In the first video, which is blurry and just 20 seconds long, a woman in a mask walks into a men’s dorm at the Leidel Comprehensive Sanction Center, a federal halfway house in Houston, Texas, run by GEO Group. She orders everyone to clear the area. “Turn those phones off,” she says.
In the next clip, taken moments later, a man is wheeled down the hallway on a stretcher, wearing a red T-shirt, jeans, and an oxygen mask. The person pushing him wears a surgical gown, followed closely by black-clad security officers.
The man on the stretcher is Oaka Adams, 43. He arrived at the halfway house in January after a stint in federal prison for possession with intent to distribute oxycodone. By the time he started feeling seriously sick in mid-June, the coronavirus had already killed two of his neighbors at the halfway house. Another died shortly after he got home.
Adams was afraid he would be next. Although he had not been tested for the coronavirus, he felt feverish and struggled to breathe. Adams got in touch with a friend outside the halfway house, who called 911 around noon on Friday, June 19. At St. Joseph Medical Center, an X-ray showed all the signs of Covid-19. By 3 p.m., the director of the Leidel Center, Johnathan Hardy, had left work for the day, but he would later tell a case manager that Adams would probably not be allowed to go home from the hospital. Instead he would be discharged back to the halfway house. “I’m so upset,” Adams’s friend texted that evening. “This system is screwed up big time.”
Adams spent the weekend at St. Joseph. By the following Monday, his condition had improved. “He can sit up and talk now, and his breathing is better,” his friend reported. Soon afterward, he was released to home confinement. Back at the halfway house, word from residents was that they were planning to test everyone for the coronavirus. But a week later, that still hadn’t happened. On June 29, Hardy issued an all-staff memo, which was posted inside the building. “Be advised that the city of Houston COVID testing team has changed the date for on-site testing,” the piece of paper read. Where the new date had been written — July 6, 2020 — someone crossed it out and wrote, “NEVER.”
Today, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons counts seven total cases of Covid-19 at the Leidel Center, including two deaths. But current and former residents — who spoke and shared videos and photographs on condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation — say the situation is far more dire. They say the virus has run rampant among residents and staff alike. They point to a third man who died of Covid-19 last month, shortly after leaving the Leidel Center. And they say that the facility has repeatedly refused to provide testing, leaving residents to seek out tests on their own, while sharing no information about those who have died. “Do you know how I found out about the first death — even the first sickness?” one former resident told The Intercept. “From a staff member gossiping with an inmate. And the inmate came back and told us. We’re like, ‘Are you serious?’”
GEO Group has previously declined to comment on the impact of the pandemic at its residential reentry centers, including an earlier death at a halfway house in New York. But in a July 2 email, GEO Care Vice President for Communications Monica Hook acknowledged two of the Houston deaths. “We are aware of two Leidel Center residents that were sent to the hospital and subsequently passed away,” she wrote. She also said that while some GEO Group halfway houses have arranged for onsite testing, “the majority of our RRCs coordinate resident healthcare through community providers.” At Leidel, “we have been referring residents to local health department testing sites.”
Hook provided a fact sheet describing the measures being taken by GEO Group to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 at its facilities, including special sterilization of high-contact areas, “above and beyond normal cleaning activities at RRCs.” But multiple residents have told The Intercept that it is up to them to clean the dorms and other areas at the halfway house. They also reject the notion that they have access to adequate medical attention — or even food. In a video sent to The Intercept earlier this week, a resident showed a meal consisting of two slices of white bread, a packet of mayonnaise, Goldfish crackers, and a cookie.
The spread of the virus at the Leidel Center is emblematic of the unique risks posed to halfway houses throughout the pandemic. Residents arrive from prisons across the country, then share rooms, bathrooms, and dining areas. Staff come in and out of the surrounding community, as do residents who are required to work. Since The Intercept began covering federal halfway houses in April, the number of affected facilities has continued to climb. In late May, the BOP documented 230 total Covid-19 cases across 42 RRCs. Just over a month later, the BOP shows 301 total cases across 57 RRCs.
