Halfway House Director Resigns After Reports of Black Mold, Awful Conditions

Six weeks after the publication of "Halfway to Nowhere," our cover-story investigation of the grim living conditions and high failure rates found in many of Colorado's halfway houses, residents of those houses are reporting some shakeups and modest improvements in the situation. The long-time director of Tooley Hall, a Denver halfway house for women that was the focus of our article, has resigned, and some of the most glaring problems at other decrepit, privately operated facilities — mold, poor maintenance, rodent and bedbug infestations — seem to be on the mend. But major challenges remain.

The state's halfway houses receive more than $60 million a year in state funds to house felons just released from prison and assist them in their effort to obtain employment and find their way back into society. The industry is dominated by a few private companies, including New Jersey-based Community Education Centers, which operates Tooley Hall. Past and current residents and employees at that facility complained of unsafe conditions, drug use, high staff turnover, capricious decisions about who goes back to prison and more.

CEC management's initial reaction to our feature was to order residents to clean the facility until the wee hours of the night in preparation for a visit from corporate headquarters. Flowers were placed on display, deodorizers tossed in toilets to disguise the sewer smells wafting from the bathroom, a broken door disguised with Halloween decorations rather than repaired. A follow-up story pointed out that the changes seemed to be more cosmetic than substantive. Shortly after that article ran, Tooley Hall director Elizabeth Ramirez resigned. A CEC spokesman declined to comment on Ramirez's departure or whether she is still employed by the company, calling it a personnel matter. 

Numerous residents of other facilities have since contacted Westword with similar stories about squalid conditions and staff misconduct, asking to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation. One resident of Williams Street Center, another CEC facility, sent photos taken several months ago of piecemeal mold clean-up in a leaky basement. The residents assigned to the task ("I didn't want to tell them no and get myself in trouble") weren't provided any special protective gear and had little hope of eradicating the mold, he says: "All they did was cover it up. You can still smell the mold through the walls."

The facility's management never responded to grievances he filed, the resident says. But in recent weeks, he's noticed some efforts toward better maintenance, better food, and providing better cleaning supplies. "The staff have been really good to me," he notes. "It's just that the living conditions are really questionable. There are a lot of older men in there with health problems."

"We've been in the facilities quite a bit lately," reports Greg Mauro, Denver's director of community corrections. Mauro says CEC management has been "very responsive" to local officials' concerns about the state of its houses. He won't comment on reports that the number of clients allowed at Williams Center and Tooley Hall has been reduced pending required improvements. "I'm not at liberty to discuss what we do with bed allocations. We're constantly evaluating performance."

But even if the aging physical plant at some of the houses is getting attention, many residents say the most formidable obstacles to succeeding in the programs are still there. Halfway house operators have enormous say in whether individual ex-cons get sent back to prison for curfew violations, failure to keep current with rent and fees, and other requirements. Residents complain about vindictive staff, misconduct, blatant favoritism, missing funds, excessive and costly drug-testing, unjust "holds" that confine them to the facility for alleged misbehavior and wind up costing them their jobs, and so on. "I have been write-up free since I arrived here," one resident reports. "I work every day I'm allowed to go and pay my bills weekly. I would be able to go home in ten to twelve weeks if I was allowed to pay what the courts have ordered me to pay and save the extra towards a place to rent. But I owe more money every week they don't allow me to transition to home.... How can we allow these establishments to effectively be debtors' prisons?" 

Paul Eills has been a client at the Arapahoe County Treatment Center for the past six weeks. During that time, he's had several conflicts with staff and barely missed a bullet this past Tuesday night from a drive-by incident that erupted while he was standing outside the facility. (There was another shooting at ACTC in 2013.) Shortly after arriving at ACTC, he says, he missed the last bus home from work and was put on a facility hold that involved daily drug testing and lasted nineteen days, causing him to lose his job. He, too, is now seriously behind in rent. "I had to walk home, and they didn't believe me," he says. "They told me I was lying. I took ten UAs in the next twelve days. I wasn't allowed to leave the facility at all. I was sent here as part of my sentence, not for more punishment." 

Perhaps the most poignant response to the article comes from Christopher Penley, now an inmate at the Sterling Correctional Facility. Penley was a member of a highly successful Colorado parole program for long-time convicts, the L-TOP program, that received national attention but was abruptly shut down last year with little explanation. After 24 years in prison, Penley was sent to the CMI Dahlia halfway house in the spring of 2014. "I was doing very well," he writes. "Staying clean and sober, with a full-time job, subsistence paid in full, and going to my required groups."

That all changed after four months in the program. Penley's job was at the Goodwill outlet across the street from Tooley Hall, and part of it involved training a new employee who was a  resident at Tooley. One day, Penley walked across the street with her after work, chatting about the job, and gave her a quick hug outside Tooley Hall. The CMI Dahlia director happened to be visiting Tooley, he writes, and saw the interaction.

"When I returned to Dahlia, I was stripped of my cell phone and put on 'facility hold' until further notice," Penley writes. He was subsequently arrested, booked into jail, and found guilty of "association" with another felon — an infraction of halfway house rules. He was shipped to Sterling, where he remains today. "Since then, I've seen at least eight people that were at CMI Dahlia and sent back.... I'm not implicating all the facilities in Colorado. There are indeed some honorable ones, but I want to stress that the problems at Tooley Hall are not, by any means, unique to that facility."
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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast