His overdose death in a halfway house bathroom illustrates a system lacking accountability

Halfway house operators in Colorado have long been cited for failing to comply with standards

Published December 6, 2022 5:00AM (EST)

The bedroom area of the halfway house. (Photo By Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)
The bedroom area of the halfway house. (Photo By Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

This article originally appeared on ProPublica.

The last time Iris Román Prieto saw her son, he was leaving their family Christmas Eve party to report back at the Colorado Springs halfway house where he was completing a two-year sentence for burglary.

After arriving at the facility, Robert Román Prieto called to let his mom know that he was safe.

And he then dialed his fiancée, Jasmin Black, who had dropped him off. After 15 minutes, at around 11 p.m., Black heard through the phone a grunt, a thud and then silence.

Alarmed, she called the facility, which is run by ComCor Inc., and pleaded with a staff member to check on Román Prieto, according to a police report.

He was in his bed asleep, the staffer assured her before hanging up.

The lifeless body of Román Prieto, 30, was found around 4:30 a.m. on Dec. 25, 2021, facedown on the bathroom floor, still holding his phone, according to the police report. Nearly five hours had passed since Black's call asking staff to check on him. Staff told police that the last head count had occurred at midnight, and Román Prieto was not accounted for.

Law enforcement found half a blue pill, later identified as fentanyl, in Román Prieto's wallet. Security footage showed he had purchased the potent synthetic opioid from two facility residents in the parking lot after exiting Black's car.

Had ComCor staff followed state standards and the company's own policies, they would have monitored security cameras trained on the parking lot, searched Román Prieto for contraband, and conducted a head count every two hours, which includes a visual check of each resident.

"If that person had checked on Robert when they said that they would, if that would have been taken care of right away, he would still be alive," said his mother.

Román Prieto's overdose death was the third fatality involving substance use at the facility in the span of eight months, according to coroner reports obtained by ProPublica.

His family believes he was seeking the pain reliever oxycodone, which illicit fentanyl is often made to look like. The day before, he had strained his back moving bags of concrete at the family's new restaurant, according to his family.

Mark Wester, the executive director of ComCor, said in a written statement that staff followed all protocols and that an investigation three months later by county employees found no deficiencies in the facility's response. Wester denied ProPublica's request to review the county investigation. A public records request to El Paso County found no documentation of such an investigation.

State auditors in 2017 noted that the facility wasn't following procedures, writing that the cameras were "unviewed," that staff wasn't verifying clients' physical presence, and that "pat searches" to control contraband when entering the building did not meet state standards. Two years later, auditors reiterated the need for staff to confirm the presence of each client during head counts, particularly when "the client is sleeping or in the bathroom." A plan was implemented in 2019 that addressed the auditors' concerns, according to Wester.

For years, ComCor and many other halfway house operators in Colorado's community corrections system have been cited by the state Office of Community Corrections for failing to comply with security standards, which can lead to dangerous consequences. Audits, staff incident reports and internal documents reviewed by ProPublica revealed that the facilities have been host to sexual assaults, frequent escapes, recurring drug use and overdose deaths.

Yet regulators rarely use their authority or financial leverage to force facilities to improve their safety practices.

The problems persist, in part, because although the Office of Community Corrections oversees the system, 22 local community corrections boards also regulate what happens inside individual facilities. ProPublica found that most of the local boards — which are staffed by elected officials, parole officers, law enforcement, prosecutors and judges — work in tandem with halfway house operators, often looking past violations and failing to follow up when audits identify problems. Many boards haven't audited the facilities they oversee in five years, or ever, meaning operators make millions of dollars from state contracts with minimal oversight.

Two days after Román Prieto's death, when the El Paso County community corrections administrator reported it to the state, the administrator didn't mention that ComCor had failed to monitor its facility and residents and instead characterized the facility's response as "very good," according to an email obtained by ProPublica. Román Prieto had received three doses of Narcan, a drug used to reverse opioid overdoses, the administrator, Angel Medina, said.

A toxicology screen ordered by the El Paso County coroner and obtained by ProPublica found no naloxone, the medication in Narcan, in Román Prieto's system.

El Paso County referred ProPublica to ComCor for comment, saying the company is responsible for "all day-to-day operations."

Medina, who left his position in April, declined an interview request and wouldn't comment on the case, but said in a written statement that the board's first commitment is to public safety. "The staff and Community Corrections Board strive to ensure the providers work toward the highest standards set by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice. This is accomplished by a genuine and sincere commitment to transparency and accountability," he said in the statement.

The lack of oversight and accountability in Colorado's halfway houses contributes to a system in which people who pass through the facilities — whether they're transitioning out of prison or sentenced directly to community corrections by a judge — are more likely to end up incarcerated than rehabilitated. Of those who enroll in a Colorado halfway house, only 35% will successfully complete a program and stay out of the criminal justice system for at least two years, according to state data.

