The Toughest Love

Mother Jones|May/June 2020

The Toughest Love
For nearly 50 years, the Delancey Street Foundation has offered an alternative to prison. But does the celebrated program really work?
By Julia Lurie

The headquarters of the Delancey Street Foundation occupies a piece of prime real estate near the base of San Francisco’s Bay Bridge, tucked between luxury condominiums and ritzy waterfront eateries. The 400,000-square-foot, four-story complex looks like a Disneyfied Mediterranean villa, with red tile roofs, flower boxes, and sun-filled windows overlooking the bustling waterfront. Inside are 177 dorms, a pool, a movie theater, and an unpretentious restaurant known as a hangout for local dignitaries. Rep. Nancy Pelosi described the facility as “the living room of the city.”

On a third-floor wall hang dozens of framed photos of “hotshots who like us”—a who’s who of California’s Democratic elite and celebrities of a certain vintage, posing with Delancey’s co-founder and CEO, Mimi Silbert. With her big auburn hair and an infectious smile, she’s pictured with Hillary and Bill Clinton, Kamala Harris, former Mayor Willie Brown, Colin Powell, Tony Blair, Clint Eastwood, and Jane Fonda. The grip-and-grins are a tribute to Delancey’s reputation as one of the nation’s highest-profile self-help organizations, known for bringing countless lives back from the brink.

The photos are also a testament to the 78-year-old Silbert’s influence. Pelosi has likened Silbert to Mother Teresa and recently called her “the queen of redemption in all of America.” Sen. Dianne Feinstein once urged “anyone, anywhere in the United States that has an interest in replicating a program to rehabilitate American drug addicts that work to go to San Francisco, to call Mimi Silbert.” California Gov. Gavin Newsom became close with Silbert during his own efforts to get sober more than a decade ago. “I never went to rehab,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I went to Mimi.”

Delancey is a bit like a kibbutz where people go instead of prison. With the exception of Silbert, the program is run entirely by people recovering from addiction, and former prisoners, nearly all of whom were sent to the program by judges as an alternative to incarceration or as part of probation or parole. Since it was founded in a cramped apartment in the early ’70s, it has grown into an operation with 1,000 residents in six locations nationwide and more than $119 million in the bank. Delancey’s facilities defy the stereotype of a gloomy halfway house: There’s a Mission-style former hotel in Los Angeles, a ranch in New Mexico, and a turreted manor in New York. Residents, most of whom live in the California facilities, stay for a minimum of two years while working for—and eventually managing—the program’s many enterprises, which include moving companies, catering services, and bustling eateries. The program is predominantly funded by profit from its businesses; residents receive free room and board. During the holiday season, Delancey runs dozens of Christmas tree lots, inviting customers to “Buy A Tree Save A Life!!”

Over nearly half a century, more than 23,000 people have completed the program. Yet as Delancey has become a beloved fixture in San Francisco and a model for rehabs and prison diversion programs around the world, it has been subject to little oversight or scrutiny. Interviews with dozens of Delancey graduates, lawyers, judges, and criminologists paint a picture of an eccentric program with a number of long-standing practices that are rarely discussed in public. New participants are cut off from the outside world and required to spend hours doing monotonous jobs. They must participate in “Games,” in which they receive and dish out intense criticism, often in the form of yelling and cursing. Until a few years ago, residents were required to stay awake for two-day sessions; sometimes those who nodded off were awoken with a spritz of water. They work long hours for no pay, sometimes at events for the politicians who praise the program. Delancey doesn’t offer mental health services and it forbids psychiatric medications. In private conversations, some public defenders in San Francisco liken the program to a cult.

There is loads of anecdotal evidence of the program’s successes, but there is little scientific evidence to support Delancey’s tough-love methods, some of which were inherited from the notorious rehab group Synanon. Even though nearly all of Delancey’s residents come through the criminal justice system, no state or local agency oversees the program, and its recidivism rates haven’t been studied in three decades.

