As Coronavirus Spreads in Federal Prisons, Cases in Halfway Houses Are Being Undercounted

People at residential reentry centers say the Bureau of Prisons is compounding the risks of the virus through mismanagement, intransigence, and retaliation.

"Aunt Phoebe" poses for a portrait at her hom, outside of Albany, May 16 2020.
James Stile’s aunt Phoebe inside her home in Albany, N.Y., on May 16, 2020. Photo: Johnny Milano for The Intercept

James Stile was sitting in the backyard of the Horizon House, a federal halfway house in Albany, New York, when a staff member ordered him to pack his things and get a ride home. It was mid-March; Stile was not scheduled for release until late May. “I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” he said.

Stile, 63, phoned his Aunt Phoebe, who lives about 15 minutes away. “He called me and said I had to come immediately,” she recalled. Later he talked to another resident who explained why they had been evacuated. Two men had been taken from the house to the hospital with symptoms of Covid-19.

Stile had been worried about the coronavirus ever since he arrived at Horizon House. He had been released from a federal prison in Pennsylvania on March 3, just two days after New York announced its first case. After almost nine years behind bars, he left prison with no winter coat or money for food; just a ticket for a 13-hour bus trip to Albany. So he was not optimistic when he asked how the halfway house planned to deal with the virus. “They didn’t have an answer for me,” he said. Like most halfway house residents, those at Horizon House share rooms and bathrooms and eat in a communal dining area. Stile spent as much time as he could outside. “I’m almost 64,” he said, adding that he has emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. “I’m at risk. I’m seriously at risk.”

After being rushed from the halfway house, Stile became concerned about his aunt, who is 77. Sending him to her home when he might have been exposed to the virus had been reckless, Stile said. He and his aunt decided he should get tested right away. So on March 14, Stile went to Albany Medical Center, where there was a triage tent set up outside. A few days later, his test came back negative. The residents taken to the hospital would prove to be negative as well.

For the next week or so, Stile lived with his aunt. “We always had a very special relationship,” Phoebe said. She lost her husband in 1996; when she had a major surgery years later, Stile came and stayed with her. “He shopped, he cleaned, he cooked. You know, he did everything,” she said. “And I appreciated that very much. He was always very good to me. And I was good to him.”

Stile was living well before going to federal prison. He’d moved from his native New York to Maine, where he lived on a lake with a pack of German shepherds he trained for elite K-9 competitions, a longtime passion of his. But Stile also lived with chronic pain. Following a series of back surgeries, he’d developed a debilitating addiction to opioids. Maine was hit hard by the opioid crisis; in 2011 he was picking up a prescription at a pharmacy in Bangor when he was confronted by two men who pistol-whipped him and stole his medication. Unable to replace the drugs, he bought an illegal supply of methadone, later testing positive for the drug during a medical appointment. Two doctors dropped him as a patient. And that’s how “I made a very bad decision,” Stile said.

One of the two Horizon Houses on Elizabehth Street in Albany, seen here May 16 2020.
Basketball is played in the yard of one of the Horizon House rehabilitation homes in Albany, May 16 2020.

Left/Top: One of the Horizon House buildings on Elizabeth Street in Albany, N.Y., on May 16, 2020. Right/Bottom: Basketball is played in the yard of one of the Horizon House buildings. Photos: Johnny Milano for The Intercept

In September 2011, Stile carried a sawed-off shotgun into a pharmacy in Bingham, zip-tied the employees, and stole $12,000 worth of drugs. He was arrested the next day and later sentenced to 10 years in federal prison.

Stile’s aunt recalls being shocked by his crime. “I don’t condone what he did,” she said. But it was clear to her that it was the consequence of a terrible addiction. Phoebe became a lifeline to her nephew as he did his time. After his mother died suddenly last year, she offered to pay his way to attend the funeral, but the Bureau of Prisons would not allow it. As Stile’s release date approached, she agreed to take him in until he could get back on his feet. Now that he had arrived, it made sense for him to stay. But on March 26, after verifying to Horizon House staff that he had tested negative for Covid-19, Stile was told to report back to the halfway house immediately.

