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Sep 19, 2020

COVID-19 in confinement

Co-produced with PRX Logo

At a time when self-isolation is the best way to avoid the pandemic, we examine two places where people have no choice but to live with strangers: nursing homes and prisons. 

We start with Reveal’s Elizabeth Shogren, who’s been looking at why COVID-19 is spreading so quickly in nursing homes. It turns out that many have had long-standing issues with controlling infections. 

Then host Al Letson speaks with Nicole Lewis, a staff writer for The Marshall Project. After several outbreaks of COVID-19 in the prison system, the Justice Department came up with a plan that was supposed to protect prisoners and staff. But it hasn’t carried it out. 

We end with a profile from Reveal’s Michael Montgomery of a recently released prisoner who’s turned his life around and now is working to protect homeless people in San Francisco from the pandemic. 

Dig Deeper

  • Read: Poor infection controls turn deadlier at nursing homes during pandemic
  • Read: Byron Miller’s race against time

Credits

The logo for the Marshall Project

Reported by: Elizabeth Shogren, Nicole Lewis of The Marshall Project, Michael Montgomery

Produced by: Elizabeth Shogren and Michael Montgomery

Lead producer: Michael Montgomery

Edited by: Laura Starecheski, Taki Telonidis, Brett Myers

Production manager: Najib Aminy

Production assistance: Amy Mostafa

Sound design, mix, and music by: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda

Special thanks: Soo Oh, Susan Chira, Ruth Baldwin

Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan

Host: Al Letson

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.

Speaker 1:

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Al Letson:

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Carrie Morris lives in Maryland, she's a career development coach. But she's also had a second job for the past 10 years as a remote caregiver for her mom, Anita. Carrie has been writing about their intense relationship, two strong-willed women who clash a lot, but love each other deeply. She wants to make it into a book and after what's happened in the past few years, she has a new title.

Carrie Morris:

And I think I'm going to change the name to Call the Front Desk. I really find using dark comedy an antidote for me.

Al Letson:

Call the front desk. It's what Carrie's mom would ask her to do.

Carrie Morris:

It was this constant, "Please, you've got to call the front desk. Please, just do me this one favor. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry."

Al Letson:

Three years ago, Anita moved into an assisted living facility in Boca Raton, Florida. Whenever something was wrong, she typically tried to get help herself. But when it didn't arrive, she called Carrie at home in Maryland.

Carrie Morris:

Every time I'd see my phone and the number come up, or the facility name, I thought, it's either, she's calling me or it's a member of the staff calling me that she's in trouble.

Al Letson:

When Carrie couldn't pick up, Anita would leave voicemails, hundreds of them.

Anita Lymber:

Hi, I thought you would probably answer the phone knowing it was me calling because I really wanted to speak to you.

Al Letson:

These calls could be urgent. I'm scared. I'm in pain. I need someone to come clean me up. And sometimes, I'm just lonely.

Anita Lymber:

I'm up here in my room and nobody's here at the moment and that's why I wanted to talk to you. I just can't handle this. I'm sorry, I'm really sorry, Carrie. I really have no one else to talk to, just understand where I'm coming from honey, please.

Al Letson:

We're at the end of a pandemic summer, millions of cases. We're nearing 200,000 deaths in the U.S. and a disproportionately high number of them have been in nursing homes and prisons, places where people live under one roof with lots of strangers. The pandemic has hit communities of color especially hard and with nursing homes, some research suggests those with mostly Black residents have higher death rates. Reveal's Elizabeth Shogren has been investigating why nursing homes have been hit so hard across the board and finds that the pandemic made an old problem even worse.

Elizabeth Shogr...:

For much of her life, Anita Lymber was a head turning beauty. She played tennis into her 60s. She loved sailing and going to the beach. She had her house custom built in a gated community in Boca Raton. Her daughter says, even into her 80s, looks still mattered to her a lot.

Carrie Morris:

The staff at Stratford Court lovingly referred to her as Diva Anita. Every morning she had the routine, put on the wig, put on the makeup, the jewelry, everything was just so. And then when she was ready to meet her public, they wheeled her into the lobby and there she sat.

Elizabeth Shogr...:

Ready to play cards or bingo, eat meals in the dining room with other residents, or go to physical therapy. Anita moved into Stratford in 2017, because she'd heard through the grapevine that they had a great in house rehab center. She'd been in a wheelchair for several years after a knee surgery. And she thought if she moved there, she'd walk again. That hadn't happened yet, so she needed lots of help from staff, including changing her adult diapers.

Anita Lymber:

I'm still sitting here, it's almost two hours. I sitting here in wet pants and this is why I went to the hospital for that reason. They are disgusting.

Carrie Morris:

You can't just sit in a wet pull up or a soiled pull up. And unfortunately, she was ripe for infections and was frequently going to the hospital, where she would have to reside for several days, up to more than a week on IV antibiotics.

Anita Lymber:

Oh boy, I'm sorry, Carrie, believe me. I'm sorry for me, I'm sorry for you and everyone else.

