A visit with Kacy Austin, Program Directory of CT Renaissance's Waterbury Community Release Program
The entrance is locked; a buzz hits my ears, a dead bolt retracts and I am allowed in. Men loiter in the lobby and upon my entrance are shooed like children by the case workers and security guards. They slowly start moving away, sneaking in a comment about my pretty toe nails before the looks of the house employees move them up a hunter green staircase. I am amazed both at the effectiveness of the case managers silent message and the ineffectiveness of my clothing choice. Apparently sandals are too risqué.
I wander behind Kacy Austin, Program Director of Connecticut Renaissance’s Waterbury Community Release Programs, as she tours me through their halfway house. Doors line the halls like a college dormitory. Behind them are large rooms with sealed windows, bunk beds and nondescript dressers. In the common room there’s sagging couches, battered ping pong tables and shelves stuffed with board games that are probably older than most of the men who play them.
Overall the building lacks spaciousness; it struggles against its neighbors for its rightful elbow room. What it lacks in width it makes up in height: flight after flight of the same painted stairs. I faithfully bob behind my guide.
We circle the last hall and descend the flight of stairs. “So that’s basically it, any questions?” Kacy asks over her shoulder.
In her office the air conditioning is a welcomed change from the stuffy halls. We discuss her job as program manager, which boils down to “mother of the house.” She must file paper work, be an administrator, support her staff members, the clients, and occasionally their families. When called upon she jumps in wherever the house is short, any job from maintenance to food service. Whatever is happening in this halfway house, she knows about.
Around sixty-five percent of the men that leave this program stay in the Waterbury area, mostly due to the housing options. For men with substance abuse problems, sober houses are available. For those with mental health issues, other support systems are in place. And for those who do not fall into either of these categories rent is low compared to surrounding areas. The only setback her men are facing is the failing job market. “Many guys are only getting part-time hours, which isn’t enough to pay their sober house rent,” Kacy remarks.
When I ask about the hardest part of her job, Kacy pauses. I am surprised when she answers, “Talking to a mother, or a wife, who comes here crying because her son made a choice that got him back to jail even though he was out here. Hearing the struggles they went through throughout that person’s incarceration and the hopes that they had having them so close to home and now they’re back [in prison].”
Kacy’s motivation to enter this field of work stems from her own family background. She jokes she certainly doesn’t do it for the money. She says the majority of her fellow co-workers share her compassion for the guys because of personal connections to their struggles.
When asked about what she would change about the correctional system the house is currently operating under, Kacy explains, “I would change the process of meeting the client’s substance abuse and mental health needs first before they have to deal with the pressures of employment.”
She continues, “What I do feel sometimes is there might be people who I would like to see stay a little bit longer. They may be looking at the fact that they are past their parole date, and it’s true that they are past that date, but sometimes some people could use about another month or so before they are actually ready to go out.”
She also believes that making the transition mandatory for all inmates would be beneficial.
“I think everyone should [be released to a halfway house] because it’s such a different lifestyle and there is always that adjustment period. You can tell the difference between a guy who has been incarcerated for a year versus a guy who has been incarcerated for 10 years.”
What is Kacy most proud of when it comes to her work?
“I am happy to say no one has left here homeless.”
Until we completely erase the perception of ex-offenders being ‘different’ from other people, we will continue to have this subset of people who don’t have opportunities and remain steeped in poverty.