressive Prison Ministries, Inc. (Greenwich, CT), the world’s first ministry serving the white collar justice community.
On May 5, 2021, Jeff’s law license was reinstated by the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of the State of New York.
Now again in private practice, Jeff is an attorney and counselor-at-law providing private general counsel, legal crisis management, and dispute strategy and management services to individuals and families, real estate organizations, family-owned and closely-held businesses, the white collar justice community, and special situation and pro bono clients.
For over 20 years Jeff served as managing attorney of a 20+ employee law firm headquartered in New York City, and then Westchester County, NY. Among other practice areas, the firm engaged in representation of family-owned/closely held businesses and their owners, business and real estate transactions, trusts and estates, and litigation. Jeff also served as outside General Counsel to large family-owned real estate equities, management and brokerage organizations, in which role he retained, coordinated and oversaw the work of many specialty law firms, including white collar defense firms.