Elizabeth Shogr...:

Urinary tract infections or UTIs can be deadly. They can get into the bloodstream and cause organ failure. And they spread in nursing homes on unsanitary linens or when staff don't wash hands between patients. At Stratford Court, Anita just kept getting them for years.

Anita Lymber:

And I want to relax and I want to enjoy the rest of my life, these god damn UTIs. Unbelievable.

Elizabeth Shogr...:

Carrie knew Stratford wasn't a five star facility, she'd seen those, but she thought it was above average, and it is according to Medicare's ratings, except when it came to infection control. They weren't doing what they were supposed to. Deficiency in 2019, can you read that?

Carrie Morris:

Provide appropriate care for residents who are continent or incontinent.

Elizabeth Shogr...:

I set up a video call with Carrie so I could show her some federal inspection reports. They're posted online. They show that for years Stratford has violated infection control requirements, including failing to protect patients from urinary tract infections.

Carrie Morris:

Right, well, that would certainly track with my personal experience.

Elizabeth Shogr...:

And here, what's this one say?

Carrie Morris:

Have a program that investigates controls and keeps infection from spreading.

Elizabeth Shogr...:

Inspectors cited failures to meet these requirements three years in a row, 2017 to 2019. But the government didn't find them. I see you shaking your head, what are you thinking?

Carrie Morris:

I find that both curious and unacceptable as a family member who goes by the do no harm creed. That's what we all want. That's what we're expecting. If they've been cited numerous times, then why was there no oversight to see if proper measures had been instituted? That would be my question, right?

John Dicken:

Unfortunately, deficiencies in the practices that nursing homes have for infection control were widespread and persistent across multiple years.

Elizabeth Shogr...:

John Dicken investigated infection control at nursing homes across the country for the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan congressional agency. He says these infection control problems were chronic, way before the pandemic.

John Dicken:

Many of them were basic things like not sanitizing equipment or not washing hands when staff are working directly with residents. Other things could be staff displaying symptoms of being sick or not having proper protective equipment. We had examples of nursing homes that were not isolating appropriately, residents when they were exposed or confirmed to have an infection.

Elizabeth Shogr...:

Inspectors found these types of problems at more than 80% of nursing homes in recent years. Half of nursing homes had violations multiple years in a row, but there were hardly any consequences. Regulators imposed a fine less than two percent of the time. This was the state of nursing homes when the coronavirus arrived in the US. In late February, Carrie went to visit her mom at Stratford Court in Florida.

Carrie Morris:

And I remember being in my hotel room and starting to hear the reports out of Washington.

Speaker 7:

Now a nursing home, this center of concern over a potential coronavirus outbreak. The CDC investigating after a staff member and resident tested positive with more than 50 others quarantined showing symptoms. Health officials ...

Carrie Morris:

So I remember coming to the facility the very next day, as they often did, they had this big social gathering and these entertainers who were there and singing and I saw my mother and she was jamming to the music. One of the first things that happened while we were there listening to the music was there was a gentleman off to the corner, and he was coughing and it was a fairly productive cough. It was a cough like, oh my God.

Elizabeth Shogr...:

Carrie rushed over to a staff member to ask what they were doing to protect residents from the coronavirus. She was told not to worry, just wash your hands. But throughout the visit so much of Anita's life struck Carrie as risky with the pandemic on the way. Carrie clearly remembers the day she left. Her mom was sitting in a dining room full of residents, visiting family members, and staff.

Carrie Morris:

And I stood there in the hallway for several minutes just looking at her. And I wanted to memorize the scene because I knew I would not be seeing her again. I just knew it.

Elizabeth Shogr...:

Within a few days, Anita had another urinary tract infection and was back in the hospital. When she was well enough to go back to Stratford, she went up to the nursing home floor, not her normal room. A couple days later, Carrie got a call from Stratford.

Carrie Morris:

"I just wanted to inform you that there is evidence of COVID on the property and the facility is instituting lockdown measures." I knew it was coming. I was really devastated.

Elizabeth Shogr...:

There was no indication Anita had COVID. But Carrie knew how vulnerable her mom was and she felt helpless. Because of the pandemic, she didn't want to fly to Florida. And even if she did, she wouldn't be allowed into Stratford. She had to trust the facility would protect her mom.

Carrie Morris:

I said, "Mom, let's just try to think positively about the future. Let's just think about getting better. Let's just adopt a positive mindset even in the midst of all of the unknowns, right? We all are dealing with unknown." So she said to me, "Who the hell do you think you are, Billy Graham? Don't play life coach with me, do that with your clients."

Elizabeth Shogr...:

At first, messages from Stratford managers assured residents and families that they were well prepared for the coronavirus. Later messages listed precautions they were taking, like requiring masks for staff and patients, and isolating patients with symptoms. But as the weeks passed, Carrie didn't like what she was seeing on the video chats with her mom.

Carrie Morris:

I saw a rapid deterioration of her condition. She just was starting to present far more lethargic, just off, really off.

Anita Lymber:

Hi honey, you have no idea, I don't even know what my name is right now.

