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At 7:30 a.m. last Thursday, Sabrina Drayton performed one of the basic duties of her job as a parole officer: visiting a prisoner’s family to prepare them for his release. Seated on a plastic-covered sofa in a Lower East Side apartment, she told Francisco Caballero about the rules that will govern his son’s life once he comes home. “He will have a 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew,” Drayton explained. And “he’s probably going to need a drug treatment program.”
Caballero, the 54-year-old manager of a flower shop, already knows more about parole than most people. His 35-year-old son is a longtime addict with a lengthy rap sheet, which includes selling drugs and attempted burglary. “I don’t want my son to go back to jail,” Caballero told the parole officer. “It’s a revolving door. I’m tired of it. I know the kid can do better.”
Drayton often hears tales of frustration and fatigue from families who have struggled with a loved one’s addiction. But in the battle to stop addicts from returning to prison, she has a weapon that few parole officers possess: La Bodega de la Familia, a nonprofit organization that helps addicts’ families.
Since La Bodega opened in 1996, more than 500 families have come to its office on East Third Street near Avenue C. La Bodega takes an innovative approach to tackling addiction by targeting not only addicts but also their families. The program offers counseling, support groups, and a 24-hour hot line. La Bodega does not provide drug treatment or jobs, but helps clients navigate the city’s nonprofits and government bureaucracies.
“When someone comes back from prison, it’s incredibly chaotic for everyone,” says Carol Shapiro, La Bodega’s director, who was an assistant commissioner at the city Department of Corrections in the early 1990s. “Focusing on the needs, concerns, and feelings the family has before someone comes home allows a process of stabilizing that environment, so the family can be in a better position to support that loved one.”
In the last few years, La Bodega’s family-focused approach has become increasingly popular. Shapiro and her staff have a contract with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to do trainings about family case-management in Tucson, Newark, and Washington, D.C. And they will soon be helping train New York City probation officers.
When she started La Bodega, Shapiro’s first hire was Fred Weinberg. “The first six months were very tough,” says Weinberg, who had previously worked at the State Division of Parole for 29 years. “We didn’t have any clients. We didn’t know, ‘Were we going to be able to sell the program? Would we be able to link with parole, probation, the cops?’ ”
Armed with a stack of La Bodega brochures, he visited neighborhood schools, churches, and gardens. And he set up a table inside the nearby Lillian Wald Houses. Finding clients was not easy, especially since Weinberg, by his own description, is “a 65-year-old white guy who looks like he might have been a cop.”
Today, La Bodega has four case managers and serves about 70 families at a time. Family members stream in and out of La Bodega’s storefront all week long. Sometimes only one person shows up for counseling. Other times, five family members come in. At La Bodega, “family” is loosely defined, and so clients bring whoever is important to them—their friend, mother, girlfriend, or pastor.
Among La Bodega’s earliest participants was Ana Nazario, who had a husband and two sons in prison. Over the years, La Bodega has assisted her with myriad problems, from writing a letter to the parole board on behalf of her son to helping ease the tensions that arose when her husband came home.
Case managers here also mediate family fights, help clients get into drug treatment, and accompany them to housing court. “Most of what we do here is letting them release their frustrations,” says Tina Santiago, a family case manager. “We’re here to be a support system for families who never had that before.”
While La Bodega gets referrals from many sources, including probation officers and local cops, two-thirds of its clients are sent by the Division of Parole. In January 1999, the Division of Parole assigned three parole officers to work full-time with La Bodega. When these officers visit prisoners’ families before their release, a La Bodega staffer tags along to encourage relatives to come to the program.
This close relationship with a nonprofit is unusual for the Division of Parole. “It’s been a major shift in attitudes,” Weinberg says. “I don’t ever remember anyone being allowed to accompany a parole officer [on home visits], who is not in law enforcement.”
Richard Levy, director of the Division of Parole’s Manhattan and Bronx offices, seems pleased with the relationship. “Our experience has been very positive,” he says. La Bodega’s parole officers supervise about 35 parolees, which is half the average caseload. “This is a program that has tremendous potential,” says Levy. But, he adds, “It’s expensive to run.”
La Bodega’s annual budget of $1 million comes mostly from government agencies. The program is costly, but its director says her mission is not to create lots of La Bodegas. Rather, she says, she is testing an idea.”We’re not inventing a new service,” Shapiro says. “We’ve invented a way to incorporate families into an already existing [process], and to help governments and nonprofits access them.”
La Bodega’s cozy relationship with law enforcement agencies makes some people uncomfortable. Ric Curtis, an anthropology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and an expert on urban drug use, calls the relationship part of a “worrisome trend” in criminal-justice reform efforts, which extend law enforcement’s reach into areas of people’s lives not traditionally under its control. Still, Curtis says, he applauds Shapiro’s effort. About La Bodega’s approach, he says,”Especially in the Latino community, it’s a useful perspective to take. It’s definitely families that you’re dealing with, not isolated individuals.”
This summer, the first study of La Bodega’s effectiveness will be completed. In the ongoing search for strategies to stop recidivism, the stakes have never been higher. An estimated 614,000 prisoners are expected to be released this year—compared with 561,020 in 1998. Studies by the Bureau of Justice Statistics show that 40 percent of prisoners coming home return to prison within three years.
Caballero hopes his son will not become part of this statistic. The parole officer who stopped by his apartment warned Caballero what will happen if his son violates the terms of his parole—if he starts using drugs again or fails to show up for his appointments with her. “You know this is the first place I’m coming to look for him,” Drayton said. “And I’m not coming alone.”
Before the parole officer left the apartment, she asked where her parolee would be sleeping. Then she pulled out a pen and sketched a map. If she does have to arrest Caballero’s son, she will likely come at night.
This time around, Caballero will have extra help keeping his son out of the streets. The father seemed grateful. “If you’re going to be working with my son, anytime you need me you should call me,” he said. “I’m willing to do anything for my son.”