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Denver Tries to End Private Prison Companies’ Halfway House Contracts

by Matt Clarke

In August 2019, thanks to the efforts of newly elected Denver, Colorado councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, the city council declined to renew contracts worth a total of $10.6 million with GEO Group and Core­Civic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) to operate six halfway houses. With a total of 517 beds, the halfway houses represented over 70 percent of the 748 total beds available in Denver.

CdeBaca was sworn in to office in July 2019 and soon noticed a $3.89 million contract with Community Education Centers, Inc. docketed on the city council’s consent agenda. When she learned that company was a subsidiary of the GEO Group, she recognized it was the same firm operating a controversial Aurora, Colorado facility housing detainees for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). She requested that the contract be pulled off the consent agenda and heard for public comment.

Over time, the GEO Group and CoreCivic have bought six of the 10 halfway houses in Denver, where former prisoners live and obtain jobs while they transition into the community or await parole. The remaining halfway houses are operated by locally owned Liberty House and the University of Colorado.

“We’ve watched these large entities gobble up smaller providers with public dollars and little to no transparency or accountability,” said CdeBaca. “I believe we shouldn’t be investing in organizations that are perpetuating harm.”

She organized witnesses for the public comment hearing to testify about private prison operators doing business with the city. Over 15 people testified, including criminal justice reform advocates. A few staff members from the halfway houses also appeared and spoke. No one testified in favor of the GEO Group or CoreCivic, which also operates controversial immigrant detention centers for ICE.

Before the hearing, CdeBaca told The Independent she expected to be the sole dissenting voice on the city counsel. But the public comments alone took four hours and, following another five hours of debate, she was joined by council president John Clark and councilmembers Robin Kniech, Jamie Torres, Amanda Sandoval, Amanda Sawyer, Chris Hinds and Stacie Gilmore in voting down the halfway house contracts, 8 to 4.

Kniech called it the toughest vote of her eight years on the council, since ending the contracts could have the effect of sending over 500 halfway house residents back to prison if they could not find alternative programs. Clark said the issue was tearing the council apart. The four members who voted to renew the contracts said they also wanted to end GEO Group and CoreCivic’s involvement in Denver’s halfway houses, but felt another year was needed to transition into a new halfway house system.

“We’ve got to quit feeding the beast of for-profit in our criminal justice system,” testified Denise Maes, policy director at the ACLU of Colorado. “You, the city and county of Denver, can run your own community corrections program, and, by God, I’m sure you’ll do it far better.”

“I think there is some element of risk, and that is what we were tasked with tonight: weighing the risk of people who are in these specific facilities, versus getting better outcomes in the long run,” CdeBaca said after the vote. “What we heard tonight is that all of the outcomes have been subpar and we’ve renewed [the contracts] over and over.”

Denver’s zoning codes make it nearly impossible to open new halfway houses in the city, leaving it unclear where current or future residents of the affected halfway houses might go.

“There are no alternatives in the marketplace,” said Mayor Michael Hancock, who called the council’s vote “regrettable” and “short-sighted.”

After the decision not to renew the contracts, Denver Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Kelli Christensen said the city had come to a verbal agreement with GEO Group and CoreCivic to continue operating the six halfway houses until a plan could be developed for the current residents. Amanda Gilchrist, director of public affairs for CoreCivic, said both her company and GEO had decided to continue operating without a contract, though they were not accepting new residents.

“We think it’s important to remain committed to the [current] residents,” she said. Of course, the companies are still being paid by the city.

Christensen said over 200 prisoners approved to transition to the halfway houses have been left on hold in prison, waiting for space at an approved facility.

Three weeks after voting not to renew the contracts, the city council approved $8.7 million to extend CoreCivic’s contract through June 2020 and GEO Group’s contract through the end of 2019. CdeBaca opposed the move, citing her visits to the facilities and conditions reported to her by residents, including group showers for 8-10 men and “forced labor.” Her chief of staff, former mayoral candidate Lisa Calderón, who holds a Ph.D. specializing in the issue, said the halfway houses are based on an “old standard.”

However, Greg Mauro, Denver’s director of community corrections, testified that an abrupt end to the contracts would lead to “complete chaos,” adding the forced labor cited by CdeBaca was merely “chores” to build character for residents, who are prohibited from doing any work that adds value to the halfway house property. Two current residents also spoke in favor of contract extensions.

In September 2019, the city council formed a 13-member advisory panel to recommend replacements for the affected facilities. But at a hearing the next day, CdeBaca and fellow councilmember Chris Hinds said they had received emails from residents indicating that the private prison operators were not acting in good faith.

“We were being told that residents who have parole in two weeks were being transferred and that doesn’t make sense at all,” said CdeBaca.

“The reason why we granted a six-month extension for GEO and 12-month extension for CoreCivic is so we could be measured with our approach,” Hinds added.

Mauro said the city had thus far been unable to find other halfway houses to accept the residents affected by the pending closings. He added that because the affected halfway houses were not accepting new residents, GEO and CoreCivic were having trouble maintaining them at full capacity without losing money, necessitating the return of some residents to prison.

“The outrageous antics of Denver Councilmembers CdeBaca and Hinds to use our treatment facility for their political theater has crossed the line,” GEO Group said in a statement.

“All we’re asking is for the plan ... before we take action, all we’re asking is for communication about what’s happening,” CdeBaca insisted. 

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Sources: westword.com, coloradoindependent.com, denverpost.com, thedenverchannel.com, kdvr.com