It’s hard to question the appeal Delancey holds for judges and DAs trying to figure out what to do with a specific kind of offender: someone ineligible or unsuited for a typical rehab but deserving of one more chance before prison. Delancey checks a lot of boxes: It’s tougher and longer than most addiction treatment programs; it takes violent offenders; it’s not a prison, and it’s free. “Most judges don’t relish the opportunity to send people to prison,” said one deputy public defender in San Francisco. “It’s kind of like, ‘Delancey will fix it.’” During a 2014 sentencing hearing for Christina Williams, who was convicted of counterfeiting money to fuel a drug habit, federal Judge Lawrence O’Neill said, “I would have loved to have packed her and every other person that’s appeared before me in the last year into my car and driven them up to Delancey Street.” The deal he struck with Williams was typical: If she made it through the program, she would be put on probation. Fail out of Delancey and she would serve time in prison. O’Neill warned her, “It is going to take everything that you have. Every physical, every mental, every emotional drop of energy that you have.”

Today, Williams is thriving, with a full-time job, a fiance whom she met at Delancey, a dog, and years of sobriety. She was one of several former residents I spoke with who credit the program with literally saving their lives. Lifting up the “bottom 2 percent,” as Silbert puts it, through a hybrid of old-fashioned bootstraps and self-actualization is the essence of Delancey. “Name a problem, they have the problem,” Silbert told me when I met her at Delancey’s waterfront headquarters, where she lives. “Drop out of school? They all dropped out of school for the most part. Violent? We go for violent people instead of just taking somebody who just made a mistake. We’re happy to take them. They too can change.”

Yet Delancey’s critics say it’s often presented as the only alternative to prison for people facing long sentences. “Delancey’s considered the be-all and end-all: If you can’t make it there, then you don’t deserve to be out any longer,” said Sangeeta Sinha, who was an attorney in the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office for 15 years, until 2017. In 2006, her client Leyon Barner was sent to Delancey in lieu of a long sentence. Barner buckled under the program’s relentless demands. “You have isolation, you have sleep deprivation, you have this constant pressure of having to go to these Games three times a week where you’re being attacked and insulted and verbally abused,” he recalled. Eventually, he was sent back to prison to serve a lengthy sentence. More than a decade after attending the program, he still has bad dreams about it; he requested that this article be titled “Nightmare on Delancey Street.”

As California attempts to reduce its swollen prison population, and policymakers increasingly agree that the addiction crisis can’t be solved with incarceration, taking a look inside Delancey seems more important than ever. But the questions about its methods and effectiveness resonate beyond the program itself: Does anyone really know the best way to set someone struggling with addiction and criminal activity on a path to recovery and stability?

Silbert is first to acknowledge that Delancey is not for everyone; 4 out of 10 new residents quit before they graduate. But she insisted that its achievements can’t be boiled down to statistics. “There’s just too many people and too many places and the numbers end up never meaning as much to me as the people themselves,” she said. She told me, pleadingly, to remember the alternatives as I wrote this story: “These people would end up in prison if they didn’t come here.”

A stay at Delancey typically begins by waiting on “the bench,” a nod to the wooden seats on Ellis Island where newcomers waited to be screened. Journeying to a new way of life is a central theme at Delancey, which is named after the street on New York’s Lower East Side where many Eastern Europeans settled at the turn of the 20th century. The first phase of the program is called “Immigration.”

Chesley Cipolla arrived on the bench in San Francisco in 2012. At 40, she had spent more than half of her life floundering between prison, rehab, and homelessness. When the three residents who screened her asked why she was there, Cipolla repeated in a low, raspy voice what she’d told countless therapists and social workers over the years: She grew up in a violent household, started drink­ ing heavily as a teenager, and never finished school. One thing led to the next, and here she was, just out of prison, having never successfully completed parole.

“Oh, so you think you’re hot shit, just dropping out of school?” Cipolla recalls one of the screeners snapping at her. “How did you treat your mom?” another asked. “I bet you treated your mom real fucking good, huh? What about your kids? Are you a mom? How’d you treat your kids? How’s it feel being a mom like that, just walked away from your fucking own children?”