ProPublica reported earlier this year that overly punitive policies, a scarcity of employment training, a lack of effective drug treatment programs, financial costs that sink residents into debt, and a system void of transparency and oversight also contribute to the system's failures.

"Of all of the stages in the criminal law system … I think this is probably one of the most opaque," said Wendy Sawyer, research director for the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonpartisan criminal justice think tank based in Massachusetts. "There's just a sort of [a] black hole."

Inadequate Audits

Colorado's halfway house system was established in 1974 to address prison overcrowding and provide addiction treatment, job training and other services to those leaving prison or avoiding incarceration through alternative sentencing programs. But the state has rarely evaluated whether it's working.

It's been more than 20 years since the halfway house system was independently audited. A 2001 review by the Office of the State Auditor, an independent agency within the Colorado legislative branch, found many problems, including "low levels of compliance" with state standards among halfway house operators and little enforcement of standards by state or local regulators. Out-of-compliance facilities still received contracts over and over, according to the assessment.

Auditors also found that it was impossible to determine how the 22 local community corrections boards, which contract with halfway house providers using state money, spend their administrative funds. "Few boards actually provide any type of systematic program oversight," they wrote.

Steve Allen, who worked for 17 years as a legislative budget analyst, said he tried for years but failed to get more information about facilities from the state's Office of Community Corrections. "I never had a clear picture" of how facilities were using state funding, he said. "I did the best I could, but things really never changed."

The auditors recommended that the local boards should no longer be involved in routine administrative functions such as billing and administering contracts, and that reporting requirements be established.

In response, the state agreed to require "measurable performance expectations" in contracts. But 20 years passed before the metrics to do that were established, in 2021. Facilities now get additional funding if enough people graduate from a halfway house program and if recidivism rates are kept low enough, but they aren't penalized if they don't hit those marks.

In 2023, community corrections facilities will be eligible for even more state funding as part of a "pay-for-success" model that state regulators hope will improve the abysmally low success rates. Every three years, each facility will receive two new assessments: the PACE — which measures program quality, including whether rehabilitation programs are backed by research — and the CORE, which looks at facilities' security practices.

These new audits, however, will evaluate fewer than half of the nearly 100 state standards for the facilities and rely on the same state and local oversight practices that have consistently failed to hold accountable poorly performing halfway house providers.

The OCC conducted the new assessments at every facility between 2017 and 2021, but it didn't identify plans for improvement, something it says it will start doing next year.

Greg Fugate, director of communications and quality assurance for the Colorado Office of the State Auditor, said the state hasn't conducted another independent audit of the system because the law doesn't require it and the office hasn't received a request to do so. But the governor or any lawmaker could request one, and the state auditor could initiate one at the office's discretion.

The Office of Community Corrections is required to review facilities' compliance with state standards every five years, but the law doesn't specify how extensive the inspections need to be or what happens when problems are found. The office also conducts some audits for specific treatment programs and monitors certain standards through its billing system, including background checks and fingerprinting requirements for new hires, according to Katie Ruske, manager of Colorado's Office of Community Corrections, which is part of the Division of Criminal Justice. But since 2017 the office has conducted only "limited" audits of eight halfway houses focusing only on security practices. Colorado has 27 state-funded halfway houses.

ProPublica obtained audits conducted by the OCC since 2017 through public records requests. They show many facilities frequently do not comply with state standards for security and program quality, and the homes rarely face serious consequences for those failures.

Some facilities lacked documentation for disciplinary actions and resident escapes, and sometimes didn't report sexual assault allegations. Facilities failed to adequately train staff, monitor clients and prevent drugs from entering the halfway house, auditors wrote.

Where state auditing falls short, local community corrections boards are supposed to fill the gaps, according to Ruske. "They need to do their own auditing so that there is more time inside of those programs and facilities, more oversight than just what our office can provide," said Ruske.

"The statutes and our contracts still make it very clear that we can hold subcontractors accountable if we need to," she said. "And we have done that in our history … to the point of program closure. That hasn't been during my tenure, but that has happened in the past."

In 2016, Colorado lawmakers provided additional funding to improve employee training, retention and recruitment at halfway houses — $134,000 for smaller facilities and $269,000 for larger facilities. But they are not required to report how that money is used and the state doesn't audit whether it goes to the intended purpose.

Christopher Bonham, who worked in security at ComCor, said he received two days of training when he was hired in 2016. It didn't prepare him for dealing with residents who struggled with substance abuse, he said.

Bonham said more staffing and better training might have prevented an overdose death he witnessed in 2016. It was the night shift, and he had been dealing with an "onslaught of guys needing pat-downs, Breathalyzers, everything." A few hours had passed since he last patrolled the facility, he said.

