The women were the first to get sick. “It was like flu symptoms,” recalled a resident of the women’s dorm at the Grossman Center, a federal halfway house in Leavenworth, Kansas, run by the private prison company GEO Group. Two women began coughing, getting cold sweats, and running a fever around mid- to late April. By the end of the month, they had been taken to the hospital and tested positive for the coronavirus. “And that’s when they started testing all of us.”
In the women’s dorm, a half-dozen residents had been working at Triumph Foods, a pork processing plant in St. Joseph, Missouri, some 40 miles north of the halfway house. “Honestly, it was horrible,” said one woman who had a job cutting meat on an assembly line. The space was crowded, and she was constantly cold even beneath layers of protective gear, which required her to arrive early in order to get dressed. The locker rooms would get so full, another worker said, that she had to wait for others to exit before she could go in.
The first two positive cases at the Triumph plant were confirmed on April 20. Soon there were hundreds more. Workers launched a Change.org petition in Spanish and English, asking that the plant be temporarily closed, and warning of the threat to the surrounding community. By early May, a worker had died and the plant had been linked to rising coronavirus cases in and around Kansas City. “I’m really concerned about this,” the local health department director told the press. “This gives you a good example that there are a lot more cases out there that we don’t know about.”
Across the border in Kansas, after the first two halfway house residents got sick, almost all the women who worked at the plant tested positive too. Those who tested negative were moved, first upstairs to the room that had been used to quarantine the sick women, and then downstairs to a space usually reserved as a job center. “That was horrible because it was like a really small area for all four of us,” one of them recalled. Despite the attempts at quarantine, a week later, she tested positive too.
Meanwhile, on the men’s side, residents were notified that the coronavirus had made its way into the Grossman Center. One former resident was at work on April 30 when he got a phone call ordering him to return to the halfway house. When he got there, a quarantine dorm was being set up — residents were being moved to clear space. His unit would be tested the next day.
But that same night, he said, two new people arrived. Both men had been transferred from the Federal Correctional Institution in Elkton, Ohio — a well-known coronavirus hot spot. The men were placed in a crowded unit; “22 of us living in the area of a three-car garage,” the former resident recalled. The next morning, on Friday, May 1, they were all tested for Covid-19. When the results came back the following Monday, one of the men from Elkton had tested positive. In other words, the former resident said, he had been infected before arriving at the halfway house.
Even more alarming, as they awaited test results over the weekend, everyone had remained mixed together, without knowing who might be exposing whom. On Monday, the same day he found out he’d tested negative, the resident began to feel under the weather: “a little dry cough, a headache, and a scratchy throat.” He reported his symptoms to staff to no avail. By Wednesday morning, he woke up drenched in sweat, yet so cold his teeth were chattering. After that, “the body aches came. All this stuff came in waves and they were so severe. I gotta be honest with you, I didn’t think I was gonna make it.”
That man recuperated and has since been placed in home confinement, along with dozens of other residents. Today, the Leavenworth County Department of Health says that everyone who tested positive at the Grossman Center has recovered. Yet the full toll of the outbreak remains impossible to measure. Leavenworth County was home to one of the state’s largest Covid-19 outbreaks — and part of a regional cluster in Kansas alone that included thousands of cases. At the Lansing Correctional Facility just south of the Grossman Center, at least 835 cases were recorded. Two prison workers and four incarcerated people died from complications related to Covid-19.
Although the number of confirmed cases at the Grossman Center is much smaller than at the prison or meatpacking plant, residents at the halfway house describe conditions that posed a similar danger to the surrounding community. Even as the pandemic forced the country into lockdown beginning in March, residents still cycled in and out of the facility through the end of April. Those forced to leave their posts at the Triumph plant after the coronavirus was discovered there were nevertheless allowed to get other jobs — including one woman who would eventually test positive for Covid-19. Another resident, who arrived at the Grossman Center in late April, was about to start a job at a nursing home in Lansing before the halfway house was finally locked down. That resident tested positive too.
Although it has since been surpassed by other facilities, the Grossman Center was for weeks the hardest hit federal halfway house in the country, according to the Bureau of Prisons. The local health department counted 67 cases — higher than the bureau’s tally, which does not include staff or people in the custody of other agencies. According to residents and others familiar with the situation — all of whom spoke to The Intercept on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation — even the director of the Grossman Center reportedly contracted the virus. Geo Group did not respond to questions about this or any aspect of its handling of the pandemic.