During her many stints in rehab, Cipolla had never ex­ perienced an intake like this. “The whole interview process, I was like, ‘These bitches want to fight. I’m going to have to fuck up three big bitches.’” By the time Cipolla left the room so the interviewers could confer, she was shaking, strategizing which of the three she would take down first. At the same time, the process had been such a jolt that it was almost refreshing. “You’ve got a few women just calling you on your shit,” Cipolla remembers. “It seems harsh, but it’s all true, you know?”

Cipolla was admitted, and she entered “Maintenance,” the grueling first part of “Immigration,” which is focused on repetitive cleaning. Residents assigned to cafeteria duty awake at 6 a.m. to scrub tables, stack chairs, sweep and mop, and put the chairs back on the floor—and then keep doing this routine on the already clean surfaces until the next meal. “I’ve heard it’s so we can learn how to work with others’ personalities,” said former resident Anthony Regino, who started at Delancey in 2017. Those on bath­ room duty may stand in place for hours, wiping the same spot on the wall. “It was like an episode of Black Mirror,” said one former resident.

Delancey imposes a blackout period of a few months, during which new residents are prohibited from contacting family or friends. Blackouts for a few weeks are common at residential rehabs; the idea is to start with a blank slate, without the stresses and temptations of home. (There’s not much evidence about whether blackouts work—Cali­ for is bans them in the transitional housing programs it contracts with.) But Delancey’s first few months are far stricter than the typical rehab’s. Residents are forbidden from talking about their pasts or the outside world. Male residents have distilled the rules of “Maintenance” into the “three Ws”: no flirting with women, no working out, and no gazing out the windows—which, in San Francisco, provide sweeping views of the bay. (Silbert told me new residents are welcome to look out the windows as long as they don’t catcall women, but can’t use the gym because “they have not earned that right.” At Delancey, she said, “You need to feel you’ve earned things—and the more cor­ rect things you do, the more you earn.”)

From the get­go, the program has a do­it­yourself ethos that extends to every aspect of life. There are no outside staffers—no nurses or psychiatrists or social workers on­ site for the hundreds of residents. Delancey portrays its lack of clinicians as a selling point. “Rather than hire ex­ parts to help the people with problems, we decided to run Delancey Street with no staff and no funding,” its website reads. A letter sent to jail inmates who request an interview warns, “Remember, we aren’t a counseling program. We’ll expect you to learn a different way of doing things by doing them and helping others along the way.”

Though the vast majority of residents have a history of addiction, Delancey isn’t monitored by the state health department because it isn’t registered as an addiction treat­ ment facility and doesn’t take public funding. Silbert sees Delancey’s mission as transcending addiction: She’s called it a “re­education organization.” Usually, if prospective res­ idents are detoxing, Silbert said, “We give you our chicken soup, some choc­ late, and a broom.”

At least three nights a week, new res­ idents participate in “Games,” confron­ national group sessions where they’re encouraged to let out the anger and irritation built up over long days of te­ tedious work. Beforehand, they request to “play” with those who have gotten on their nerves by submitting forms in a box in the cafeteria. After dinner, groups of about 20 are called off to rooms where they sit in a circle. There are a few ground rules: no threaten­ ing, no getting out of your seat. Some topics—like a person’s appearance and family—are off­limits. Most swear words are allowed, but some offensive epithets like “cunt” and “fag” are not. The focus then turns to pile criticism on one member of the group, while, ideally, pointing out how to fix their problematic behavior—before moving on to the next participant.

Former residents recall hearing grievances ranging from minor slights (“You bumped into me yesterday, you bitch”) to general gripes (“You piece of shit motherfucker, who the fuck do you think you are?”). The “Game” serves as an emotional dumping ground from 7:30 to 10 p.m. Afterward, everyone trickles into the cafeteria for snacks. As a former resident in Los An­ Angeles put it, “The joke used to be ‘Yell at each other, then go share a pizza.’”

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May/June 2020