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ComCor: Halfway House Under Scrutiny After Drug Deaths, Sex Allegations

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A halfway house operation in Colorado Springs, where two men died from suspected drug overdoses last month, has also been sharply criticized by state and county officials for bungling two separate investigations into sexual misconduct among its residents. The same company recently fired an employee who was suspected of "assisting clients in altering urine samples" that are required as part of mandatory drug-testing for felons making a transition from prison to the community.

Corruption, poor supervision and noxious living conditions inside Colorado's three dozen halfway houses rarely get reported in the press. That's one reason for our feature a year ago, "Halfway to Nowhere," which looked at the squalid conditions inside one Denver halfway house for women, Tooley Hall — and led to a series of follow-up stories about other troubled houses managed by the same for-profit company and the resignation of Tooley Hall's longtime director.  Although most of the houses are run by private operators, they receive $60 million a year in subsidies from the state (as well as rent and fees from clients) in order to provide food, shelter and programs to help ex-convicts become productive members of society so that they don't end up back in a cell again, costing taxpayers a fortune.

Our investigation described the state's largely privatized system of community corrections as "an experiment in misery," in which broke and struggling parolees hustle to find work while dealing with poorly trained staff, decrepit and moldy housing, a far-from-drug-free environment, and a general lack of services. Virtually all of the state's halfway houses have abysmally low success rates. But recent incidents at ComCor, a nonprofit in Colorado Springs that oversees approximately 300 male and female clients in its residential program, indicate even more ways that the experiment can go wrong.

Many of ComCor's clients have substance-abuse problems; the organization also offers specialized programming for a handful of Residential Dual Diagnosis Treatment clients — those who have a diagnosed mental illness as well as addiction issues. According to records obtained by Westword, ComCor employees reported 22 incidents of intercepting drug-related contraband from April through October of this year, an average of about one incident a week — usually methamphetamine, but some synthetic marijuana and heroin, too, as well as two instances involving alcohol.

Of course, not all drugs are detected. That's why offenders placed in community corrections are frequently tested for drug use; a positive result can be grounds for being sent back to prison. But last August ComCor reported to county and state officials that a staff member had been fired for allowing one resident — or, as the memo put it, one "that we know of so far" — to "obtain urine from other resources."

Yet even without that employee's assistance, drugs have evidently continued to flow into ComCor's facilities. On October 7, a client named Wayne Rose was found  unresponsive and cold to the touch. ComCor initially reported that the death was not considered suspicious. Although toxicology results have not yet been released in the case, subsequent reports indicate Rose previously had twice tested positive for meth. According to one e-mail to state officials from a county supervisor, Rose had been found passed out earlier that evening  and then approached staff "asking to go to the hospital, and this request was refused. The client...then went outside and shot up...this was an hour before he was found non-responsive again."

A second death on October 24 seems even less ambiguous. Angelo Jose Garcia was found on a bathroom floor with drug paraphernalia — a tourniquet, a needle, a lighter, a spoon with burnt brown residue — strewn around him. Although rushed to a local hospital, he could not be revived. He was 26 years old.

ComCor has also been reprimanded by county and state officials over its handling of allegations of sexual misconduct brought by two female residents in August. One woman reported that she was pregnant by a male resident, who visited her at her workplace, armed with a gun, and physically assaulted her before fleeing in a stolen car. The other claimed to have been raped by a male client while she was intoxicated.

Both women withdrew their complaints within hours, insisting they hadn't been assaulted after all. A review of the incidents by an El Paso County Community Corrections Board staffer indicates that the women may have been pressured to change their statements because they were facing disciplinary charges themselves (for violating ComCor's substance-abuse policy, or, in the case of the first complainant, engaging in consensual sex with another client) and feared retaliation from their alleged attackers.

The report found that ComCor's internal investigation of the incidents was conducted by an employee who "was not appropriately trained" for such work. Despite the fact that at least one of the allegations was deemed to be substantiated, "only the two female clients were written up and disciplined" for violating ComCor rules. The staffer also noted that ComCor's facility on North Nevada Avenue "seems to be potentially sexually charged, as all parties interviewed discussed the frequency by which client relationships occur [there]."

The criticism was seconded by a Colorado Department of Public Safety official who also reviewed the investigation. "The reported verbal comments of some staff appeared to be victim-blaming, insensitive and punitive," he noted. The official added that ComCor was failing to provide adequate monitoring of residents, as evidenced by a subsequent incident in which a female resident was mistakenly assigned to a room already occupied by a male client. The error wasn't immediately detected because the male resident had a unisex name (Carmen) and long, wavy hair.

Another Colorado Springs halfway house, Community Alternatives of El Paso County, operated by Community Education Centers — the same for-profit company that operates Tooley Hall in Denver — recently reached an out-of-court settlement with two female ex-residents who claimed to have been sexually assaulted by a maintenance worker in the facility. The worker, Joseph Garcia Chapman, admitted to the assaults in court as part of a plea bargain and was sentenced to ten years to life.

ComCor senior program director Jarle Wood didn't respond to a request for comment for this article. The county community corrections board is primarily responsible for administering contracts with halfway house providers and responding to problems; the El Paso County program supervisor also didn't respond to an interview request. But the state provides the bulk of the funding for the programs, and Colorado Division of Criminal Justice director Jeanne Smith says the recent incidents at ComCor have been the focus of some discussion within the state's Office of Community Corrections (OCC).

"Any death is concerning," Smith says, noting that halfway houses reported a total of six client deaths in the past fiscal year statewide, with only three occurring in the facilities. "We do pay attention to this stuff."

Although the county generally takes the lead in supervising operations such as ComCor, the OCC periodically audits halfway houses to make sure they are meeting certain criteria regarding training, security and other standards. An audit conducted last year of ComCor's residential program found that it was largely in compliance with state standards, but Smith acknowledges that certain operational problems wouldn't necessarily come to light in an audit. "Unless someone tells us about it, it's very difficult to get a handle on a 'sexually charged' atmosphere," she says.

The problems at ComCor have led to discussions among OCC, the Department of Corrections and other agencies about possible actions that could be taken to improve the situation — or shut down the operation, although finding other placement for so many offenders in Colorado Springs could be difficult. "From our perspective, there is further involvement warranted," Smith says. "We have the ability to go to the community corrections board and say we believe there are public-safety concerns. Our most extreme option is to say we're withholding funds until corrective actions are in place or the contract is terminated. But the last thing we want is to have offenders on the street who shouldn't be there."

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