"When you've got 120, 130 guys walking around and there's only two of you on shift, it's like a human tsunami," said Bonham, who worked for the organization on and off for five years. "That's what it's like at a lot of these places. They try to go with the absolute minimum staffing."

A minimum of two staff members work the night shift in each security office, according to Wester, ComCor's executive director. The company has two facilities with a total of three security offices.

The other staff member on duty yelled for Bonham to go to Room 7, he said, where a 26-year-old resident enrolled in the treatment program for serious addictions was unconscious. Bonham and his colleague tried to resuscitate the man before paramedics arrived, Bonham said. The next day, Bonham said, the hospital told him the man had been taken off life support. A coroner's report indicates he died of an overdose of methamphetamine and heroin.

Bonham and others brought concerns about staffing levels and training to management many times, he said. The response was always the same: They'd look into it. The facility began stocking Narcan, he said. But little else changed.

After two more overdose deaths and more pleas to upper management to improve training and staffing that went unheeded, according to Bonham, he left the organization in November 2021. Román Prieto's overdose death occurred a month later.

Wester said in response to a 2021 state audit that the facility has been "redeveloping" its new employee orientation to include a week of classroom training and time shadowing more-experienced employees.

But he acknowledged to ProPublica there have been times when that wasn't the case. "A year ago, we were down 25 staff," he said in June. "So we were trying to do rapid hiring and so for a time, we did shorten the orientation. It wasn't the best circumstance."

Preparing to Be Audited

Some who've worked in the system say auditing doesn't provide a true reflection of what happens inside the facilities.

When auditors arrived at ComCor Inc. in July 2021 to conduct a PACE audit of its rehabilitation programs, Broderick Rimes, a security manager, felt like a student who had all the answers to the exam he was about to take. The auditors from Colorado's Office of Community Corrections had provided an outline of what to expect and given the facility two months to prepare.

Rimes, a former investigator for the military, said his bosses gave him funds to "beautify" the rundown motel-turned-correctional-facility. He instructed residents to plant flowers and build new outdoor staff seating, and he rewarded their free labor with a barbecue. He had new fans installed, which hushed residents' complaints about the heat.

Weeks earlier, the facility had been understaffed, according to Rimes.

Audits in 2017 and 2019 noted an "alarming rate of employee turnover," along with other staff-related problems, such as disciplinary practices that did not follow fairness and due process requirements and a failure to control contraband entering the facility.

The day of the 2021 audit, Rimes' "best and brightest" staffers were working. Many had received pay increases so they'd have "happy faces" for the visitors, according to Rimes.

Under the direction of his supervisors, Rimes had recruited residents to join a new "mentorship program," which would be showcased during the audit. Those who agreed to participate received perks: bigger rooms, air conditioners, extra attention from staff and the promise of new gym equipment. This ensured the clients had positive things to say about the program, Rimes said.

Auditors gave ComCor one of the highest scores in the state.

According to Wester, the facility received similarly high marks from local regulators, including Medina, the El Paso County community corrections administrator.

"Mr. Medina was able to only see what we allowed him to see," Rimes said.

Rimes said he felt like he was deceiving the auditors, but believed that the potential boost in state funding from a good audit would improve conditions at the facility.

But as soon as the auditors left, things went back to the way they were before, he said.

Upper management halted the mentorship program, saying it was never formally approved. The mentors were moved out of their improved rooms. The AC units and fans were returned on the grounds that they were "violating fire code." Rimes said he was scolded for letting residents perform maintenance tasks such as installing fans and outdoor seating without being paid.

Rimes said it was clear that he'd been manipulated too.

He had to tell residents that they weren't getting the promised gym equipment.

"I couldn't look those clients in the face," said Rimes. "What am I going to tell them? That we lied to them?"

ComCor's Wester told ProPublica that the facility had ample time to prepare for the audit because it had been delayed due to the pandemic. The audit was originally scheduled for March 2020.

He also stressed that the purpose was not to catch facilities by surprise. The requirements "are not a secret," said Wester, who is also the chairperson of the Colorado Community Corrections Coalition, a trade group that lobbies on behalf of halfway house operators. "We are always improving our environment, our management and our services."

Wester called Rimes' mentorship program "fledgling" and said it was replaced by a more robust one. The pay increases staff received were not related to the state evaluation, he said. Wester said he was aware of the other changes Rimes made but they weren't done for the audit and were instead part of a broader effort to improve the facility.

A month later, Rimes resigned.

"It sucks because I live in this community, so it's not like I don't see these clients," he said in June. "I know the bad stuff that I participated in."

Local Boards Rarely Step In

Colorado's halfway house system was designed like many other state programs — giving local governments as much control as possible. That led to the creation of community corrections boards in each of Colorado's 22 judicial districts. The boards operate independently, and state statutes are silent on who can sit on those boards and for how long.