“I’m a legal beagle,” Stile said. In prison he had become a relentless jailhouse lawyer, filing lawsuits and grievances that won him no friends among staff. Back at Horizon House, Stile sought expedited review for a writ of habeas corpus on the basis that his life was at risk, to no avail. He tried to take meals up to his room but was told that was forbidden. Finally, on April 7, he filed a grievance announcing that he would be implementing his own self-quarantine. He would no longer go downstairs for count three times a day and stand less than 6 feet from other residents. He would no longer accept medications from staff who handled his pills. And he would no longer eat — anywhere.

In late April, Stile wrote an email informing the BOP that he had been on a hunger strike for nearly three weeks. “You need to do something soon,” he wrote. “Put me in the SHU, home confinement, or wherever, but safe from this coronavirus which is the core of the problem here. … It is not safe.” A week later, on May 4, Stile was woken up early in the morning by a pair of U.S. marshals. They removed him from the halfway house and took him to the Rensselaer County Jail just north of town.

The next day, Phoebe drove to Horizon House to pick up his things. “I had called them and told them I was coming, so they should have it all ready,” she said. “I did not want to go in. I put my mask on and I ring the bell.” She waited for a staffer to account for her nephew’s belongings, but he was taking a long time, so she stepped inside. Later that day, Stile called her from jail. He asked if she had gone inside the halfway house. “And I say, ‘Yeah, why?’ And he said, ‘Because somebody is positive.’”

Missing Cases, Unanswered Questions

Stile is one of several people across the country who contacted The Intercept following a story about Richard Carrillo, who described inadequate precautions against the coronavirus at a halfway house run by Centre Inc. in Fargo, North Dakota. Some of those who reached out were residents at other halfway houses, or residential reentry centers, as they are called by the federal government. Others had loved ones in such facilities. All of them expressed fear and frustration over the handling of Covid-19.


Photo: Courtesy of James Stile

Although their overall population is small compared to prisons and jails — especially in the federal system, which accounts for a fraction of the country’s carceral landscape — halfway houses are uniquely positioned to be vectors for the virus. Residents arrive from prisons across the country, then share rooms, bathrooms, and dining areas. Staff cycle in and out every day from the surrounding community, as do residents who are required to work. Despite assurances that RRCs are following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — including quarantining new arrivals — those who have spent time inside such facilities in recent months say that the BOP is compounding these existing risks through a combination of mismanagement, intransigence, and retaliation toward those who complain.

To date, according to the BOP, 4,979 people in custody and 600 staff members have tested positive for the virus across its facilities. Included in the bureau’s tally are 230 halfway house residents at 42 RRCs. But the total number of cases across federal halfway houses is undoubtably higher than the figures shown by the BOP. The tally does not include at least two confirmed cases at the Centre Inc. facility in Fargo, for example. Albany’s Horizon House was absent from the list until this week, when the BOP added one case reported at the facility. It is not clear whether this is the same case Stile revealed to his aunt, which he learned about from a guard upon arriving at the jail. Because places like Horizon House and Centre Inc. get referrals from agencies other than the BOP — for example, the U.S. Probation Office — people who test positive for Covid-19 may be in the hands of a different federal office. Whether federal courts or probation officers are tracking cases is unclear. What is clear is that the real number of residents with Covid-19 in federal halfway houses is higher than what appears on the BOP website.

Halfway houses are uniquely positioned to be vectors for the virus.

It has been difficult to get information about halfway houses during the pandemic. The BOP has ignored numerous inquiries from The Intercept, including questions about fatalities. The BOP website lists 64 deaths from Covid-19 among people in custody, including two at halfway houses — one at a halfway house run by Behavioral Systems Southwest Inc. in Phoenix, Arizona, and the other at a Bronx facility run by GEO Care, an arm of the private prison behemoth GEO Group. But while the bureau issues press releases about at least some of the people who die in its custody, it has released no information on these deaths.

The lack of transparency is a problem that precedes the pandemic. RRCs are run by private contractors rather than the Bureau of Prisons — and the network of halfway houses that contract with the federal government is a confusing patchwork of facilities scattered across the country. A 2016 report undertaken at the behest of the Department of Justice counted “180 competitively procured RRCs … run by 103 separate providers using four different contract types and numerous statements of work.” Today the number of RRCs has grown to 195. Some contractors receive a per diem rate based on the daily population at a given facility, creating an incentive to keep halfway houses as full as possible. Contracts may also stipulate different per diem rates depending on whether residents are placed in a halfway house or home confinement.