Elizabeth Shogr...:

"I don't even know what my name is right now," Anita's saying. During their next video call, Carrie couldn't make out anything Anita said.

Carrie Morris:

She was slouched over the wheelchair hanging there. I wanted to reach through the screen and physically like tilt her in the other direction. And I was so incensed, I was walking around the room. My husband thought I was going to have a stroke myself, pleading for someone to help her. She was drooling. She was in such poor shape. I was beside myself.

Elizabeth Shogr...:

And the following morning, Carrie got the call she'd been dreading.

Carrie Morris:

And the staff member told me that she was taken to the hospital. She was running a fever. Her blood pressure was low and she was experiencing shortness of breath.

Elizabeth Shogr...:

A doctor at the hospital left Carrie a voicemail later that day.

Speaker 8:

She's been admitted with a diagnosis of the coronavirus and she's doing okay, she has a fever but her oxygen levels are stable.

Elizabeth Shogr...:

The federal government didn't require nursing homes to report COVID cases and deaths until May. Since they started keeping track, nursing homes have reported more than 345,000 residents confirmed or suspected of getting COVID. And more than 53,000 of them died. Welltower, the company that owns Stratford, is the nation's biggest donor of senior housing complexes, at least 67 are nursing homes. Welltower hasn't made public the number of deaths at its facilities, but we did an analysis of federal data and found about half of Welltower nursing homes had COVID deaths. 339 as of the end of August. Welltower refused Reveal's many requests for interviews, but in a call with investors last month, one executive said cases and death were way down.

Speaker 9:

The number of cases are not spiking in our portfolio like they had back in April and May when one of the operators were blindsided, not just our operators, I mean, we all were blindsided by COVID.

Elizabeth Shogr...:

But should they have been? Like the rest of the country nursing homes did not have enough PPE and tests. Still, federal law requires nursing homes to have plans for a pandemic. And for decades, regulators have pushed facilities to improve infection control. Day to day that responsibility falls to caregivers like Marie.

Marie:

The patient cannot do anything by themself. You have to feed them and clean them, head to toes. You do everything for the patient.

Elizabeth Shogr...:

Marie has worked for 11 years as a certified nursing assistant at a South Florida nursing home. Like many caregivers in that area, she's from Haiti. Marie hasn't gotten COVID-19 but she's watched colleagues get sick and says there's no way to stay six feet or even six inches from patients.

Marie:

We have one employee die because they don't give proper PPE, they refuse to give us PPE. That's why she die.

Elizabeth Shogr...:

We were able to confirm that a staffer died of COVID but not how she caught it. Marie worries she could lose her job for speaking out. So we're not giving her last name or the name of the nursing home where she works. She makes $11 an hour and supports a family.

Marie:

And I have bills, I have no choice, I have to go to work. So I'm still scared because they don't give you a proper PPE.

Elizabeth Shogr...:

Marie says workers like her deserve better treatment. Experts say residents and staff should be tested often and staff should be given gloves, gowns, eye protection and masks. But Marie says she sometimes has to wait two weeks for a fresh mask.

Marie:

So you got a really bad feeling.

Elizabeth Shogr...:

Margarette Nerette is a vice president of a union that represents more than 8,000 nursing home workers in South Florida. She says more than 2,000 of them have gotten COVID, five have died from it. Margarette says caregivers don't get enough training and aren't kept in the loop about COVID cases.

Margarette Nere...:

If you have one case, you're supposed to have meeting with your workers but we did not have that. Everything was secret to the workers.

Elizabeth Shogr...:

Most of the people she represents are women of color. So are most of the people doing the same job across the country. Poor pay and lousy benefits mean they have to work no matter what and that puts them and everyone around them at risk. After only a few days in the hospital, Anita was discharged to Stratford's COVID isolation wing. Doctors told Carrie the nursing home could handle everything that Anita needed. But Carrie was concerned and rightly so. Within a few days, Anita's health was getting worse and she was moved to hospice.

Carrie Morris:

Thank God I was able to FaceTime with my mom at the hospice facility. It was a gift, as painful as it was to see her in her final moments.

Elizabeth Shogr...:

On May 3rd, Anita died, she was 84. I wanted to talk with Stratford Court's management company, but instead they responded with an email. They said they significantly expanded their infection control program during the pandemic. And since then, inspectors have not found deficiencies. Federal data shows that during COVID, Stratford's nursing homes has had about 30 patients at any given time. Seven have died from the virus. Nine staff members got it too but none died. All across the country, nursing homes are still in crisis. After a dip this summer, new COVID cases started surging. Nursing home residents make up more than a quarter of all COVID related deaths.

Carrie Morris:

I think it is a national tragedy. I think it could have been avoided. That I believe to my soul, it could have been avoided.

Elizabeth Shogr...:

Carrie has a beach home in Delaware. In August, on her birthday, she turned on some comforting music and opened a large box holding her mom's ashes.

Carrie Morris:

And wow, this is what's left of you. Beautiful, white, sugary, granular sand that you find on Florida beaches.

