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Billings Pre-Release Center Residents Say Conditions Poor Following Two COVID-19 Detections

The exterior doors and wall of Alpha House in Billings, Mont.
Nicky Ouellet
Yellowstone Public Radio
Two residents at Alpha House in Billings tested positive for the COVID-19 illness July 4 and 6, 2020. The pre-release corrections facility houses 170 residents.

Residents of a corrections facility in Billings remain quarantined amid two recently-discovered COVID-19 cases. Multiple residents say they're concerned the virus could spread further within the building following what they call insufficient care for their safety.

The positive cases were discovered Saturday and Monday at Alpha House pre-release center, where court-ordered offenders typically spend six months receiving counseling and seeking employment before reentering society.

The first infected resident says he initially sought medical help for trouble breathing about two weeks ago. The doctor determined he didn’t meet the requirements to be tested, according to David Armstrong, CEO of the nonprofit operating Alpha House.

Following his first doctor visit, the resident’s condition worsened.

“Thursday night I didn’t even sleep at all because I was sick all night long. I got up Friday morning and said I need to go see a doctor now, and then they took me," he says.

This time, the resident was given a test for COVID-19, which came back positive.

But the resident, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of repercussion, says his housekeeping work continued between doctor visits. He says he cleaned bathrooms, mopped floors and exchanged linens for Alpha House residents, all without a face mask.

The resident was dumbfounded that staff kept him on a work detail that placed him in close contact with so many residents.

“I don’t know if they were thinking that I was just faking it or what. But I mean, it’s too late now. The damage is done. I would be surprised if everyone in the building was not exposed to it," he says.

Armstrong says 170 residents occupy the main Alpha House building, which is run by Billings-based Alternatives, Inc. Residents are expected to remain quarantined with their typical roommates for two weeks, in accordance with expert guidance.

Armstrong says sentinel testing was offered at Alpha House in June but only a small number of residents took part.

He says an incident command team has met every day since March to develop coronavirus-related contingencies and that staff have adjusted well to Alpha House’s new, difficult circumstances.

“It’s a very different thing to have a protocol in place and then have to implement it for the first time. As you’d expect, there’s been some ups and downs the first couple days," Armstrong says.

Yet multiple residents and advocates outside Alpha House believe management was caught flat-footed after discovering the first COVID-19 case.

Alex Rate, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, says staff have engaged in “risky behavior” after the first infected individual began feeling symptoms.

“Including a barbecue where the virus could easily have been transferred not only to other individuals who are incarcerated but also corrections staff," Rate says.

Two residents who attended the Fourth of July barbecue outside Alpha House say food was served buffet style, with guests sharing utensils to serve communal dishes, like pasta salad. They both say dozens of residents participated in horseshoe and basketball tournaments, among other games, mostly without wearing masks or other personal protective equipment.

Like other residents interviewed, they want to remain anonymous to avoid discipline for speaking about Alpha House conditions.

Both residents say more than 50 people attended the barbecue, while Armstrong says there were fewer, which would be in line with the state’s phase two reopening guidelines. Armstrong wouldn’t comment on food service or activities, but acknowledged the event was “probably ill-advised.”

“They should have been social distancing. They may well not have been,” Armstrong says.

One resident who attended the barbecue felt betrayed that staff held the event after someone already displayed COVID-19 symptoms.

“They tell us to trust them, they’re going to help us. But obviously I wouldn’t help somebody that way. I got an 18-month daughter. I’m trying to go home and this is just furthering that process. It makes me just not trust them even more so," he says.

Since Saturday, one to five residents have been quarantined in each room, Armstrong says.

Though operations have been smoother lately, three residents described poor living conditions after the quarantine began, with infrequent cleaning and irregular distribution of basic necessities, like food, water and toilet paper.

Armstrong says staff are “working out the kinks” on logistical issues.

“There’s nothing negligent or anything intentional," he says.

Armstrong also confirmed resident reports that Alpha House staff didn’t always wear protective equipment before Saturday’s quarantine. He says non-complying staff are told to wear masks, and there haven’t been repeat violations.

Armstrong says Alpha House has room to isolate other residents. The second infected man’s former roommates remain quarantined in their regular space.

One of the roommates says he’s still sharing a bathroom with dozens of residents on his hallway. He says himself and his remaining roommate should’ve been placed in isolation after the second positive COVID-19 case was discovered.

“It just doesn’t make any sense to me. You’re supposed to be preventing that. That’s what they’re saying. That’s why they locked us down," he says.

Armstrong says Department of Corrections officials will visit Alpha House on Thursday to provide COVID-19 tests for any resident or staff member who wants one, with expedited results.