The entranceway to one of the two Horizon Houses on Elizabehth Street in Albany, seen here May 16 2020.
A security camera system is in place outside of the administration and intake building of the Horizon House's rehabilitation home in Albany, May 16 2020.

Left/Top: The entrance to one of the Horizon House buildings on Elizabeth Street in Albany, N.Y., on May 16, 2020. Right/Bottom: A security camera system outside the Horizon House administration and intake building. Photos: Johnny Milano for The Intercept

Several people who contacted The Intercept blamed such financial incentives for the reluctance to send more people home during the pandemic. After the BOP announced that it would expand the use of home confinement under the CARES Act, Residential Reentry Management Branch Administrator Jon Gustin sent out a memo — a copy of which was obtained by The Intercept — encouraging halfway houses to facilitate the process while acknowledging that it could hurt their bottom line. “While the focus on home confinement may result in an immediate reduction of your in-house population,” he wrote, “it is the bureau’s intent to continue to make referrals to your programs. Further, our belief is that a temporary reduction of in-house population may assist in the management of the pandemic. If the reduction is to an extent that it creates financial hardships to your contract we are available to discuss options.”

It is hard to know for sure what drives particular outcomes in individual cases. The decision to release a person to home confinement involves multiple people, both at the BOP and RRCs. For Stile and Carrillo, who had relatives and housing waiting for them minutes away from their assigned facilities, home confinement would have seemed like an obvious step. Instead, both men were moved multiple times from places where they had potentially been exposed to the virus to new locations where the virus could take hold. In Carrillo’s case, a week after Centre Inc. confirmed its first case of Covid-19 on April 19, the National Guard came to test residents of the Fargo halfway house, uncovering another case. Yet Carrillo himself was never tested; he had been transferred two days earlier to a jail in a different part of the state. Earlier this month he was moved yet again, this time to a new RRC even farther from home.

“Pray for Me”

The Horizon House in Albany is one of several facilities run by a Boston-based nonprofit called Community Resources for Justice. According to its website, its mission is to “change lives and strengthen communities” through a variety of different programs. These include eight halfway houses, four of which have contracts with the BOP. Of 369 total beds at the organization’s RRCs, the majority are for people in federal custody.

In a statement sent via a spokesperson, CRJ President and CEO John Larivee said the organization is “doing everything in our power … to limit the spread of Covid-19,” including by transferring “as many residents as possible to home confinement for those who had a safe place to go and a family able to take them in.” Residents’ movements have been limited, with only those employed in essential services allowed to work outside the facilities, while masks and other protective equipment have been distributed “as quickly as we’ve been able to obtain them.”

Nevertheless, at Hampshire House, a CRJ property in Manchester, New Hampshire, that sleeps up to 45 people, the BOP currently lists 20 cases of Covid-19. At Coolidge House in Boston, the largest CRJ halfway house, with 116 beds, the BOP lists six cases. But one person familiar with the situation at Coolidge House — who asked to remain anonymous due to fears of retaliation by the BOP — told The Intercept in late May that some 16 people had tested positive. Residents who test positive for Covid-19 are quarantined on the fifth floor of the building, the source said, as are new arrivals to the halfway house, who are kept in different rooms. Meals are left outside their doors — and food is delivered from a local homeless shelter called Pine Street Inn, where a major Covid-19 outbreak was reported last month, an additional source of concern.

Another source, whose partner recently spent time at Coolidge House, says facilities have been put at risk by the failure to send more people home. After hearing that the CARES Act would allow more people to go to home confinement, she tried unsuccessfully to help her partner apply. Last month, he told her that he was going to get tested for Covid-19. “He was like ‘Pray for me,’” she said. Although he is relatively young, he has a number of underlying medical conditions that made him especially vulnerable. “And then a few days later, he called me, and he was like in tears. … He couldn’t even talk,” she said. “And he’s just like, ‘I have it. I have it.’”

