Keith “Bubba” Lusk just wanted to buy his three kids gifts for Christmas.
The stocky 28-year-old had been incarcerated for nearly a year since robbing a drug store in 2019, but his release, scheduled for December 8, 2020, meant he might find a job in time for the holidays.
“That all got shot to hell,” Lusk says during a phone call on Monday.
For the past 30 days, he has been involuntarily held at the Quality Inn on Hillsborough Road in Durham, the state’s temporary “COVID motel,” with about 100 other former inmates awaiting release into the general public.
Lusk, who is from Rutherford County, about three hours away, isn’t sure why he’s there. He spent his sentence in isolation and tested negative before leaving prison, he says. On a normal day, he paces his room and tries to get some exercise, but mostly ends up sitting in bed. There’s no washing machine in his room, so he has to wash the one set of clothes he brought from prison in the bathtub, using a small amount of detergent provided by the motel.
“Once you run out, they don’t give you no more, so you gotta wash your clothes in water,” Lusk says. “You get treated like crap. They still treat you like you’re an inmate.”
He isn’t sure when he’ll be allowed to leave.
While the motel was meant to provide temporary housing for the men while they sought out permanent accommodations during the pandemic, the residents, and the activists who support them say conditions are nearly as bad as in prison itself: There are bed bugs, cockroaches, a leaky ceiling, and other hygiene concerns, they say.
Worse still, the men, who were supposed to be free, are unable to see their families or even receive donations of food and other provisions from the outside world. They can’t leave their rooms other than to smoke cigarettes on the patio, and their only escape is a motel room TV, they say.
That’s why on Christmas, a group of volunteers from Rose of Sharon Catholic Worker in Durham came by the motel to drop off home-cooked meals for the detainees. But according to the activists, the private security guards hired by the state to oversee the motel turned them away.
So the volunteers took justice into their own hands. On New Year’s Day, the interfaith group returned to the motel with care packages for the men and snuck in through a back stairwell.
The INDY tagged along to investigate. What we witnessed inside the COVID motel left us with questions about the facility’s legality, some of which remain unanswered.
The program started with good intentions, officials say.
Conceived as a temporary place for recently released convicts without a permanent address who may have been exposed to COVID in prison, the City and County of Durham entered into an agreement with the state Department of Public Safety this summer to enact the pilot program, the only one of its kind in North Carolina. Instead of releasing men with nowhere to go into the general public, leasing the 114-room motel would offer a COVID-19-safe alternative for those who had successfully completed their prison sentences while they sought accommodations. While there, they would receive medical care and counseling.
The state hired a private security company, Lolair Protection Agency, to act as de facto corrections officers on site. While some of the men are under electronic surveillance as a condition of their release, others are not. It’s unclear what role this agency plays in enforcing protocol at the facility beyond “nuisance and non-emergent incidents,” according to the Memorandum of Agreement with the City and County.
The $1 million program was funded mostly by the Federal Emergency Management Agency Public Assistance Grant Program (FEMA) and the state CARES Act, according to the DPS.
A November memo from the DPS to the City stated that 114 men had cycled through the facility and that most had been released back into the community. Only 10 had left unauthorized, walking out on their own accord.
But it’s still a motel. There are no gates or locks on the doors, which would be a fire code violation. Yet leaving isn’t allowed without permission from the inmate’s parole officer, so fearing further punishment, the majority of men have followed the rules and stayed put.
In an email, DPS spokesman Greg Thomas told the INDY that a total of 263 recently released individuals have been housed at the facility since the start of the program and that there are currently 80 onsite. To date, 173 have successfully transitioned to more permanent housing.
Thomas confirmed there have been at least four complaints of bed bugs at the facility.
Food is prepared at the motel and sometimes provided by local restaurants. Outside donations, however, are prohibited— “for the safety of residents, hotel staff, and the community,” Thomas said.
“The offenders are not being held,” Thomas stated. “They are being housed so they may quarantine for their safety and the safety of their families and communities. This housing option is a part of the offender’s conditions of post release supervision. The North Carolina Post-Release Supervision and Parole Commission is the controlling authority on housing options as offenders move to post-release and it is approved by the offenders supervising probation/parole officer.”
After contacting the INDY, DPS sent Durham City Council member Charlie Reece an update on the facility, which he shared with us.
That memo stated that most complaints stem from plumbing and electronic issues, such as broken phones or TVs. “They have also received a few complaints of roof leaks” on the third floor and leaks due to mechanical issues on the second and third floors, the memo states. These issues, it continues, were promptly addressed.
