A mask crafted from a T-shirt. A room with 18 beds, all filled. A bathroom shared with someone who is ill. A dinner hall so packed “it’s like happy hour.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic ravages the country, these are some of the scenes unfolding across the country in halfway houses contracted by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). While calls grow louder for the government to release people incarcerated in jails and prisons, the people filling the BOP’s nearly 10,000 halfway house beds have not captured the same attention. Those people have either completed their prison sentences and have been sent to the home as a condition of release or they have been sentenced to stay there for the entirety of their punishment.
The Appeal spoke to residents from halfway houses in Washington, D.C.; Janesville, Wisconsin; and Brooklyn about their experiences as the pandemic worsens. For those staying at halfway houses, vulnerability to coronavirus is high, according to those interviewed by The Appeal who have knowledge of the homes. To meet social distancing requirements, many administrators have locked down their facilities, banning people from leaving to go to their jobs. As a result, residents, many of whom had recently been working in high density workplaces, such as factories, are left to cohabitate in tight quarters.
People living in halfway houses are sentenced on average to six months. Some are nearing the end of their sentences and are due to return to the free world soon. But as the coronavirus spreads across the United States, their futures are increasingly uncertain.
“They’re basically telling us if you don’t like it then you can go back to prison,” said Curtis King, who is staying at a halfway house in Brooklyn. “I just don’t know what to do about it. I got no choice except to risk getting sick.”
The BOP issued a memo on March 13 outlining changes to halfway houses in response to COVID-19. Among those, it suspended routine drug and alcohol testing, regular payments each resident must make to the bureau with 25 percent of their salary, and allowed for telephonic meetings between case managers and residents. The bureau also noted that “key staff” could be temporarily used to “fill gaps in security and other operations” if shortages arose.
Last week, FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums) sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr calling on him to ease the burden on halfway houses by releasing people to home confinement. “These guys are in a Petri dish, they’re jammed together they can’t leave,” Kevin Ring, president of FAMM, told The Appeal. “Halfway houses should be emptied immediately. There’s no public safety benefit compared to the public health benefit of keeping people in. It just doesn’t make sense. It’s mind numbing.”
On Thursday, Barr issued a directive to the BOP advising officials to transfer people in the bureau’s custody to home confinement in cases in which it is “likely not to increase the inmate’s risk of contracting COVID-19.” To be released, each person would be judged on criteria such as age and vulnerability to the disease, their conduct while incarcerated, and seriousness of their offense. It wasn’t immediately clear if Barr’s directive extended to halfway houses.
In response to a list of allegations about the homes, a BOP spokesperson told The Appeal that it had “no factual evidence to support the allegations.”
“The Bureau of Prisons remains committed to the use of [halfway houses] to provide services to offenders releasing to our communities, and to support the use of these programs to assist them with productive and positive reentry, even during the current pandemic situation, while taking all necessary steps to protect the health and safety of the residents and the public,” the spokesperson, Justin Long, wrote in an email.
Hope Village, a 304-bed halfway house for men, is on lockdown, but residents say staff members are not taking necessary measures to protect residents against the disease. Three residents have been tested for COVID-19, a spokesperson told WAMU, and they are being quarantined in rooms in the building. Of those, two have tested negative while a third test has not yet come back.
People who show symptoms of the disease are being quarantined in a separate building.
One resident, who asked not to be named out of fear of retribution, told The Appeal that the situation inside has grown dangerous. People sleep in rooms with several others, he said. For meals, residents eat together in two dining halls and are forced to sit close to one another. “It’s like happy hour on a Friday night at a bar,” he said. “It’s packed.”
Like many of the other residents, he ties a T-shirt around his face as a makeshift mask.
Because the men are not permitted to leave, they are unable to pick up supplies such as soap and hand sanitizer. Those who have family members nearby are allowed to receive supplies from them once a week, he said.
And recreation consists of walking around the parking lot for 15 minutes every other day, said the resident.
After spending six years in prison, he said he’s due to be released to home confinement at the end of April but is unsure of whether that will happen now since meetings needed to permit his release have been put on hold. “Things were certainly moving forward in the right way and at this point I’d be better off being back where I was, in terms of movement,” he said. “This is not healthy, not at all.”
After running out of preventive diabetes medication that regulates his blood sugar, he said staff told him that to get it, he could call an ambulance to take him to the emergency room. He declined the offer, he said, because a trip to the hospital would increase his risk of being exposed to COVID-19.
He added that morale inside the facility is low, and tempers are flaring between the staff and residents. “It is progressively getting worse, exponentially worse. … Something is going to happen and it’s not going to be good.”