Her partner has since recovered. Like the first person who tested positive at the Fargo halfway house, he was told he would be retested after being quarantined but never was. Both men were instead returned to the general population.

The Rensselaer County Jail, seen here May 16 2020.

A view of the Rensselaer County Jail in Albany, N.Y., on May 16, 2020.

Photo: Johnny Milano for The Intercept

Larivee did not address the number of documented Covid-19 cases at Horizon House, Coolidge House, or the halfway houses that contract with the BOP specifically. Instead, he provided case numbers across all CRJ reentry programs, including those with state contracts. Nevertheless, the figures were sobering. “Testing has confirmed 24 positive cases among staff and 43 among residents across six of our eight reentry programs,” he wrote. “Of those, 16 staff and 26 residents have recovered. Some residents who are asymptomatic or show very mild symptoms remain in our programs in designated quarantine areas where they continue to work toward their successful return to the community. Others have moved to approved locations, including home confinement or medical facilities.”

The CRJ numbers are perhaps most startling when it comes to staff. The bureau’s Covid-19 tracking site currently shows no cases among staff inside halfway houses. But just as the number of cases among residents is limited to people in BOP custody, tracking of employees is limited to people working directly for the bureau. The data on the website “reflects staff who are employed by the Bureau of Prisons,” spokesperson Scott Taylor said. “It does not reflect staff employed independently by the RRCs.”

Several of those who reached out to The Intercept say they believe RRCs are trying to keep their Covid-19 cases under wraps.

For those living and working in those facilities, of course, this is a distinction without a difference; employees are particularly vulnerable to becoming vectors for the virus in surrounding communities. At the GEO-run Grossman Center in Leavenworth, Kansas, the RRC with the highest number of Covid-19 cases reported by the BOP — and part of a growing local outbreak — the county health department has counted 67 cases to date, including staff. Meanwhile the BOP lists 57 cases at the facility, with no positive cases among staff.

Attempts by The Intercept to verify the BOP’s numbers with different contractors have been met with confusing and evasive responses. In response to questions about GEO Care’s Covid-19 cases and the death in its Bronx facility, Vice President of Communications Monica Hook referred The Intercept back to the BOP. A staffer at Behavioral Systems Southwest — which runs the halfway house where the second fatality occurred — offered to forward questions to the company’s president and chief operating officer but sounded doubtful that he would reply. He didn’t.

Several of those who reached out to The Intercept say they believe RRCs are trying to keep their Covid-19 cases under wraps. One man who tested positive at a facility on the West Coast said that he was ordered not to tell anyone, even as word got out among residents and staff. Two other people at the facility confirmed his account.

Even those who have since been sent to home confinement remain vulnerable to exposure via the RRCs. One man said he is still required to return to the facility once a week for a drug treatment class. “I don’t feel safe going to that place while all these new people show up from all the different prisons from around the country,” he said. “But it’s mandatory for me or I could be sent back to prison if I don’t show up.” Although he said participants are now required to wear masks, he does not understand why classes can’t continue via Zoom or some other remote technology. Meanwhile, residents who remain at the halfway house tell him the facility is “keeping the dorms super packed with as many beds full as possible.”

At first, James Stile was glad to be taken to the Rensselaer County Jail. He was convinced he would be better off in a cell alone than he was at the Horizon House. When the U.S. marshals came and showed him their badges that morning, “I said, ‘Great. You made my day.’”

But even as his release date approached, he became despondent. He was unable to shower regularly or change his clothes. Worse, he said he was denied prescribed antibiotics he takes to prevent persistent urinary tract and kidney infections. Once again, he began to refuse food, telling his aunt that he had written his last will and testament. When he was finally released from jail on May 27, he asked to be taken to the hospital rather than his aunt’s house.

By then, Phoebe was fed up with the extended ordeal. RRCs are supposed to ease the process of reentry for families, not make it more difficult or dangerous. Although she says she is feeling fine after her brief visit to the halfway house earlier this month, she resents that it put her at further risk of being exposed to a deadly virus she has done her best to avoid. “I’m 77 years old,” she said. “I don’t need this. This is more than I bargained for.”

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