These numbers are a small fraction of the thousands of cases across the federal prison system. But they also represent a a significant undercount. Not only do these figures fluctuate from facility to facility without explanation, the official tally only includes people who are in BOP custody, leaving out halfway house residents who are in the hands of other federal agencies, such as the U.S. Probation Office. It also leaves out RRC staff, who are not technically bureau employees but rather work for halfway house providers. Of the 57 affected federal halfway houses currently listed on the BOP website, there is not a single documented case of staff infected with Covid-19.
With 195 RRCs run by a patchwork of providers — about a third of which are for-profits — the network of halfway houses with BOP contracts lacks transparency even under normal circumstances. While the BOP has issued press releases about Covid-19 deaths inside its prisons — providing names, ages, and facilities where the deceased were held — it has released no information about those who have died inside federal halfway houses. The only public acknowledgment of the fatalities are the numbers listed in the “Inmate Death” column on the BOP website.
Of the six documented deaths at federal RRCs recorded by the BOP to date, three were residents of GEO Group facilities — and two were residents at the Leidel Center. Until now, the identities of the men who died after becoming ill at the Houston halfway house have remained unknown beyond their families and the facility. But former and current residents of the Leidel Center shared their names with The Intercept. The oldest was 60 years old, the youngest 46. All three had gone to prison on probation violations or drug charges. And all of them had families who were preparing to welcome them home in the coming days. Instead, those families are planning memorial services.
The Leidel Center is located in the heart of downtown Houston, just steps from the freeway and Minute Maid Park, the home stadium for the Houston Astros. There is an outdoor area with picnic tables and benches dubbed Logan’s Garden. The facility sleeps some 190 people, a majority men but some women, most of who are serving the last days of their federal sentences.
In operation since the 1990s, the Leidel Center was previously run by Cornell Corrections, which was acquired by GEO Group in 2010. The private prison company’s expansion into reentry services has become a growing part of the its business plan. Today, the Leidel Center is one of 45 halfway houses under GEO Group’s Continuum of Care division, which sells everything from reentry to drug treatment to counseling services to state and federal government. Fifteen of GEO’s halfway houses have contracts with the BOP.
GEO Group has long been accused of mistreating those in its care. In Houston, a 2019 lawsuit described how the company abandoned residents of a different halfway house during Hurricane Harvey, leaving them in a flooded facility without food, clean water, or medical care. When the coronavirus crisis began, residents soon began detailing similar neglect at different GEO Group facilities, even as corporate executives boasted about the company’s response to shareholders. Residents at an Oakland, California, halfway house told The Intercept that the facility had tried to keep its positive cases a secret. And at the Grossman Center in Leavenworth, Kansas, where coronavirus spread out of control this spring, numerous residents said that the facility’s attempts to contain the outbreak only made things worse.
Residents of the Leidel Center describe similar chaos and mismanagement. One resident who arrived at the halfway house in February said that nothing had been done to adapt to the looming crisis. “They were not prepared,” he said. “They had no clue the storm was coming.” Once it hit, the resident said, “they sat on their haunches.” While other halfway houses stopped sending people to work except for those in essential services, in accordance with BOP instructions, this did not happen at Leidel. “If you had a job, you could go,” a former resident said. “And that was everybody. Didn’t matter what what kind of work you did.” Yet another resident recalled being disturbed at the sight of a staffer inspecting the belongings of a member of the women’s dorm in May. The employee was not wearing a mask or gloves. “Like, I understand you have to go through our things, that’s fine,” the resident said. “But we are also in the middle of a pandemic.”
At one point, the former resident said, “they started putting signs on the floor saying, ‘Keep your distance,’ you know, ‘Six feet’ and stuff like that. But it’s impossible. This is a halfway house. … Our beds are so close to each other … it’s impossible to stay six feet away from anybody in that place.”
