Group meetings. Board games. Communal dining. Sleeping in bunk beds. New residents coming in and out.
Some residents in Colorado’s halfway houses say they’ve seen few changes to their physical interactions during the COVID-19 outbreak, which has all but stopped social life elsewhere in the state in an effort to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.
Halfway house residents who spoke with The Colorado Independent said this is a concern because some of them have underlying health conditions, including HIV and respiratory issues, making them particularly vulnerable to the disease that has killed 179 people in Colorado since the first positive case was identified on March 5.
“The staff keeps saying they are not sending people here. But we keep seeing new faces,” said Craig Ralston, 56, who’s living in CoreCivic’s Fox facility.
Colorado has 32 halfway houses, which are used as temporary housing to help former inmates transition back into society. The Colorado Independent spoke with residents at Columbine and Fox, both owned by CoreCivic, and received an emailed complaint from a resident at the Independence House Pecos facility. All three facilities are in Denver. In the state’s other halfway houses, it’s unclear what the pandemic response is. And the situation is changing rapidly.
Last week, the Denver Department of Safety, which oversees eight halfway houses with a total of 600 residents, halted new intakes to the facilities. The new rules took effect on April 3.
In the days before the intakes stopped, empty beds were quickly filled with people coming from prison. Those new prison arrivals were not quarantined. Aside from the intakes, residents said they were not always screened for fevers when they returned from work. One resident said he was laughed at by staff for wearing a mask. One visibly sick resident roamed freely throughout the facility. That resident later tested negative for COVID-19, but he was not quarantined during that period of uncertainty.
“We would see him in the bathroom. In the middle of the night, people would talk about running into him. There was very little oversight,” said one resident who was at the Fox. He declined to be named out of fear of retaliation. “I was frightened. I’m HIV positive.”
Photos provided to The Colorado Independent by a resident of one halfway house show residents congregating on a patio on March 28, some keeping their distance from one another; others paying no mind. Another photo shows a crowded hallway on March 30.
Ryan Gustin, manager of public affairs at CoreCivic, which operates 11 halfway houses and two prisons in Colorado, said the facility is working to increase social distancing and adhere to Centers for Disease Control guidelines.
Lisa Calderón, the chief of staff for Denver councilwoman Candi CdeBaca and a former Denver mayoral candidate has received complaints from people in halfway houses.
“There seems to be one set of rules for free society and then other rules for those in detention facilities,” Calderón said.
“There doesn’t seem to be a health order that takes into account the poor or the incarcerated. … They are human beings regardless. Their health considerations are not being elevated or prioritized in the way they should be when they are even more at risk than the rest of us who can shelter at home.”
Halfway house owners generally have little control over who comes and goes into their facilities. But the Denver Department of Safety, with permission from the state, has given its halfway houses authority to recommend furloughing or releasing certain residents to parole, said Greg Mauro, the city and county’s director of Community Corrections.
Residents typically need a place to work and live before they can be released on parole or furloughed, however. And with housing in short supply and unemployment spiking, this has created something of a bottleneck at halfway houses.
Some halfway houses have furloughed as many as they could, said Robert Rodriguez, a state senator who used to help run the Independence House in Denver, which was founded by his father, Mannie. Rodriguez said people shouldn’t be released without a home or a job lined up. “My biggest concern is that we’re not setting people up to fail.”
Mannie Rodriguez said he first asked that the Department of Safety and the Colorado Department of Corrections give him more authority to furlough inmates two months ago, when the coronavirus was just beginning to spread across the U.S. He said halfway houses are in this difficult spot because state and local officials have been slow to respond.
“I’ve been asking them to help us,” he said. “There are close to 5,000 people in community corrections statewide and we’re all just left hanging.”
Without releasing more residents, Mauro, of Denver’s Department of Safety, said increasing social distance in halfway houses is next to impossible.
“Our system is built to maximize capacity. Up until early March, that was where we were at. Now we’re trying to reduce that,” he said.
Mauro said he has seen a rise in complaints from residents in recent weeks. While the county has not taken any enforcement action, he said the complaints will be considered when the state looks to renew contracts with companies that operate halfway houses. CoreCivic’s contract is set to expire July 2021, he said, and Denver city council members have already sought to end it.
As halfway houses seek to free up space, so, too, is the Department of Corrections. The department on March 25 halted new intakes of inmates from county jails and decided to quarantine any potential new arrivals in Cañon City’s Centennial South Correctional Facility, formerly known as CSP II, a mostly vacant high-security prison shuttered in 2012 and reopened in March. The department already has released 25 people to intensive supervision parole and is considering another 204 inmates for release, according to Annie Skinner, a spokesperson for the department.
In the meantime, CoreCivic said it’s working to implement social distancing measures that includes posting educational posters and signage, having the residents sleep in the opposite direction from their roommate, holding staff and resident meetings by phone, increasing the size of our group rooms and limiting group activity to no more than 10 people.
Ralston, who’s living in CoreCivic’s Fox facility while working as a baker, said he’s completed his programs necessary for release but has had trouble finding housing to move into. He said he’s called 10 different locations with no luck.
He said he’s had two respiratory infections and is on a wait list to get a biopsy to test for cancer. These underlying health conditions make him immunocompromised and particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. He’s considered walking away from the halfway house, but worries he’ll then end up dying in jail.
“I’m closer to freedom than I’ve ever been,” Ralston said. “So I’m not going to jeopardize that. But it’s really disheartening to think about what could happen now when I’m so close.”
A previous version of this story implied Robert Rodriguez was the owner of the Independence House. He used to help run the facility as director of business management. This was corrected. The story was also updated with comment from Mannie Rodriguez.