Inside Denver's Halfway Houses: "It's Filthy Dirty and Unsafe"

Update below: Two weeks later, the calls and e-mails are still coming from readers responding to "Halfway to Nowhere," my feature about Tooley Hall, a Denver halfway house for women, and the state's struggling community-corrections program, which relies largely on private operators to supervise and assist ex-cons who are trying to make their way back to society. I've heard from various people who work in the community-corrections business, most of whom expressed disapproval with the way Community Education Centers (CEC), the New Jersey-based company that runs Tooley, does business; residents of other dilapidated halfway houses, who insist their facility is in even worse shape than Tooley Hall; and sources inside Tooley, who say that some cosmetic changes were put in place right after the Westword article came out — more along the lines of a coverup than a cleanup. 

If there was a consensus behind all the comments, it was something like this: Colorado's approach to community corrections, which requires returning felons to take on a staggering array of financial obligations while dealing with often ill-paid, poorly trained staff, is in big trouble. 

Adams County recently refused to renew a contract with CEC to operate Phoenix Center, a large residential facility for men and women in Henderson, and one former resident there says the decision was a good one. "It was awful there," the man reports. (Many commenters asked that their names not be published, citing fear of retaliation.) "Black mold in the bathroom.  No hot water in the kitchen. Sometimes they'd just tell you, 'Order out.'"

The same source reports that Phoenix Center had at least two drug-overdose cases when he stayed there in 2014, and that another resident was hospitalized with a spider bite. The necessary paperwork for residents to "graduate" from the program and live elsewhere rarely got done on time, he adds; one case manager told him his "outside work obligations" had prevented him for months from getting the documents processed. 

Others let me know that CEC hasn't cornered the market on unsafe living conditions, vindictive or capricious staff, lack of adequate programs and other problems. Ralph Hardy has been staying at ICCS-Kendall, a large halfway house just off West Colfax run by Intervention Community Corrections Services, since May. Authorities have been seeking to replace the crumbling facility, a 1920s-era hospital that needs an estimated $5 million in repairs, for years. Hardy found a good job shortly after arrival but believes he's being kept there longer than necessary because he's one of the more reliable rent-payers. He says the place is far from safe, ticking off a list of woes: mold, roaches, asbestos, bad wiring and, yes, voracious rodents.  

"There are no screens in the windows where clients live," he reports. "I went in my room one day in July and a squirrel was on the top bunk of my bed, eating a bag of potato chips I purchased from the vending machine. When it rains hard, the basement floods and the rats come up to the top floors."

Other halfway-house residents say that squalid conditions aren't nearly as troubling as attitudes among staff. A woman housed in another CEC facility says that one of the rooms is sealed off because of mold — "they don't do anything to fix it" — but she's more worried about staffers who steal pain medication from residents and can send individuals back to prison on a whim. "I don't ever want to go back to prison," she says. "But even though I'm doing everything right, I live in a constant state of fear. Someone could just put meth in my locker, and that would be it."

One former CEC employee called to inform me that the company was "stuck in 2000," meaning it had yet to adopt the more "pro-social" approach to its clientele pushed by state regulators. It wasn't fair, he insisted, to suggest that all community-corrections operations are as dysfunctional as Tooley Hall appears to be.

A former CEC executive tends to agree. Many of the problems at Tooley have been reported to upper management for some time, he says, but simply ignored by them. CEC upper management will "go through the motions" of complying with state standards but is chiefly interested in profit, he claims: "The customer's recommendations for improvement, the customer's opinion means little until the contract comes up for review. Then they don't change the product. They change the player."

According to the former exec, CEC's Williams Street Center, which houses up to 84 males, is in worse shape than Tooley Hall and might face a challenging contract renewal process, just as the Phoenix Center did. "The word in community-corrections circles is that Williams is next, followed by Tooley," he says. "Look at it this way: Every day, these residents are making a choice to go back to that facility. By having deplorable conditions, you're not helping recidivism. Who wants to live in squalor?"

Over at Tooley, residents report that the article prompted a house meeting, during which staffers berated residents for not cleaning the place better. "How are we supposed to clean?" one source asks. "We have nothing to clean with. We don't even have no damn Comet."

The same source reports that after the meeting, residents were required 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. But actually repairing a broken door or barely standing stalls was out of the question; instead, the source reports, flaws were covered up with Halloween decorations. A new carpet was finally installed, to replace one residents had complained about as moldy for years, but management ignored a workman's observation that the floorboards under the carpet showed signs of rot. "They said, 'That's okay, just cover it,'" the source reports. "Nothing's changed. It changed the day that corporate was here, and now everything is back to normal, if you can call it that."

I also spoke by phone with a woman who recently walked away from Tooley Hall and is now considered a fugitive. She said her decision to flee, and probably land back in prison, was based not on any one factor, but rather a series of grievances, ranging from the daily tribulations of bedbugs and mold to clashes with staff over whether she could take her child to the hospital or whether they would ever complete the paperwork required for her to move out of Tooley Hall. "That place does not follow the rules," she insisted. "They want us to take responsibility for the stuff we did, but they would never take responsibility for what they did."

Update 10:40 a.m.: This morning I also heard from Tammy Garrett-Williams, a minister who's written a book about her own experiences in Colorado's community-corrections system, Invisible Handcuffs. Reverend Garrett-Williams arrived at a CEC halfway house in 2013 for what was supposed to be a four-month stay after serving time in prison on a theft charge; the experience turned into an eleven-month ordeal because a medical condition left her unable to work, thus unable to pay rent or progress out of the system. "For a person who has no drug or alcohol addiction and a college education, it was very straining on the soul," she says. "They would make up a rule that wasn't there yesterday."

Garrett-Williams has launched the Above Waters Project, which seeks to aid the re-entry process for offenders and reform the way halfway houses operate in Colorado. The group has begun surveying halfway-house residents anonymously in order to gather data to present to local community-corrections boards and state officials. "The idea is to put community corrections under a microscope so that taxpayers can understand how their money is being spent," she says. "We need to have an independent monitor for community corrections, someone who can do a thorough inspection of the situation and see what's really going on in these places, not just show up when they have everything clean and presentable." 
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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