On May 22, a pair of Leidel residents posted a video online. One man wore a hoodie and a paper towel around his nose and mouth. The other wore a bandana as a mask. “We are reporting that the coronavirus is here,” the man in the hoodie said. “The entire facility has been exposed, and they’re not doing anything about it. They’re attempting to cover it up.” The man said that he had tried to contact everyone from Sheila Jackson Lee to Donald Trump, to Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who issued Houston’s stay-at-home order in March. “We just need someone to look into this,” he said. “I do not want to die in the halfway house.” Just over a week later, on May 31, the first Leidel Center resident died.
“The entire facility has been exposed, and they’re not doing anything about it. They’re attempting to cover it up.”
The man was 56-year-old Roger Rust. Like the man in the video, he lived in C dorm, home to some 80 residents and considered the worst housing area at Leidel. “He would be up all night just coughing and coughing and hacking and coughing,” the man in the video told The Intercept. Multiple residents said he used a walker. “There was no way that man even should have been in there, and they still kept him in there,” the former resident said.
Two weeks later, a second man died. His name was Michael McLarty. He used to sit in the front of the building before heading to work, where other residents would often chat with him. “Real sweet, oh my gosh, really nice man,” the former resident said. One day in early June, she recalled, “I said, ‘You’re not looking too good.’ He said ‘I know.’ I said, ‘You need to keep your face mask on at all times.’ … I didn’t know that was the last time I’d ever talk to him.”
Looking at his LinkedIn page for the first time, she recognized the photo McLarty used; he’d taken it at the halfway house in that same spot where he always used to sit. The photo is striking for McLarty’s huge handlebar mustache and ruddy sunburned complexion. “We didn’t get that much sun where we were incarcerated,” said another resident, a man who knew McLarty before they both arrived at the halfway house. “So me and him did a lot of sunbathing out there.” The last text message the resident received from McLarty was when he was at the hospital. “I’m sick as a dog,” he said.
The same day that McLarty died, on June 14, a man who had recently left the halfway house died in Conroe, Texas. Cedric Oliphant, 46, a Huntsville native, had been in his last days of a nine-month sentence on a probation violation. Like McLarty’s family, Oliphant’s relatives declined to speak publicly about his death. But a close friend said that Oliphant went to the doctor in Huntsville on June 4, then tested positive for Covid-19 on June 5, the day he was released from BOP custody. “He was alert enough to call and send a text about being put in a medicated coma and how this may be his end,” she wrote in a Facebook message. “Then next thing nurse called he was gone.”
For months, families of people in the federal prison system have said they are kept in the dark about the handling of the pandemic. People in BOP custody have especially struggled to get answers about why they have not been allowed to do their remaining time in home confinement, particularly in light of the danger posed by coronavirus to crowded facilities. Although the BOP claimed to have ramped up home confinement in the early months of the pandemic, for many this has proven to be a false promise.
Halfway house residents would seem to be ideal candidates for home confinement, given that they are at the end of their sentences. Yet residents at Leidel and other facilities say their requests for home confinement have been repeatedly denied. In one typical account, the aunt of a woman currently at Leidel told The Intercept that her niece remains at the halfway house despite the fact that her home confinement date has already passed. As a nurse in Houston, she is alarmed that GEO Group is putting the entire community at risk. “I know what it is like in the hospitals,” she said. “Our numbers are going up and up.”
Families of the men who have died at Leidel describe a total lack of communication by the director and staff, even when their loved ones passed. Oliphant’s family declined to speak publicly in large part because they had so few answers about his illness. Although McLarty’s widow did not respond to a phone message, a number of residents said they have spoken to her in the wake of her husband’s death. “She’s pissed,” one resident said. “Because why couldn’t he have been on home confinement?” According to that resident, he would have been eligible in May.
In a phone call with The Intercept, the family of Roger Rust described a clueless and counterproductive response to his illness. Rust’s son, Austin, said that his father had already been hospitalized once while living at the Leidel Center, weeks before being diagnosed with Covid-19. Rust had been using an inhaler to ward off attacks that his son described as a combination of asthma and anxiety. After he had such an episode in April, “the hospital kind of put it off like an asthma attack and then sent him right back. It was like one day and then … he was back at the halfway house.”
