Nearly 90 women are barred from leaving a ComCor, Inc. halfway house in Colorado Springs after a resident tested positive for COVID-19, spawning fears among residents they are at risk of being exposed to the deadly illness while serving sentences for low-level offenses.
The community corrections provider — one of two in El Paso County — suspended its women’s work release program for two weeks, keeping 87 women on the campus of a shuttered motel at 3950 N. Nevada Ave.
The move is among several precautions meant to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus beyond the women’s facility, ComCor administrators say.
The women are also prohibited from visiting their families and cannot receive deliveries of food or hygiene products.
“We consulted the El Paso County Health Department on all the precautions we’ve taken,” said ComCor Executive Director Mark Wester, who defended the nonprofit’s response to its first known coronavirus infection.
Wester said formal planning and operational changes at ComCor began March 11.
By late March, for example, ComCor changed dining practices to allow only 10 people into a cafeteria at a time. Kitchen staff now disinfect surfaces as they go, and workers are delivering all meals to the women’s facility.
Administrators distributed N95 masks to most residents last week, enough for each to receive one.
“We, like everyone else, are having a hard time getting masks,” Wester said, adding that ComCor is attempting to find more.
ComCor operates two other residential facilities nearby, housing roughly 200 men between them, where no known infections have occurred. Although men have likewise been barred from visiting home and cannot receive food deliveries, they are permitted to continue working off-site as part of ComCor’s work release programs.
The woman who tested positive on Wednesday, Dana Lujan, 31, remains in isolation in her room at the women’s facility, Wester said. She had been assigned to live in two different rooms during the period she showed symptoms of a flu-like illness, residents say.
Lujan’s attorney, Joshua Tolini, petitioned a judge for her release on Thursday, citing her underlying health problems and poor conditions at the halfway house. The motion said Lujan had received a single dose of Tylenol for her fever since being diagnosed and that her food had been limited to “primarily bags of chips and tap water.”
“Given the minimal sanitary conditions in the ComCor, and the inability of inmates to protect themselves through social distancing, continuing to hold Ms. Lujan in the ComCor exposes (her) to an increased risk of infection,” Tolini said in a court filing.
Although administrators say Lujan’s former roommates were also being held in isolation, multiple residents told the newspaper they are free to leave their rooms and have been mixing with the general population.
Lujan told the newspaper on Wednesday that she suspects she contracted the illness from a woman with a severe cough who was transferred into a room she shared with two other roommates. Multiple residents told the newspaper on Thursday that Lujan’s former roommate still has the cough and continues to mix with others.
Men being held in the other ComCor facilities, at 3808 N. Nevada Ave. and 3615 Roberts Road, say they fear they could have been exposed while in the cafeteria.
During a Wednesday night informational briefing at the Roberts Road location — divided into bays housing 20-30 men each, several residents berated Wester over his recommendation that they keep their distance from each other.
“We’re all here, in our bays, sleeping right next to each other, breathing on each other,” said Anthony Sandoval, 34,according to audio obtained by the newspaper.
“I don’t think I can answer with anything that’s going to make it better,” Wester replied, according to the recording.
ComCor approved medical furloughs for seven residents amid the pandemic, all for medical problems.
Releasing more would require the cooperation of multiple groups, including El Paso County, the county’s Community Corrections board, and the judicial districts that sentenced ComCor residents to the agency’s custody, Wester said in an interview.
Under normal circumstances, residents can apply for “nonresidential status” — meaning they live on their own and report in with halfway house staff — but ComCor suspended all applications late last month amid concerns over coronavirus, Wester said.
Tolini, the lawyer who represents Lujan, argued the facility has “complete authority” to transfer all its residents to “nonresidential” assignments.
ComCor charges halfway house residents $17 in rent per day while those in the nonresidential program pay $3 per day, both of which are set by state law, Wester said. Rent accounts for roughly 22% of ComCor's estimated $8.75 million in annual revenue, he said , and are "integral to operations and client care," paying for expenses such as food, electrical service, staffing and supplies.
Wester said ComCor expects to resume taking applications for the nonresidential programs on Monday. But he maintained on Thursday that ComCor residents are at no greater risk in custody than on their own.
“We are an open residential campus,” he said. “I don’t know that there’s increased risk compared to them living at home.”
El Paso County’s other community corrections provider, Community Alternatives of El Paso County, Inc., had no confirmed or presumptive cases of coronavirus as of Thursday afternoon, said Christine Burns, El Paso County’s community outreach division manager.
CAE, a for-profit program run by Boca Raton, Fla.-based GEO Group, Inc., houses more than 200 inmates, most of them state Department of Corrections inmates on their way to being paroled.
A resident, Travis Cooper, 48, said staff members told him that people who fall ill could be held next door at the shuttered Cheyenne Mountain Re-entry Center, which closed in March.
Social distancing at the CAE facility is impossible in cramped rooms, where most inmates sleep on bunk beds, and masks aren’t available for inmates, although staff members wear them, Cooper said.
“We have to deal with keeping the facility clean,” he said. “The bathrooms are real nasty and dirty. Toilets are overflowing and stopped up.”
Representatives of CAE did not return phone messages seeking comment.
Pam Clifton, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, said complaints from ComCor and CAE residents echo those of other community corrections residents across Colorado.
Although guidance from Gov. Jared Polis spurred sheriffs to reduce jail populations by as much as 30%, there have been no such reductions in most halfway houses, the organization said on its website.
“(The Division of Criminal Justice) has not issued any statewide guidelines, so everybody’s left to their own devices,” Clifton said.
In Denver, a community corrections resident who tested positive was moved to isolation in a motel, along with his two roommates, in a bid to keep others safe, Clifton said.
She said the lack of clear, statewide guidance is a further obstacle to re-entry for people trying to get a foothold on stability, and who often struggle with substance and alcohol addiction and other challenges.
Halfway house residents who lose hope tend to flee, leading to escape charges and further incarceration, she said.
“People are scared,” Clifton said. “We don’t want there to be a relapse. We don’t want people to take off. We need a better, more comprehensive plan.”