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Recipes for Recovery

Ex-cons show each other the way out at San Francisco’s Delancey Street.
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58 Tracy Spread


In early May 1995, Margie Lewis sat on a bench at the Delancey Street Foundation, a residential education center for addicts and ex-convicts in San Francisco, awaiting intake. Until that moment, her life had been defined by institutions—teenage years in the California Youth Authority and long stays in jail as an adult. Enrollment in the program was her last chance—her only alternative to the life sentence that would otherwise be mandated by the state’s new “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law.

Lewis was filled with optimism. At Delancey, she saw no paid professional social workers, no guards, and little bureaucracy. Instead, the place was run by dozens of people like her, who had been in and out of prison and came here to recover. “I was nervous and excited, sitting there,” said Lewis. “I felt like there was a possibility things could be different this time.”

Delancey's residents learn, often for the first time, that they have value and can make and do things that are of value to others.

In San Francisco, Delancey Street, now celebrating its 40th year, has quietly built a model program that has kept thousands of addicts and ex-offenders from landing back in prison. It isn’t just a treatment program—it’s an all-hands-on-deck community that recognizes that everyone, even an addict or ex-convict, has a skill to offer others. At Delancey Street, you don’t just go through treatment; you are put to work helping those around you rebuild their lives.

Lewis, who had only completed her G.E.D. a few months earlier while in county jail, was tasked with teaching others how to do the same. Former addicts also help their peers kick their addictions. Recovery sessions happen in groups, led by people in recovery themselves. “You hear about yourself from people who know you,” said Lewis. “They are your mirrors. Your peers understand the things in your life you have tried to forget through drug use.”

Residents also learn at least three marketable job skills through Delancey’s business enterprises—run by ex-offenders. They work at one of many ventures such as the on-site restaurant, the moving company, the Christmas tree sales lot, the landscape business, or the digital print shop. The enterprises supply roughly 60 percent of Delancey’s funding.

Breaking the Prison Cycle

Delancey Street photo by Lane Hartwell

Before entering the Delancey Street program, Margie Lewis was facing a "three strikes" life sentence.

Photo by Lane Hartwell.

California is second only to Texas in the number of people in its prisons, according to the Pew Center on the States. The state experienced a prison construction boom after decades of laws that lengthened sentences—even for nonviolent crimes. A report by the California Legislative Analyst’s Office shows that, in its first decade, Three Strikes flooded more than 80,000 new inmates into the prison system, many for petty drug possession.

At the end of most sentences is a revolving door that leads back to prison. The formerly incarcerated return to the outside with few of the resources they need to survive—no job, no place to live, and no support network. About two-thirds of those released from the California prison system return there within three years. The cost of maintaining a bloated prison system has drained the state budget. California expects to spend $9 billion on corrections in its 2011-2012 budget, and has had to wrestle with a deficit of more than $25 billion by cutting health care and social services. The human costs of a correction system that tears apart families and communities are even greater.

In contrast, Delancey started as a tiny economic investment that produces giant returns—in the form of recovered ex-addicts and ex-felons who become healthy, contributing members of a community. Delancey’s founder, Mimi Silbert, grew up in a poor community on the Lower East Side of New York, the daughter of European Jews. “As the years went by, I began to see people who didn’t get out of the ghetto, and who by a hair turn, ended up in prison,” she said in an interview with Southern California Woman Magazine. 

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