As national attention turned from the coronavirus to the protests over racist police violence following the murder of George Floyd, Covid-19 has continued to spread across federal prisons and halfway houses, including those run by GEO Group. With the BOP continuing to transfer people from prison to halfway houses across the country throughout the pandemic — and with many states currently experiencing a resurgence of cases — the risk is far from over.
A Partial Picture
The Grossman Center is located northwest of Kansas City, not far from where the Missouri River forms Kansas’s eastern border. A 2017 audit describes the building as “a metal structure with two floors,” with six dormitory-style housing units containing a total of 144 beds. Outside there’s a recreation area with a basketball hoop and picnic tables. A resident handbook from 2013 lays out a list of Resident Rights, including “the right to a humane environment that provides reasonable protection from harm,” and the “right to be treated with dignity and respect.”
Like all halfway houses, the Grossman Center is supposed to assist people returning from prison in finding jobs and housing, to ease their transition back into society. In GEO Group’s corporate parlance, this is part of its ever-expanding Continuum of Care Division, “enhanced in-custody offender rehabilitation programming … integrated with post-release support services.” Last year, the corporation reports spending some $10 million on the Continuum of Care program, which it describes as “GEO’s contribution to criminal justice reform.”
Of course, GEO Group is most famous for its primary business, private prisons, and especially for incarcerating undocumented immigrants for the federal government. In recent years, the company has fought attempts to ban its facilities and been forced to defend its reputation; last year, a PR firm cut ties with the corporation just two months after landing the contract after its own employees revolted.
Amid such backlash — and with the rise of criminal justice reform as a mainstream policy goal — GEO Group has moved increasingly into reentry and alternatives to incarceration. In 2017 it acquired Community Education Centers, gaining thousands of reentry beds. Along with CoreCivic, it also vocally supported the federal First Step Act passed in 2018, which pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to expanded reentry services. Today GEO Group counts 45 residential reentry centers, or RRCs, as part of its wholly owned subsidiary, GEO Care. Although most contract at the state level, at least 14 have contracts with the BOP, including the Grossman Center. Another set still operate under the CEC name, although the precise number is unclear.
Halfway houses have been largely overlooked during the coronavirus crisis. Although they are a speck in the country’s carceral landscape, they are also uniquely suited to be vectors for the virus. At the federal level, the number of RRCs with confirmed cases has ticked steadily upward, as have the total number of residents testing positive for Covid-19. In late May, the BOP counted 230 Covid-19 cases across 42 RRCs. Today it counts 275 cases across 48 RRCs. Yet even these numbers are a partial picture at best. For one, the BOP tally does not count residents who are in the custody of other federal offices, such as U.S. Probation and Parole. Nor does it count halfway house staff — a significant omission. The tallies linked to individual facilities have also wavered inexplicably. With the BOP tracking “Inmates Positive” as well as “Inmates Recovered,” the total cases tied to a given RRC should continue to go up or otherwise stay steady even as residents go from the former to the latter. Instead, the numbers are dropping; the Grossman Center previously showed 57 cases. Today it shows 48.
Although halfway houses are a speck in the country’s carceral landscape, they are also uniquely suited to be vectors for the coronavirus.
At least six residents of federal halfway houses have died of Covid-19, according to the BOP, tripling the numbers seen in late May. As with previous deaths at RRCs, no further information has been released about the fatalities. Three of the fatalities are linked to GEO Group, including the most recent, which took place at a halfway house in Houston, the second at that facility. The other was a resident at a GEO facility in the Bronx. The company has not responded to questions about the deaths.
Another three GEO Group RRCs across the country have reported positive cases to the BOP, along with two CEC halfway houses. Multiple residents of a GEO Group halfway house in Oakland, California, described a dysfunctional response to the crisis, telling The Intercept that its first positive case in mid-April was met with silence from the facility’s director. Before a second case was discovered a few days later, residents whose jobs were deemed essential were allowed to continue going to work. Staff tried to keep the case a secret rather than make everyone aware of the need to take additional precautions — including from the man’s former roommates, who were simply told they had to remain isolated without explanation. After asking about the case, one resident recalls being told, “We don’t know what you’re talking about.”
A Blundering Response
As the Grossman Center was scrambling to contain the virus, GEO Group executives were projecting confidence that the company had things under control. “From the outset of this global pandemic our corporate regional and field staff have implemented comprehensive steps to address and mitigate the risks of Covid-19 to all of those in our care,” GEO Group founder and CEO George Zoley told investors during a quarterly earnings call held on April 30. The health and safety of those inside its facilities “has always been our No. 1 priority,” he said, adding that “all of our facilities operate safely and without overcrowded conditions.”
