As a Federal Halfway House Confirms Its First Covid-19 Case, Resident Who Raised Alarms Is Sent Back to Jail

Richard Carrillo believes he was jailed in retaliation for speaking publicly about inadequate protections from the coronavirus.

Richard Carrillo. Photo: Courtesy of Denise Johnson

Days after Richard Carrillo described inadequate protections from the coronavirus by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and a North Dakota halfway house, a resident at his facility tested positive for Covid-19 — and Carrillo was detained and jailed.

Carrillo, 42, had raised concerns in an account published by The Intercept on April 15. He was detained late Thursday morning outside the halfway house in Fargo, which is run by the nonprofit Centre Inc. His girlfriend, who was present, said that two U.S. marshals took Carrillo into custody while he was on a break from his job at a nearby grocery store. They said he had committed a violation but did not elaborate. “Both me and him asked what was the violation for and they wouldn’t tell us,” she said, only that “he violated something at the place that he was staying.”

Carrillo was taken two hours north of Fargo to the Lake Region Law Enforcement Center in Devils Lake, North Dakota. Carrillo’s mother, Denise Johnson, who had to go to the Centre Inc. facility to collect his belongings, said she was told her son had caused a “disruption” at the halfway house. But both she and Carrillo believe that he was detained in retaliation for speaking to the media. In a phone call from the jail Thursday night, Carrillo told his mother that he thought the halfway house was “making an example of him.”

In a series of messages sent from the jail on Friday, Carrillo told The Intercept that he was transported along with three other people in a van to Devils Lake and then told that he was being placed in 23-hour lockdown for 14 days. He was not charged or given any explanation apart from what his mother was told — that “someone made the decision to have me removed because I have been a nuisance.” Carrillo also said he was not feeling well, describing a light cough and a sore throat, which he fears may be a sign of Covid-19. Masks are not being provided at the jail, but staff are taking temperatures.

Johnson first approached The Intercept with fears over the BOP handling of the coronavirus because she has two sons in federal custody. Carrillo, who was released from the Federal Correctional Institution Otisville in New York on March 24, took a Greyhound bus to Fargo. In conversations with The Intercept, he expressed alarm over the lack of precautions upon his arrival at the halfway house, especially because of the time he spent at Port Authority in New York City, the epicenter of the virus. He said he was told he would be quarantined upon his arrival at the Centre Inc. facility but instead was placed in a room with a man who had come from another federal prison and allowed to mix with residents and staff. He was also required to seek work, which meant going to job interviews without any protection.

A few days after The Intercept published its story, a resident at the Centre Inc. halfway house tested positive for Covid-19. Executive Director Josh Helmer confirmed the case in an email on April 21, writing that the test result had been discovered on April 19. The next day the resident was moved to “a different community location to self-quarantine in accordance with the CDC and Department of Health recommendations.” That man, The Intercept learned, is being housed at a hotel in Fargo. According to a source familiar with the situation, the man arrived at the halfway house in late March and shared a room with four other people. He also worked in the kitchen, packing lunches for residents going outside the facility for work, while wearing a mask. The man was removed from his room after his positive test was discovered. Helmer said the facility was unaware he had been tested until learning the results. “The individual was tested as a result of other scheduled medical procedures,” he wrote.

The Covid-19 case fulfilled Carrillo’s worst fears about the possibility that the virus would get into the facility. After the resident tested positive, Carrillo confined himself to his dorm as much as possible, began using a bandana as a mask, and submitted paperwork requesting a transfer to home confinement, which would be especially practical since he already wears an ankle bracelet and has a home just minutes away. The day before he was detained, Carrillo told The Intercept that he and another resident had been bringing their meals back to their dorm in order to avoid the communal dining area, only to be told that this was forbidden. “I know I’m not very liked right now by the staff,” he said.

Carrillo also said that his case manager had spoken to him about his statements to The Intercept, saying that she would have to inform the BOP. “I go, ‘Am I in trouble? Did I do something wrong?’” he said. “And she goes, ‘Well, I’m not saying that. I don’t know if there’s gonna be any trouble about it.’”

As of Friday evening, Carrillo did not know why he was being held at the jail. No new charges have been brought against him. “They are not giving me no hearing or nothing at all,” he wrote. Staff just said he was on a “BOP hold.” Indeed, Carrillo is still technically in BOP custody rather than on probation. He was released to the halfway house to finish his sentence based in part of good behavior during his time in prison. This means the bureau can technically transfer Carrillo to whatever facility it deems necessary — and one Lake Region staffer said that the BOP is transferring people in custody from Fargo to Devils Lake because the former is a Covid-19 “hot spot.” “So they sent them this way as a precaution to keep them safe,” he said.

Nevertheless, Carrillo is certain that he was moved as punishment for making his concerns public. And he still does not understand why, if this is really a matter of public safety, he cannot be transferred to do the rest of his time under home confinement. With BOP claiming to be reducing prison transfers systemwide amid the pandemic, it seems counterproductive at best to move a man who may have been exposed to the virus in one facility to a new jail where the virus could potentially take hold.

Helmer said he forwarded The Intercept’s questions to “our referral source/contract oversight contact personnel” but had not received a response.  In an email, BOP spokesperson Emery Nelson did not answer any questions about Carrillo’s arrest but shared the same information that can be found on the bureau’s Inmate Locator. “For safety and security reasons,” he wrote, “we do not discuss conditions of confinement for any particular inmate.”

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