Elizabeth Shogr...:

And she found several spots to scatter her mom's ashes near a sailboat and at an old-style covered well at a park with a sign that reads, "Fountain of Youth."

Carrie Morris:

Okay, Mom, you always aspired to drink from the fountain of youth. I think you did for quite some time, you figured out the recipe. You actually, I think when you were born, and the gods and the goddesses were serving up helpings of the beauty gene, they invited you back for seconds and thirds. And here we go. Rest in peace, Mom.

Al Letson:

Our story was from Reveal's Elizabeth Shogren. Over the past few months, the federal government has been sending strike teams of experts to nursing homes with big COVID-19 outbreaks. They're still finding a lot of infection control problems, and the government has fined thousands of facilities. And last month, it started a new nationwide training program for controlling infections. Like nursing homes, prisons are supposed to have protocols for stopping the spread of illness. But with COVID-19, things didn't go according to plan.

Chad Marks:

"Hey, we need help, call my family. Let them know we're dying. They got us locked in here with people that have COVID-19. We're going to catch it. Please we're dying, help us."

Al Letson:

That story when we come back, you're listening to Reveal.

Hey, hey, hey, it's Al. And you may have heard that the U.S. Postal Service is dealing with a bunch of issues all at once. An expected surge in mail-in votes ahead of November's election because of the pandemic, and operational changes that some fear are politically motivated. Postal workers on the ground are dealing with these challenges in real time and figuring out ways to overcome them. We want to hear about what they're going through. So if you work for the Postal Service, and want to confidentially share your experience, text USPS to 474747. Standard data rates apply again that's USPS to 474747. Once you submit, one of our reporters will reach out to talk. Our goal is to understand what it looks like inside of one of America's most important institutions. We will never publish or broadcast your name or any identifying information without your consent.

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. When the pandemic hit, one of the scariest places to be was under one roof with strangers, unable to control who you come in contact with. For Carrie's mom, it was a nursing home. For Chad Marks, it was prison.

Chad Marks:

I was thinking, man, I hope I make it out of here. I had been in prison for 17 and a half years, and I knew that my time was probably very short if things went my way.

Al Letson:

Chad was locked up in a federal prison in Lexington, Kentucky.

Chad Marks:

So my biggest fear was that, man, I had done all this time and I might die in prison. And then being where I was at, we didn't have any cases for three weeks. And then we had two cases and then within days we had over 300. It was that fast.

Al Letson:

There are 122 federal prisons. And by late March, the risk of a massive outbreak of COVID-19 was so serious that Attorney General William Barr directed officials to take action.

Speaker 13:

Attorney General William Barr ordered prisons hard hit with coronavirus cases to increase early release programs. He said moving more ...

Al Letson:

It was a move that surprised a lot of people. Nicole Lewis is a reporter with the nonprofit newsroom, The Marshall Project. They've been tracking the spread of COVID-19 in the prison system. And Nicole, how big of a challenge was it for the prison system to move people out?

Nicole Lewis:

I'd say very big. Directing prisons to release people is one thing, doing it is something different. The Federal Bureau of Prisons is notorious for its bureaucracy, it's not part of their M.O. to let prisoners go early. So we knew it was going to be difficult.

Al Letson:

So prisons are packed with thousands of people who receive long sentences and this is going back to the push to get tough on crime. And even before COVID, there's been a lot of talk in Washington about how to get some people out.

Nicole Lewis:

That's right. And there have been efforts by both the Trump and Obama administrations to commute sentences and give some prisoners early release. People who are low risk and who the system decides have been rehabilitated. And there's been some progress. But there's still about 155,000 people in federal prisons and thousands of petitions for clemency that are pretty much collecting dust. One of the problems is that there's no parole in the federal system, so people can't earn their way to early release. And the program designed to send sick or dying people home, known as compassionate release, well, it's rarely used.

Al Letson:

So with the pandemic, it seems like the perfect moment to step things up.

Nicole Lewis:

Right, there's no real way to socially distance in prison. So as the coronavirus was spreading, it seemed pretty straightforward to move low risk and elderly inmates out. But I was hearing complaints from families and from prisoners that the process wasn't working. So to understand what was going on, I decided to focus on two federal prisoners. Both were convicted on drug charges and got really long sentences. One of them is the man we just heard from, Chad Marks. But I'm going to begin with Byron Miller.

Byron Miller:

Byron Miller.

Nicole Lewis:

He's 53, originally from St. Louis, and he's in another federal prison in Kentucky. For the past month, we've been talking over the phone. Hey, Byron.

Byron Miller:

Hey Miss Lewis, how you doing?

Nicole Lewis:

I'm good, how are you?

Byron Miller:

Great, great, great.

Al Letson:

So how did Byron end up in prison?

Nicole Lewis:

Well, let's go back to 1994, Byron is selling crack in St. Louis. He had a prior drug offense from when he was in college. Then he gets busted by the Feds. I spoke to his daughter Jessica from her home in Georgia.

Jessica:

We're thinking like okay, he still works at Long John Silvers, he's still doing what he's been doing. So he never show any of the bad stuff. He just showed us like the greatness of him. But when we went to court, we found out otherwise.

