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Last Updated: Monday, 12 February 2007, 12:25 GMT
California's model rehab centre
By David Willis
BBC News, California

It has been called the most successful rehabilitation programme in the world.

The Delancey Street Foundation
It takes four years to graduate from the Delancey Street foundation
The Delancey Street Foundation in San Francisco puts hardened criminals - including thieves and murderers - in charge of their own recovery and it doesn't take a penny in grant money from the United States government.

Instead the residents support themselves - and each other - by running a string of businesses including a gourmet restaurant. It is a 500-strong family, and - much like a normal family - the punishment for those who step out of line is washing the dishes.

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair visited the place recently, prompting calls for the concept to be introduced in Britain.


Nestling in the shadow of San Francisco's Bay Bridge the Delancey Street Foundation looks more like an upscale Mediterranean resort than a commune for ex-cons. Inside the place is immaculate.

James greeted me warmly, dressed in a suit and tie - the only evidence of his notorious past a necklace of tattoos peeking above a crisply-starched shirt.

14,000 offenders helped
Started with a $1000 loan
Residents pay no fees
He never really stood a chance. His mother was a prostitute, his father a member of the Hells Angels. By the age of 44 he had spent nearly half his life in prison. He has a rap sheet which reads like an encyclopaedia of crime: drug possession, assault, attempted murder.

But now James is going straight.

The first stop on our tour: a gourmet waterfront restaurant run by the residents and open to the public for lunch and dinner.

The place serves around 500 people a day, most of whom have no idea the man or woman serving them is a former car thief or a cat burglar.

James took me to meet Winfrid, the rotisserie chef, who told me he had robbed banks because he was lonely.

Winfrid was caught by the FBI attempting to transfer his ill-gotten gains into an offshore bank account and served 11 years, four months and two days in a federal prison, not that he was counting.

A year into his stay at Delancey Street he says he will never do another hold-up again.

He will remain there another three years (it takes a total of four years to graduate) and acquire the skills he needs to rebuild his life.

Living together

As we moved on to tour the coffee shop, car service and bookstore James told me residents live and work together, pool their income and take responsibility for each other's welfare.

Mimi Silbert, the founder of Delancey Street
Mimi Silbert founded Delancey Street in 1971
Funding for Delancey Street comes from profits generated by the businesses and donations. There is no cost to the residents, the community or the government.

It is a concept he believes could work well elsewhere.

In the canteen and the common room gang members rubbed shoulders with hit men, Mafiosi chewed the cud with con men, and white-collar criminals shot the breeze with white supremacists.

There was no hint of tension; the residents all seemed far too busy for that, either acquiring an education or learning new job skills.

Then it was back to the restaurant for high tea with Mimi Silbert, the founder of Delancey Street, and the only person in the place who is not a former criminal.

Which is not to say she has not been to jail - plenty of times in fact, in the course of her work as a criminal psychologist.

Glowing with pride

She founded Delancey Street in 1971 with four residents and $1000 (507) loan and has since turned a decrepit warehouse into a lavish residential and retail centre, a place which has seen more than 14,000 multiple offenders transformed into law-abiding citizens.

Mimi says Delancey Street does not accept former sex offenders or psychiatric patients, simply because they require special care. With such care she believed the concept could work for them too.

I told her what James had told me - that Delancey Street is the family he never had - and she glowed with pride.

James, she said, was now one of her recruiters. He goes into jails to spread the word about Delancey Street.

Plenty has changed for James in recent years. He told me the last time he arrived at the county jail he was mistaken for a lawyer.

The world's biggest prison system
07 Apr 06 |  Americas

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