Like everyone forced to answer for halfway houses in an official capacity, GEO Care President Ann Schlarb said the company’s reentry facilities were following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Along with increased personal hygiene products, she said, “we have deployed special sanitation teams to sterilize high-contact areas of our facilities and have developed special schedules and procedures for the cleaning and disinfecting of facility spaces using sanitation products that are proven health care-grade disinfectants.”
On a less positive note — and despite the fact that GEO Group provides an “essential government service” — Zoley reported that “Covid-19 has also negatively impacted our projected revenues and cash flows for the year.” Along with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Marshals facilities, “our GEO Reentry Services business has also seen an occupancy decline beginning in late March,” he said, though “we hope the trends will improve later this year.”
In a subsequent Q&A, investors sought details about the corporation’s financial outlook. One asked whether the prospect of a Democratic administration might be bad for business and was reassured that it would not. Another caller noted that “your industry is under attack by a certain group of people in our country,” saying that he’d like to see “more good-feeling publicity” around endeavors like GEO’s Continuum of Care division. After all, “you don’t create prisoners, you house them.” Zoley concurred. “We take care of them. … And we’re proud that we have what we believe is possibly the finest offender rehabilitation program in the world.”
On the same day as the call, Grossman Center residents were being shuffled to different sections of the facility. But the blundering response only made things worse, residents said, emphasizing that the virus spread not in spite of the facility’s efforts to contain it, but because of it. One resident sent photos showing men in a crowded bunk; some wore masks but most did not. He also sent photos of the meal packets that were provided in place of hot food after kitchen staff stopped coming to work: plastic pouches containing mackerel fillets, saltines, and peanut butter crackers.
Contrary to the claim that GEO Group was prepared from the outset to respond to the pandemic, one resident who arrived at the Grossman Center in March said the facility had done “absolutely nothing” to mitigate the virus, apart from suspending the 42-hour passes that allow residents to go see family, as ordered by the BOP. At one point, he said, “they taped up these benches and said that we had to sit, like, a certain distance apart from one another. … But you have to understand, they have us in these units that are super small,” with a limited number of bathroom stalls, sinks, and showers. “So basically regardless of the protocols they try to do outside the unit, inside the unit, they literally have us shoved in on top of each other. So there’s really no way for us to have any type of distancing. It’s impossible.”
In early May, as the cases at the Grossman Center shot up, a woman got a series of messages from her partner, a resident at the halfway house. “They have literally done nothing to protect us from contracting the virus,” he wrote. “We are in the same areas as the ones who are tested positive.” Moreover, as the halfway house moved the residents from dorm to dorm, he said that residents had to clean the areas themselves, swiping cleaning supplies that they were not technically even allowed to use.
“They have literally done nothing to protect us from contracting the virus.”
He also reported that staff were getting sick, although some were trying to hide it. At least one employee continued to come to work despite not feeling well, while trying to keep their symptoms under wraps, he told her. At one point, the director disappeared from the halfway house. Although The Intercept was not able to confirm it, six different sources said they were told that he had contracted Covid-19.
In mid-May, after weeks of resistance from the halfway house and BOP, dozens of residents were finally allowed to go to home confinement. Those who remained at the Grossman Center late last month said they felt abandoned. “There was a lot of staff when I got there,” one resident said. “Now it’s like nobody’s barely here.” That resident arrived at the facility in late April, following a long and crowded Greyhound bus trip after being released from prison. Having received instructions to self-quarantine at home for 14 days prior to arriving at the facility, the resident then reported to the halfway house.
But shortly after getting a job, the outbreak began. “I tested negative at first,” the resident said. But like so many others, the virus eventually caught up with them. “My family doesn’t understand why they made me come to this facility if they have this virus here.”
All of the residents told The Intercept that they were disturbed by the lack of urgency in providing medical care. “It’s pretty tough dealing with being so sick with Covid-19 in this facility because the people that run it have no concern for the fact that we’re actually sick,” one man said. “It’s just like statistical number processing.” Another resident called it worse than prison. “Mentally I’m going crazy,” they said. Despite the outdoor recreation area, they were not being allowed out for fresh air. “We’re in this room with only one window, and they have film over the window, so we can’t see outside.”
Today most of the people who spoke to The Intercept are no longer in the halfway house. The director has returned to work, and people are going back to work on the outside — although not at the Triumph plant. Otherwise, “it doesn’t seem like much has changed as far as their safety measures go,” one resident said.
The population is starting to go up again, too. On the men’s side last week, one resident said, some 23 new people were transferred to the facility. And there is a group of women poised to arrive as well.