Austin Rust said his father was a devoted family man when he was growing up. “He was the baseball coach. He was, you know, the all-American dad that did anything for his kids,” he said. After Roger Rust and his wife divorced, however, “he kind of went crazy.” Although his son did not discuss specifics, Rust developed a drug problem that led to his arrest on federal charges.
According to court records, Rust was arrested on March 6, 2016 after he was stopped at a Texas Border Patrol checkpoint on Highway 281, just north of the Mexican border. He was driving a truck pulling a horse trailer, which was subsequently searched by Border Patrol agents. Four men were discovered hiding in the trailer. A small amount of cocaine and methamphetamine was found in Rust’s glove compartment.
Allison Ramos, a Corpus Cristi defense attorney, represented Rust in the case. She was saddened at the news of his death, describing him as different from other clients she has defended on similar smuggling charges, in part because he was not callous toward the men he had been caught transporting. “I liked him. He was probably one of my top five clients. … He was really nice, respectful.” To Ramos, it was clear that his crime was rooted in a drug problem. “He just needed money and he agreed to transport people. … You could just tell he had a drug issue and he succumbed to it.”
Rust pleaded guilty to alien smuggling and was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison — a relatively short sentence given the charge — plus another six months on supervised release. Just months after getting out of prison in 2018, however, he was rearrested and jailed on new drug charges. Although much of the sentencing information is sealed, a letter to the court from his daughter-in-law suggested that Rust had wanted to return to North Texas after his initial imprisonment but was unable to because of the conditions of his release. “He truly wants to be an excellent grandfather and father to his son,” she wrote in February 2019. “We just want him to come stay near us where we can help him get on his feet.”
Austin Rust never understood why his father had to be released from prison so far from home. His whole family and support system lived in North Texas, just outside Fort Worth. If he had been allowed on home confinement, he would have had plenty of places to go. “I mean, I bought a travel trailer and I was gonna put him up in a little park down the road,” he said. “I just felt like, things were about to get back where I had my dad close again.”
Their father had died at 11:45 p.m. Two days later, the case worker called asking for an update. “Can you please find out what’s going on with him and call me back?”
Rust also does not understand why, at the very least, his father could not have been tested for the coronavirus at the hospital the first time he went. “Maybe this would have come out different,” he said. Instead, just a couple weeks after his return to Leidel, his father called to say that he was back at the hospital. By the time his coronavirus test came back positive, he was going rapidly downhill. “It was to the point where whenever we called, you know, you couldn’t even talk to him,” Rust said. When he tried to hold a conversation, “he would just be coughing and wheezing and just having a horrible time.” Their phone calls became short check-ins: “Like, you know, ‘I was just thinking about you, I love you, don’t strain yourself.’”
Then one day, Rust could not reach his father at all. He had been placed on a ventilator. From then on, Rust got all his information from a nurse at the hospital. At no point did the halfway house attempt to inform the family, he said. Instead it was the other way around. Rust got a phone call from his father’s case manager after he was placed on a ventilator. “She said … ‘I’ve been trying to get ahold of him and he’s supposed to be calling me from the hospital. And I haven’t heard from him for three or four days.’” Rust replied that his father was in critical condition. The case manager asked him to keep her posted.
It was just before midnight on May 31 when Rust got a phone call from his sister. Their father had died at 11:45 p.m. Two days later, the same case worker called asking for an update on his father. “Can you please find out what’s going on with him and call me back?” he remembered her asking.
Seeking answers about the situation at the halfway house, Rust got in touch with his father’s old bunkmate, who sent him a text on June 2. “I’m sorry to hear what happened,” he wrote. “We were roommates. They assumed that we were all infected, but they will not test anyone or separate the sick. I’ve been coughing for the last month, but I’m feeling okay I guess. I just might be one of the people that are asymptomatic. … Everyone in here is scared to death of me and my other roommates. We can’t even taste or smell food. Roger was a good friend. Again, I’m sorry for your loss.”