A video posted on Facebook showed a man who said he is a resident of Hope Village. He said that six to eight people are leaving the home every day in an ambulance. “You got people throwing up in the hallways. They’re stopping folks from bringing hand sanitizer up here and waters for us,” he said, wearing a shirt around his face as a mask. “We just ask for help right here at Hope Village. … Send everyone home.”
Hope Village did not return requests for comment.
Tammy Seltzer, director of the DC Jail and Prison Advocacy Project at University Legal Services, told The Appeal she’s heard similar stories from people living at the facility and urged the government to release people to home confinement when they can. Many of the people living at the halfway house don’t have a place to go, however. Mayor Muriel Bowser should create additional temporary housing for those people, she said.
“We really need to reduce the number of people at the halfway house so they’re not on top of each other the way they are now,” Seltzer said.
A resident at the Rock Valley Community Program in Janesville, Wisconsin, was kicked out of the home for Facebook posts related to COVID-19, he said, and now the federal government is opposing his request to travel to Michigan to stay with his father.
Jeremy Ryan had been sentenced to stay at the home for six months as part of the conditions of a plea agreement, arriving in early March. On the morning of March 17, he wrote a lengthy post on Facebook that tagged Rock Valley about the lockdown administrators had imposed. As part of that lockdown, job interviews were canceled but people could still go to work at their jobs in large factories. “Due to their incompetence people are getting screwed… You can’t get on your feet if you can’t get a job or see a doctor… It’s too early to issue such harsh restrictions,” he wrote.
He said he received a call from his probation officer advising him to stop posting about the situation. Later that night, he wrote on Facebook, but did not tag Rock Valley, that a resident of the facility had a “fever and bad cough” and was being tested for coronavirus. “So basically the whole facility could have it by now,” he posted.
Shortly after that, Ryan’s probation officer told him that he had been ordered to pack up his belongings and move out. At the time, Ryan said he was feeling unwell and having difficulty breathing. He told The Appeal a test for COVID-19 was negative. (Health officials have acknowledged some tests are unreliable and do not detect the virus.)
He initially planned to sleep in his car but said that a community organization paid for him to stay in a hotel, where he’s residing now.
Angel Eggers, executive director of Rock Valley, declined to comment to The Appeal on the events surrounding Ryan’s eviction from the facility, citing privacy rules. She said there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 at Rock Valley and the staff is doing “everything we can” to guard against the disease.
On March 19, Ryan’s attorney, Joseph Bugni, filed a motion asking that Ryan be allowed to travel to Michigan to stay with his father until the disease becomes less threatening. “This is not an easy time for anyone, let alone someone who is now homeless and with few options in Wisconsin,” wrote Bugni.
He argued for the special provision in a telephone conference on March 20, and the judge has yet to make a ruling. Bugni told The Appeal that Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Altman opposed allowing Ryan to travel. Altman did not respond to a request for comment.
As part of the conditions of his release, Ryan was sentenced to two years’ probation with the ability to cut that to one year for good behavior. He said his eviction will result in a probation violation and the judge will have to decide whether it is serious enough to add another year.
Tacking another year to his probation would be a blow to Ryan, who said his conviction was based on buying illegal supplies for a suicide after he became depressed. He said probation has added obstacles to working on his mental health since his movement is restricted.
“I’m just flabbergasted that a place that received federal dollars to try to rehabilitate people would do something so negligent and so irresponsible,” Ryan said. “It’s not like they’re saying I was a danger to the facility. It was solely over a Facebook post that didn’t mention any names. It was completely and entirely accurate. People have a right to know what’s going on.”
Several people have tested positive for COVID-19 at the Brooklyn House Residential Reentry Center run by Core Services, according to Curtis King, who is a resident there.
Michael Lowe, the facility director, declined to comment and directed questions to the BOP.
King said the facility is quarantining one man diagnosed with the disease in a separate room but he is still using the same communal bathroom and telephone. Others who showed COVID-19 symptoms while recently roaming around the home have not returned from the hospital.
Administrators are not alerting people when someone tests positive. King said he found out from one staff member.
The halfway house is designed to sleep two to 18 people in 17 rooms. Staff members have not made any changes to this setup in response to the outbreak, according to King. To get medical help, he said people have to make a scene. “You got to act a fool,” he said. In one case, he said a man told the staff he didn’t have money to get to the hospital and was told to walk.
King, who has asthma, said he is worried for his health. “Dudes are sick, they’re not getting checked out. They don’t care,” he said. “It’s a scary situation.”
He is due to be released on April 17 but worries that once he is freed, he will pass the disease to his elderly mother. “I’m nervous,” he said. “These people just don’t care.”