Nicole Lewis:

So Byron ends up getting 24 years in prison for drug trafficking. Jessica remembers sitting in the courtroom at age six. When the judge handed down Byron's sentence, she thought he was talking about 24 days.

Jessica:

Like I didn't understand, but at the time my mother just bust out crying. And yeah, our life literally went down a spiral from there like-

Nicole Lewis:

It's worth noting that at the time, the law imposed different sentences for different forms of cocaine, with crack carrying a much stiffer penalty. And that ended up sending a lot of Black people to prison on disproportionately longer sentences. Byron got another drug charge soon after he arrived in prison, so he was facing 41 years.

Al Letson:

So what happens next?

Nicole Lewis:

The years go by, Byron enrolls in a bunch of rehabilitation programs, he converts to Islam. He's doing so well that he's moved to a low security camp. And he's feeling remorse for what he put his family through.

Byron Miller:

As I came to prison, everything dawned on me in regards to how let the family down. How I jeopardized my presence in regards to when it came to my own children.

Al Letson:

And when the pandemic hits what happens to Byron?

Nicole Lewis:

At this point, Byron's dad is really sick, he'd been diagnosed with cancer. His family decides to move him to the hospital, then his mom gets COVID. So he's very worried about his family. Around the same time, Byron gets word that he might be able to finish the rest of the sentence at home under the Justice Department's directive.

Byron Miller:

When my case manager told me who do you have to come pick you up, it has to be immediate family. We was processing everything like that with the paperwork, and I start signing everything and my name was being called so much. I really start getting a glimpse of me and other inmates, we were looking at each other like, hey, this is really happening.

Nicole Lewis:

At this point COVID isn't a big problem in Byron's prison, but it's sweeping through another federal prison in Kentucky, FMC Lexington, that's where Chad Marks is.

Al Letson:

And this is the guy we heard from at the top.

Nicole Lewis:

Right and as I said, Chad serving a long sentence for a drug conviction and also gun possession. At this point, he's 41. But unlike Byron, he convinced a judge to cut his sentence in half. So when COVID-19 hits, Chad's about 37 days away from getting out.

Chad Marks:

So I locked myself in my cell. It was important to me that I see my mother again. I had a bunch of soups and stuff in my locker. So I was eating soups for about three weeks, those little ramen noodle soups. And I just tried to avoid people because it was important to see my mother and it was important to me to get out of prison.

Nicole Lewis:

But it's prison, there's really no place to hide. Eventually, Chad has to come out of his cell to eat.

Chad Marks:

We had 300 people in our housing unit. And what they would do is line us up like cattle. We would be within not even a foot from each other in a line walking down the steps and picking up trays from officers. So it was dangerous.

Nicole Lewis:

It wasn't just dangerous at the prison, Chad says a housing unit right next to his became a death trap.

Chad Marks:

We had people over there screaming out the window to us because they weren't allowed to use the phone, the computer, or anything. And there they were screaming, "Hey, we need help, call my family. Let them know we're dying. They got us locked in here with people that have COVID-19. We're going to catch it. Please, we're dying, help us."

Nicole Lewis:

Eight inmates eventually died from the virus at the federal prison in Lexington. The first was a man named Juan Matta.

Chad Marks:

Matta was an older Hispanic gentleman. He did a lot of leather work in there, a pretty nice guy. He ended up beating cancer and everything. And I used to see him at church every Sunday. He used to always talking about his situation. He had like two years left on a nonviolent drug offense. He was denied home confinement, he ended up dying.

Al Letson:

So Nicole, how many prisoners got the virus and how many died?

Nicole Lewis:

So far about 121,000 people in prison got COVID. That includes state and federal prisoners. But that number is likely an under count, because so few prisons actually did widespread testing. In some cases, they stopped testing altogether after their first outbreak. But we do know that by early September, more than 1,000 people in prison have died.

Al Letson:

Aren't prisons supposed to have protocols for a crisis like this, so it doesn't spread so massively?

Nicole Lewis:

Well, they do have a lot of procedures they're supposed to follow. But at The Marshall Project, we found it's been very uneven. They moved quickly to bar people from visiting prisons and sent prisoners into lockdown, meaning people were basically locked into their cells. But we found that they also kept the prison industries running. That's where prisoners make things like license plates. And staff ignored or minimized prisoner symptoms. And as we heard from Chad, they also mixed the sick and the healthy together.

Al Letson:

So what happens to Chad Marks?

Nicole Lewis:

His 37 days go by and he makes it out safely. And now that he's out, he's trying to help others who are stuck inside by filing motions for compassionate release. While he was incarcerated, he became something of a jailhouse lawyer.

Chad Marks:

So my passion comes from the fact that I believe people are over incarcerated people are over sentenced. I understand there has to be punishment. But I think the punishment should fit the crime.

Al Letson:

Okay, so Chad gets out, what about Byron Miller?

Nicole Lewis:

So as Byron's waiting to be released, his dad is moved from the hospital back home. He's clearly dying.

