Inmates at Roseville halfway house cite fears after coronavirus ‘spread like wildfire’

2September 2020

As the coronavirus cases piled up at a Roseville halfway house, some residents say their health has been put in danger.

The Roseville Residential Reentry Center houses people after they serve time in federal or state prison, while they’re starting jobs and finding housing. There were 18 confirmed cases of COVID-19 connected to the facility as of Tuesday, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

Residents say they’ve been forced to quarantine in risky situations. The facility, meanwhile, says room sizes are in accordance with federal and state corrections guidelines.

But with U.S. Attorney General William Barr in March directing the federal Bureau of Prisons to identify older and at-risk inmates for release to home confinement, due to the coronavirus pandemic, some residents question why they have to continue to stay at the Roseville halfway house. They say they were eligible for home confinement before the COVID-19 outbreak.

The facility, operated by Volunteers of America MN/WI, encourages and supports “home confinement whenever appropriate,” said Steve Nelson, communications director.

HOME CONFINEMENT VS. HALFWAY HOUSE

One resident, Mike Geraci, said he’s past the date he was eligible for home confinement. And he said he has asthma, which can put people at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19.

Geraci, 32, said he’s been doing “everything you hope would happen” when someone is released from prison. He served nine years for a federal firearm offense and arrived at the halfway house on July 15.

He said he got a job, has been going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and attending church — all “stuff I’ve never done in my life before.”

Before the outbreak, Geraci was working at a distribution center and earning enough to rent a studio apartment. But Geraci said he wasn’t allowed to leave to look for an apartment — he said the halfway house cited the risk of coronavirus, though he believes he would have been safer if he was put on home confinement before people started getting sick.

Due to COVID-19, the VOA weighed various factors when deciding whether to permit someone to leave to look for housing, according to Nelson.

Federal inmates, in their final months before their release from custody, may transfer to a halfway house or home confinement, where they’re monitored, said Bureau of Prisons spokesman Justin Long.

Corrections workers determine the date people are eligible for home confinement. The VOA then makes a recommendation, which is based on a person having stable, verified housing, along with their record on peaceful behavior and following rules, according to Nelson. Corrections officials have the final say.

Nelson said being assigned to a reentry center like the one in Roseville can be stressful.

“They can taste freedom but technically they’re still incarcerated,” Nelson said. “… We want to provide a safe and welcoming environment, but we also need to balance that with the accountability demanded.”

INITIALLY HAD TO GO FOR TESTING BY BUS

Another resident, Ronnie Reed, was also concerned about coronavirus — he is 58 and already had lung problems. When he felt sick Aug. 17, he said it wasn’t easy to find a place to get tested.

“You’d think a place like this would be a little more responsible and have a plan in place,” Reed said. “… It just spread like wildfire around here.”

He said he was worried about putting others at risk, but had to take a bus to the hospital for a test on Aug. 18. He found out the next day he had COVID-19.

Since MDH has been involved, they’ve done in-facility testing and sent some residents by ambulance for testing, Nelson said.

Previously, people going for testing were offered N-95 masks, face shields and gloves, according to Nelson. He said the facility wasn’t equipped to provide transportation, though many went with relatives or in private transportation.

HEALTH DEPARTMENT TESTING

The Minnesota Department of Health, along with Ramsey County Public Health and VOA Roseville, decided to test all residents and staff, according to Doug Schultz, an MDH spokesman. That happened last Wednesday, six days after MDH says they learned of the first case of a resident having COVID-19.

The testing will continue weekly until no new cases are identified, Schultz said.

The Bureau of Prisons will not be sending people to the Roseville facility until the number of cases “significantly declines,” Long said Monday. There have been seven confirmed cases among federal inmates.

There are 19 people on Minnesota Department of Corrections work release status at the facility, nine who have tested positive for COVID-19, according to Nick Kimball, DOC spokesman. DOC will continue monitoring the situation.

They “have assured us they are able to appropriately isolate and quarantine as needed,” Kimball said.

QUARANTINE CONCERNS

Geraci said he and other residents have been required to quarantine since last week. He was initially housed with three other men in a room that he said is too small to allow for social distancing.

He and his roommates tested negative for COVID-19 last week, but men in the room next door tested positive and they had to continue sharing a bathroom.

Nelson said in the one instance of a shared bathroom between rooms at the facility, residents were issued disinfectant for it and offered access to another restroom.

On Saturday, Geraci started feeling sick. He was moved to a single room, though Geraci said it was just vacated by a man who tested positive for COVID-19. He said the man’s belongings remained, as did his linens on the bed.

Nelson said they weren’t aware of that situation “and if that were to happen, and we were informed, it would have been corrected immediately.”

On Monday, Geraci was taken by ambulance to the hospital to be tested. He found out Tuesday that he tested negative for COVID-19, but was told by his case manager he still has to quarantine.

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