The state is contracting with Terminix to control bed bugs, treating about a third of the motel on a monthly basis and shuffling residents whose rooms become infested to other parts of the motel.
This weekend, the motel received complaints of rodents and roaches on the property, according to the memo.
The goal of the program is to find housing placement for the men within two weeks; however, the memo acknowledges that some of the residents, like Lusk, have been detained for much longer.
At least one man who was transferred to the facility subsequently tested positive for COVID-19, but the DPS claims the man was isolated on an upper floor and that there was “no further spread.”
Comparatively, the virus has spread rapidly within the state’s prison system: 9,432 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 and 67 have died since the pandemic began, according to data from the state. There are currently 63 outbreaks being reported at the state’s penitentiaries.
The state prison system’s mismanagement of the pandemic is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit from the ACLU and Emancipate NC. The suit claims that the DPS failed to enact safety protocols, resulting in outbreaks within the jails. The advocacy groups are demanding the release of at-risk inmates.
While the COVID motel is not directly related to the lawsuit, ACLU attorney Dan Siegel tells the INDY that the state has a responsibility to provide “minimally sanitary and safe conditions” to anyone in its custody.
Siegel says the possibility that the state is detaining people beyond their release dates is “troubling.”
“Any time their sentence has expired and the state is keeping them in its custody beyond their legal sentence, that creates a serious problem,” Siegel says. “People’s constitutional rights don’t go away in the middle of a pandemic or any other emergency … If the state is going to keep someone in its custody and prevent them from leaving, they have to give them due process and can’t just prolong someone’s sentence unilaterally because they think it’s a good idea.”
Elizabeth Simpson, associate director for Emancipate NC, echoes Siegel’s concerns.
“I think it was a good idea, but if the conditions are intolerable and they are being mistreated, then obviously that is not the way it should be done,” Simpson tells the INDY. “My experience of NCDPS, unfortunately, is that they have plans that sound passable and then their implementation is not passable at all.”
When reached by the INDY on Monday night, Durham Mayor Steve Schewel said he did not have enough information to comment, but that he’d be looking into the matter.
It was a bait and switch.
At the main entrance to the motel on New Year’s Day, older volunteers knock on the doors to once again attempt to donate homemade vegetarian chili and milk rolls to the men inside, distracting the guards. Meanwhile, a second group mobilizes in the Hilton parking lot next door. With dozens of plastic bags full of food, detergent, and cigarettes strung from their arms, four vigilante activists walk onto the property from the back, climbing a stairwell to gain entry into an unlocked door on the third floor.
Inside, the motel is dark, with seedy, yellowed walls. It’s eerily quiet. As the activists rush from door to door, dropping off supplies, some of the men open their doors, including Lusk. He is bald with a goatee in a white sweatsuit. He looks older than his 28 years. He picks up the care package and smiles. It’s a humble offering—a few instant meals, fresh fruit, detergent, and cigarettes.
“It’s been hell,” he tells me, standing outside his room. “It’s how they treat us.”
More men start to open their doors as the activists storm the halls. We linger for a moment with Lusk and try to get a peek inside a room before a guard rushes toward us, forcing us back to the stairwell.
When the guard confronts Gregory Williams, one of the vigilante organizers, he grabs Williams by the collar of his jacket and slams him against the wall. The guard tells us we’re being detained and calls the police.
By now, more men are opening their doors and windows. Their joy at this simple kindness is palpable. Some cheer; some shout thank yous at the group.
“We’re here to support you guys. We love you,” Williams shouts to a group of men on the third-floor balcony.
“We’re just sorry we couldn’t do more,” his wife, Chrissy Nesbitt, says.
“You did enough,” one of the men replies.
One of the activists is live streaming the affair from an iPhone. For about 20 minutes, we remain cornered by private security guards in the stairwell, awaiting the police. A team of green-hatted legal observers arrives, followed by a police officer.
Officer C.W. Bridwell confronts the green hats. He then tells us “No one’s being detained,” and asks us to leave.
Despite the ban on donations, the men are allowed to keep the care packages.
From a third-floor window, Lusk waves to the vigilante do-gooders as they regroup in the Hilton parking lot. On the first floor, a man tosses an unclaimed care package to the outstretched arm of a detainee leaning from the second-floor balcony. The activists, relieved, seemed to smile beneath their N-95 face masks as they head to their cars. Lusk stands in the window, his arms crossed.
We updated the story to clarify the volunteer’s organization.
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.