Byron Miller:

And I said I'm on my way, and I kept telling him, "Dad, I'm coming, just be there. Because he kept asking me, "When you're going to come, when you're going to come? I'm waiting." I said, "Dad, I be there, I'm on my way." And I just tried to convince him because I knew I was the spark. I knew if I could get there could be a little spark to him. And then I told him, I said, "Dad, hang in here and be tough." Because that's what he always told me. He would always say, no matter what you hang in there and be tough because that was our little slogan.

Nicole Lewis:

Ultimately, the prison denies Byron's bid for home confinement. And they give two reasons. They're saying he's not at a higher risk for contracting COVID. And his plan would have him quote, reside with a vulnerable population, in other words, his father.

Al Letson:

So let me get this straight. One reason they deny Byron is that even though he's healthy, they think he might put his father at risk, even though his father's dying of cancer?

Nicole Lewis:

That's right, Al, and just a few days after Byron gets his denial letter, his father goes into hospice. And a week later, his dad is dead.

Al Letson:

So Byron's still in prison. How's he doing?

Nicole Lewis:

Well, he's heartbroken. He's already been through a lot. So far, he hasn't gotten sick. But for me, his case really highlights how there's little compassion for low risk prisoners serving long sentences. I talked with Chad Marks about how the Bureau of Prisons, or the BOP handled Byron's case.

Chad Marks:

He didn't get to spend that time with his father in the end stages of his life. The BOP could have certainly done that. If he was white would it have happened? I think that it's a sad day that the BOP does stuff like that. It's not rooted in truth, his denial was not rooted in the truth.

Nicole Lewis:

And you just think about like, it's so permanent, the death, there's no do over, he doesn't get to go back.

Chad Marks:

That's the problem that we have, nonviolent drug offenders been in prison for 25 years. Once the rehabilitation is done, why are they still sitting in prison? Why are taxpayers still footing the bill to keep people in prison that don't need to be there? I mean, once the rehabilitation has been done, what is there left to gain? Nothing but punishment and suffering, it's wrong.

Al Letson:

In the end, how many low risk prisoners actually made it home under the Attorney General's directive? I mean, how many got out?

Nicole Lewis:

Well, as far as we can tell, very few. In April, half of one percent of all federal prisoners were found eligible for home confinement. And these decisions seem to be arbitrary. It all depends on how officials interpret the Attorney General's criteria. Are prisoners at risk of contracting COVID? Are they at risk of dying if they contract the virus? Would they put the community at risk if they got out? It's caused a lot of confusion. We've heard from families that prison administrators sent people to quarantine to prepare for going home, only to be sent back to their cells.

Al Letson:

I want to go back to something Chad Marks said. He said that race might be a factor in who gets released. What do we know about that?

Nicole Lewis:

So prison is a place where racial disparities are well-documented. But when it comes to COVID in prison there's just so much we don't know. We don't know how race or ethnicity affect the number of cases or deaths. And regarding early releases, there's a huge question about racial disparities. We don't have answers to these questions, because the Bureau of Prisons hasn't made their data public and we've been asking for it. They did send us a statement, basically a form letter. It said the Bureau is, quote, proceeding expeditiously with sending people to home confinement.

Al Letson:

So who is ultimately responsible for this?

Nicole Lewis:

It's a great question and it's a hard one to answer. The families of people in prison are extremely upset and concerned. Many have told me that they're also very frustrated because they can't get basic information from the prisons about their loved ones. And lawmakers in Washington are worried too. Several senators have asked the Inspector General to look into how the BOP handled the virus. And one of the first things they found was that a federal prison in California, where 900 people tested positive, but only eight were released to home confinement.

Al Letson:

Is this a case of who you know? For example, President Trump granted clemency to Roger Stone and Trump's former campaign director Paul Manafort was sent home in the middle of the pandemic, despite not meeting criteria for home confinement.

Nicole Lewis:

Absolutely. And critics of the BOP aren't surprised by this. The federal system operates like a fiefdom. The President is at the top, he has a certain amount of discretion about who can get out, the less well connected prisoners have to contend with their wardens, who have a great deal of power and discretion as well. As we saw with Byron Miller's case, they can refuse to send people home and ignore directives from Washington.

Al Letson:

Nicole Lewis is a reporter with The Marshall project. Nicole, thank you so much for talking to us.

Nicole Lewis:

You're welcome, Al, nice talking to you.

Al Letson:

When we come back, we have the story of one man who's just released from prison. The first thing he did was join the fight against the pandemic. That's next on Reveal.

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Our final story is about a man who went from life in prison to life as an essential worker. As a teenager, Kimani Randall was sent to prison for life for kidnapping and armed robbery. After spending 23 years in California prisons, a parole board approved his release, citing the progress he'd made behind bars. Just a few months ago, he got out.

Kimani Randall:

So here I am, pushing, ready to work.

Al Letson:

And he started keeping a diary of sorts on his cell phone.

Kimani Randall:

It's the second day into society. I'm loving every bit of it.