The boards are directed to ensure that facilities are complying with state standards, but many have never audited the facilities they oversee. Twelve boards are required by the OCC to conduct their own audits, according to their annual reports, but only six have consistently done so since 2017, according to audits obtained by ProPublica.

The boards vary drastically in their makeup, protocols and oversight.

They distribute state money and have the authority to accept or deny people's enrollment in halfway house programs, essentially operating as an unofficial court overwhelmingly staffed by law enforcement and other members of the criminal justice system.

Allen, the former legislative budget analyst, attended a handful of their meetings. He recalled a man who took a plea deal from a district attorney so he could go to community corrections instead of prison. The board denied the man's application.

"Who voted against it? The representative from the DA's office," he said. "I'm sorry, there is something wrong with that system."

Advocates say transparency is necessary because boards could cherry-pick applicants who would improve their facility's success rate, a metric now used to financially reward facilities.

A 2018 law requires each board to use an evidence-based decision-making tool to avoid discrimination in such decisions. But boards are allowed to design their own tools without state input. Some refuse people who receive alternative sentences for violent crimes, people from other judicial districts who have been convicted of a sex crime, and people who have been arrested for selling drugs.

Despite funding these boards, the Office of Community Corrections gathers little information about their activities apart from an annual report, leaving state lawmakers who approve their funding in the dark about halfway houses' operations. Facilities are required to report how many people escape each year –– there have been 936 so far this year, according to state data –– and how much rent each facility collects from residents. During the 2020 fiscal year, facilities collected approximately $15 million in rent, according to the Office of Community Corrections' annual report.

The community board for Alamosa County does not publish information online about when or where it meets or who its board members are. Colorado's open meetings law requires that meeting notices be posted "in a formally designated public place at least 24 hours before a meeting."

"We don't post our information because there's some privacy issues. We never have," said Patrick Stanford, who has been the community corrections coordinator for Alamosa County for more than 20 years.

Through public records requests, ProPublica obtained information on the board's membership, which consists of four current and former district and county judges; one court executive; two parole and probation officers; a public defender; the district attorney; a sheriff; a police chief; two former or current county commissioners; the mayor; and a local mental health provider.

In response to a follow-up question from ProPublica, Stanford said that he has sent the meeting information to be posted in the Alamosa County Courthouse but he could not verify that it was posted.

Steve Zansberg, a Denver-based lawyer and president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said that while posting in the courthouse would technically be in compliance with the law, "it is certainly not in compliance with its spirit."

The local board for Alamosa or the county government has not conducted its own audit of the halfway house it oversees since at least 2017, despite being directed to do so by the OCC, according to public records.

A 2019 state audit of Advantage Treatment Center in Alamosa detailed practices that did not comply with state law, according to the report, including how often residents were monitored when they left the facility, processes for substance use testing, how client medications were handled, how escapes were documented and the levels of staffing that were maintained.

The report found that the facility was in full compliance with only two state standards. But neither the state, the local board nor the facility operator required corrective action, according to Stanford.

Joshua Mayhugh, the vice president for Advantage Treatment Centers, said in a written statement that steps were taken internally to correct the noncompliance, including "technical training," but did not provide details.

It wasn't the first time the state had taken issue with Alamosa County's halfway house. The previous operator, San Luis Valley Behavioral Health Group, is among the few to ever have a contract canceled by the state for egregious violations of state standards, including falsifying documents and failing to hire qualified treatment staff, according to Ruske and public records. Less than a year later, the provider decided to close the facility, according to Kylee Sowards, San Luis Valley's marketing and communications specialist. She said in an email that no one employed at the time of the closure currently works for the company.

Following the 2019 audit, Stanford said he met with the local board and the facility to discuss the audit, but he couldn't point to anything that had been done to address the concerns beyond installing more security cameras. There has not been a follow-up audit.

"We have a pretty good track record, and I'm not just saying that. I think if you look around the state, Advantage Treatment Center has a good track record," he said. "Not perfect, no one's perfect."

"I think most of the board members … feel pretty good about how things are going," Stanford added.

"If They Had Searched Him, He'd Be Alive Today"

Román Prieto's family was never notified of his death by ComCor.

Black learned of her fiancé's death from his roommate, who called her that Christmas morning. She then called Román Prieto's sister, who was wrapping presents when the phone rang.

"He was so full of life," Naddia Román said. "He was doing really, really good. He was more around his kids, more around his family. He wanted to be better, and they took away that opportunity."

Román Prieto's stepfather, Ivan Rios, emailed the facility in late December asking for more information and security footage. He never got a response.

"If they had searched him, he'd be alive today," Rios said. "He was a victim of ComCor."

By Moe Clark


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