A Halfway House Built on Exaggerated Claims

Some residents of a halfway house, left, run by Community First Services on Gold Street say it offers little more than meals and a bed, not counseling and job-search help.

Seeking an operator for a major halfway house in Brooklyn, the federal government awarded a $29 million contract to a nonprofit group with a promising name, Community First Services, and impressive credentials.

On its Web site and in its bids for contracts, Community First promoted its extensive experience doing work for government agencies, including New York City’s Department of Juvenile Justice and the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

Community First hailed the vision of its founder, Jack A. Brown III, whom it portrayed as a veteran of gulf war combat with deep expertise in air-defense artillery. And the group declared that, as its name suggested, it had consulted closely with leading community organizations about setting up the federal halfway house in Brooklyn.

But none of these claims are true, an investigation by The New York Times showed.

The Brooklyn facility is supposed to be a pillar in an expanding system of federal halfway houses, which are intended to help inmates after they are released from federal prison by arranging for counseling, drug treatment and jobs.

But the contract has instead illustrated how the federal government, like New Jersey and some other states, has faced considerable difficulties regulating these places, even as it entrusts more and more inmates to them.

Today, a year after the contract went into effect, the 161-bed halfway house run by Community First Services has already had three addresses in Brooklyn.

Even though the federal government is paying Community First Services $98 a day for each inmate, one of the three locations was in the basement of a rundown hotel crammed between a junkyard and a homeless shelter. Inmates entering and leaving the building on work-release programs had to run a gantlet of drug dealers on the street.

At its present location, a neighbor has noticed suspicious activity, saying she had twice seen people smuggling packages into the building by lowering ropes from the second floor to the sidewalk.

Inside the halfway house, inmates often have little to do and receive few services, according to interviews with defense lawyers and five inmates.

Some of them pass the time playing cards, ordering takeout food and watching videos, including pornographic ones. At night, they talk on cellphones, which are supposed to be banned; drink alcohol hidden in water bottles; and smoke synthetic marijuana, called K2, the five inmates said.

They also flee. In Community First’s first year running the Brooklyn halfway house, the number of escapes nearly doubled, to 27, when compared with the previous year, federal statistics show.

Lawyers and social workers at the Federal Defenders of New York, a nonprofit legal group that provides lawyers to federal inmates, said services were so threadbare that they tried to keep their clients away from the Brooklyn halfway house when possible.

Vivianne Guevara, a senior official at Federal Defenders, said the halfway house was “a big hindrance” in integrating inmates back into society.

“I don’t think it really promotes healing or rehabilitation,” she said. “It’s not a supportive environment.”

Mr. Brown, chief executive of Community First, is a politically connected entrepreneur with a checkered history in the halfway-house industry. He used to supervise the Brooklyn halfway house when it was operated by a private company. He set up Community First in 2005 while still working for the company, then used the nonprofit group to bid successfully against the company for the halfway-house contract, according to interviews and public records.

The interviews and records show that over the years, Mr. Brown, 44, has left a trail of exaggerated claims and self-dealing. He was also a key figure in one of the biggest lobbying scandals in Albany in the past decade.

Community First paid Mr. Brown a $241,900 salary in 2010, according to its most recent disclosure records to the Internal Revenue Service. The group also employs his brother and sister.

In an interview, Mr. Brown defended the halfway house, saying it had turned around inmates’ lives.

“We’re new, but what makes us different, in my opinion, is that we operate understanding that the community is first; I mean, it’s in our name,” Mr. Brown said. “We always keep in the front of our minds that these clients are eventually going to transition back to some neighborhood within New York City, and we want to make sure that they have the greatest possible chance to succeed.”

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