Al Letson:

Kimani got a job right away, working inside a tourist hotel in San Francisco, except there aren't any tourists around. The hotel is being used to house some of the city's homeless population and protect them from the coronavirus.

Kimani Randall:

All right, I'm on my way to work, running a little late. I'm a good [inaudible] oh, you know? The main thing, don't panic.

Al Letson:

Kimani is one of hundreds of formerly incarcerated people, who are now working at emergency COVID shelters across the city. Reveal's Michael Montgomery spend time with Kimani to see what it's like to begin a new life helping people in the middle of a pandemic.

Michael Montgom...:

Kimani's typical morning routine, get up at 4:30 AM at a halfway house in Oakland, grab a quick breakfast and jump on a train to his job across the bay. So Kimani, where are we right now?

Kimani Randall:

Downtown San Francisco on Market Street.

Michael Montgom...:

All right, we're walking up towards your hotel, it's officially called Site 10.

Kimani Randall:

Site 10.

Michael Montgom...:

Right. Site 10 is a hotel with a marble entryway, ornate chandeliers, kind of fancy. It was swarming with tourists before the pandemic. Now the guests are people who were living on the streets or in cars or in crowded shelters.

Kimani Randall:

We have ex-correction officers, architects. I [inaudible] met people who just was tired of paying bills and just wanted to explore life and came out here and ended up homeless.

Michael Montgom...:

The hotel where Kimani works is run by a nonprofit called Five Keys that runs programs inside and outside prisons. It's one of 28 hotels the city is leasing at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. People working here like Kimani are required to follow tight protocols to protect the names of the locations and the privacy of the people living here. Kimani's job title is ambassador. He calls himself a floater.

Kimani Randall:

Whatever needs to be done, I do it. It's like if a hotel key, the card that you put in the door, if that don't work, the floater is called because he got the hard key to every room in the hotel. It's Kimani with the hard keys. Currently doing a wellness check.

Michael Montgom...:

Reporters aren't allowed in any of the city shelters right now. So Kimani made this recording himself on the job at one of Five Keys' locations.

Kimani Randall:

The thing I love about wellness checks is that it give you an opportunity to become familiar with the guests and allow the guest to become familiar with you.

Michael Montgom...:

Occasionally, he runs into familiar faces among staff and the guests. In a noisy room at the shelter, he spots a man he remembers from Folsom Prison.

Kimani Randall:

He was my barber for many, many years. A real good dude, real smart individual. When I saw him, I lit up.

Michael Montgom...:

The man's name is Michael Porter. He's 50 and has been living here for several months.

Michael Porter:

I mean, I could go stay with my family but I don't want to be a burden on my family. I've taken enough from them. They've given so much to me, especially while I was locked up. That I'm determined this time to do it, I'm going to stand on my own two feet.

Michael Montgom...:

Michael tells Kimani that after he got out of prison, he finished barber college and even found occasional work. But he couldn't save up enough to afford a place to stay.

Michael Porter:

You put 40 hours a week in a job, 40 plus hours a week in on a job, yet it's still not enough.

Kimani Randall:

[inaudible] that's one of the things that I've been concerned with. I don't want to go to my family neither because I'm a man now, I went to prison as a teenager. I'm out as a man, don't nobody want to be asking for help and he 42-years-old.

Michael Montgom...:

Kimani works six days a week at $20 an hour. That's enough to make it, at least while he's living at the halfway house for the next few months. And he says he's grateful for the job. It feels like a natural fit.

Kimani Randall:

I'm able to relate to their struggle in more ways than one. Not just because I've been to prison, but also because as a teenager before I was in prison, I was also homeless. So I bring about a sense of cohesiveness and understanding but most important I bring about that love for them. Going to have a good day today, doing some beautiful things. Man, today I get my first paycheck. It's going to be wow, I'm going to feel bonkers, man. And I'm getting my first paycheck ever for doing the right thing. Life is beautiful out here.

Michael Montgom...:

Kimani talks a lot about love and compassion and how we can make a difference in people's lives. To understand his outlook today, you've got to go back to his time in prison. For years, he was moved from one bleak lockup to the next. Places that offered little in the way of rehabilitation, in his words, human warehouses. It was hard and he struggled with his anger. Then in 2011, Kimani was transferred to San Quentin State Prison.

Kimani Randall:

We said San Quentin is like a college. It was like college to us.

Michael Montgom...:

He took advantage of extensive classes and self-help groups that earned the prison national recognition. And that's how I first met Kimani. It was 2014 and I was at San Quentin to record a restorative justice program, run by the Insight Prison Project, which is now part of Five Keys.

Speaker 21:

Deep breath, one in.

Michael Montgom...:

In a large classroom overlooking one of the prison yards, I found Kimani dressed in gray sweats sitting in a circle with nine other men mostly lifers.

Speaker 21:

Exhale.

Michael Montgom...:

They were exploring the trauma they experienced as kids and how that impacted them and the choices they made that led them to prison. I want to share a recording of you that I made back at San Quentin, it's really intense, so I want to make sure it's okay if I play some of it.

Kimani Randall:

Yeah, I would like to hear that audio.

Michael Montgom...:

I wanted to see what Kimani thinks of all this today, now that he's out of prison and working. And a warning, there's strong language in this tape.

Kimani Randall:

I stayed up all night writing this because I've repressed this story. I chose to forget about this but let me just read for y'all.

Michael Montgom...:

Kimani tells the group a story. It was his first day of kindergarten. He got his clothes dirty and his mother lashed out.

Kimani Randall:

We arrived at the house. And instantly my mother started drinking alcohol and smoking crack cocaine. I approached my mother and I asked her to make me something to eat. And without hesitation, I remember her saying, "No, you ain't getting shit motherfucker, starve you little black ass. I hate you, get on my face."

Michael Montgom...:

The other men sit quietly as Kimani talks about the years of physical and emotional abuse he suffered before he was sent to a group home at age 11.

Kimani Randall:

How can we call the fear I felt in my stomach at the time from her telling me, I better not cry.

Michael Montgom...:

As he finishes reading the letter, he's emotional.

Kimani Randall:

Oh, yeah. I still try to make sense how a woman can do a five-year-old kid like that. Yeah, I'm still dealing with that right now. It affected my life, affected my relationships. That pain made me create the sub-personalities to be heartless, fearless, to make other people want to feel my pain. Do I love my mother? Yeah. Do I want anything to do with her? No. Because I'm a man now and I'm not that little boy no more. And I refuse to let her hurt me.

Michael Montgom...:

What are feeling right now?

Kimani Randall:

I'm feeling, man, I'm feeling joyful that I was able to let that out. That was a part of my healing process. So I know I have to be courageous and utilize that circle to support me. Because for many years that story, I told myself I'd never tell, I never tell nobody this. No, they wouldn't even understand that and plus I don't want to be looked at different.

Michael Montgom...:

Kimani says he took everything he learned about himself in prison and he uses that today in his job at the hotel. Most important, he says, is how to navigate trauma.

Kimani Randall:

As I work in these places, I see young people, young people who haven't lived 30 years, with enough trauma, you would think they 50-years-old.

Michael Montgom...:

He says trauma plays out differently among the hotel guests. But one of the biggest challenges he's seen has been drug use. Kimani and other staff carry the anti-overdose medication NARCAN wherever they go. And just a few weeks ago, Kimani helped save the life of a resident who'd overdosed. Kimani struggled himself with addiction as a teen. So when guests are in crisis, he gets it.

Kimani Randall:

Taking my break trying to make sure everything is all right on the up and up. I'm on my 30 minute lunch break. I'm coming back from lunch and I see one of the guests, who I'm familiar with that stays in the hotel. Is you all right though?

Speaker 22:

I need to figure some shit out.

Kimani Randall:

I saw him looking a little down, a little confused. I just felt there was a need to be able to talk to him, as so many other people just walk past him. He was going through something and I saw him and I immediately felt in my heart to stop and talk to him. [Jermaine]

Speaker 22:

Yeah.

Kimani Randall:

Do drugs, yeah, I understand. We all got our addictions, just some is worser than others. Whether it's food, whether it's shopping. Addiction is an addiction and nobody know better than you.

Speaker 22:

I'm fucked up.

Kimani Randall:

It's all right though. Five Keys is here for you to help you though. We've been there before. We know how it goes. At that time he was vulnerable, somebody could have came and took money from him. They could have came and beat him up and stuff like that. So it was my duty to get him back to his room safe. And that's what I was doing.

Michael Montgom...:

After spending more than two decades in prison, Kimani is just beginning to work towards some of his other goals. He's still wearing an ankle monitor and has three more years until he gets off parole. He's trying to reconnect with his daughters and grandchildren. He wants to find his own apartment and move out of the halfway house. Still, in the middle of the biggest health crisis in his lifetime, he's glad to have a role. You and I have known each other actually going on six years.

Kimani Randall:

That's a long time.

Michael Montgom...:

What would you say are the most important things about yourself for other people to know?

Kimani Randall:

The most important thing about me is that I'm healing. This healing process have taught me how to love myself. I'm in society now and I'm loving every bit about me, because I had to do a lot of work on myself to get here and I hold on to that. I hold on to that.

Al Letson:

The work Kimani's doing does carry a risk. 12 of his colleagues have gotten the virus, as well as 15 guests living in shelters operated by Five Keys. But there have been no deaths and overall, San Francisco officials report progress containing the spread of the virus among the city's vulnerable homeless population. That story from Reveal's Michael Montgomery. He was also the lead producer on today's show. Laura Starecheski, Taki Telonidis, and Brett Myers edited the show. Thanks to Reveal's data editor, Soo Oh for her work on the nursing home story. Special thanks to Susan Shira and Ruth Baldwin from The Marshall project, the journalism nonprofit that covers the criminal justice system. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel and our production manager is Najib Aminy. Score and sound design by the dynamic duo, J. Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando My Man Yo Arruda.

They had help this week from Amy Mostafa, our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our editor-in-chief and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camarado, Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Riva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.

Speaker 1:

From PRX.