Colorado's Privatized System of Community Corrections Is an Experiment in Misery

After more than a decade behind bars, serving time for a crime she could never take back, Michelle was determined to make a new life for herself. She was going to stay clean, get a job, eventually get her own place.

And this time, she told herself, she was not going to let the problems at Tooley Hall overwhelm her.

Named after the late Dale Tooley, a revered Denver district attorney, Tooley Hall is one of more than three dozen halfway houses across the state in Colorado’s community-corrections program, which is supposed to aid convicted felons in their transition back to society. Most of the facilities, including Tooley, are private, for-profit operations. The typical length of stay for those who actually complete the program is seven to nine months. Residents are expected to pay rent and find work, participate in treatment programs and submit to searches and drug testing, advise staff of their whereabouts at all times and follow the house rules — or face possible revocation of their community status and a quick trip back to prison.

Located in a desolate industrial zone in northeast Denver, flanked by Smith Road and I-70, Tooley is within walking distance of a Goodwill Outlet World and a homeless shelter, but not much else. It’s one of only three halfway houses in the state dedicated exclusively to women. Michelle had spent nearly a year as one of Tooley’s sixty residents in 2013 before being sent back to prison for six months for being “out of location.” She returned to Tooley last fall, apprehensive but intent on getting through the program.

Tooley Hall’s mission statement declares that the facility aims to provide “a healthy, drug-free, safe and secure environment” for women seeking “reintegration” into the community. But according to Michelle and several other former and current residents and staff members interviewed for this story — most of whom asked that only first names or pseudonyms be used, out of concerns about retaliation from management or damaging their job prospects — the place is far from healthy or safe.

From her previous visit, Michelle knew what to expect at Tooley, which has been operating as a halfway house for 21 years. The decrepit plumbing produced overflowing toilets and sewer smells. The ancient wiring led to frequent power outages. New arrivals complained of headaches and congestion and blamed a suspected mold infestation emanating from the nasty carpets and the leaky ceiling. Three years ago, rotting floorboards collapsed under a resident who’d just stepped out of the shower; firefighters had to haul her out of a crawl space below. After a furnace failure last winter, some rooms got space heaters, some didn’t; whether the frigid situation went on for a few hours or several days is disputed. A broken water fountain and off-limits sinks forced residents to fill water bottles, under staff supervision, from containers in the kitchen. Prison life seemed luxurious by comparison.

But physical discomfort is the least of residents’ problems. Halfway-house clients face a kind of financial and emotional gauntlet. They owe rent from day one, even though it may take months to find an employer willing to hire someone with a felony record. At Tooley, residents are required to turn over their paychecks to management, which then applies the money to the outstanding rent debt, court-ordered restitution and other fees; as little as ten dollars may be doled back to indigent clients each week for necessities such as hygiene items, clothes or bus passes. In theory, the program allows clients who are caught up on rent, have followed the rules and have saved enough money to move into their own apartment, with their parole officer’s approval — but this isn’t an easy feat to achieve. Monthly room and board at Tooley is around $500 a month; the median monthly income for halfway-house residents is slightly less.

“There was a point where I wanted to go back to prison.”

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Michelle figured she could deal with the grim living conditions and the economic servitude. Other aspects of the experience were more difficult. The environment was not exactly drug-free. “There were girls smoking crack, meth, mamba [synthetic marijuana],” she says. “They’d smoke it outside like it’s legal. People are trying to be sober, they’re on the line, and when they see stuff like that, they’re going to fall back into it.”

She managed to stay clear of the dope but kept getting written up over what she calls “dumb stuff.” She knew the staff was taking a hard line with her because of the violent nature of her crime — she’d fatally stabbed a relative in a drunken argument — but she also believed they played favorites. She had a roommate who got caught with a hundred Oxycontin pills, and nobody was talking about sending her back to prison. But Michelle felt she was constantly under attack, criticized for speaking up for herself. She had the impression that some staff members were just waiting for an excuse to ship her back.

“I have support, a job, a family, but they don’t look at that,” she says. “They just put you down, basically. They make you feel so bad that a lot of people don’t stay. They run or they do something else to get sent back. There was a point where I wanted to go back to prison.”

She held on, paying her rent and trying to avoid conflicts, until she reached her mandatory release date. She’s now under parole supervision, and Tooley Hall no longer has a claim on her.

Since last spring, the facility has gone through an internal audit, several staff changes, policy revisions and some repair efforts — prompted, at least in part, by complaints from residents and family members to Community Education Centers, the company that operates Tooley. A CEC spokesman says the company has “approved additional expenditures for maintenance, facility improvements, salary increases and other changes at Tooley Hall.” He adds that CEC is in the process of replacing the carpet in the facility and denies that any mold was ever found there.

Based in New Jersey, CEC bills itself as the leading private provider of services for offender re-entry programs in sixteen states. In addition to Tooley, the company runs five other residential facilities in Colorado, including a private prison, the Cheyenne Mountain Re-Entry Center.
In August, Adams County officials refused to renew a seventh contract for the Phoenix Center halfway house after a scathing state audit found that the operation failed to meet Colorado standards “in most areas related to fundamental and critical security functions.”

CEC has weathered a number of challenges in recent years, including a 2012 New York Times series tracing the close relationship between company executives and New Jersey governor Chris Christie and the miserable track record of halfway houses it operated there. Last fall, its founder and CEO, John J. Clancy, resigned. Whether the current flurry of changes at Tooley is cosmetic or signals a more profound shift under new management remains to be seen. But the struggles its residents describe — dealing with vindictive or poorly trained staff, overwhelming financial burdens, drug use, squalid conditions and a lack of services that might actually aid their quest for employment and self-reliance — are fairly common among halfway-house residents across the state.

Colorado now spends $780 million a year on its prison system. It spends less than a tenth of that on what is arguably the most critical phase of the whole process: helping ex-convicts become productive members of society so that they don’t end up back in a cell again, costing taxpayers a fortune. The bulk of the community-corrections budget, close to $60 million, goes toward subsidizing halfway houses that have tremendous power over the fate of their clients — and little day-to-day oversight by state regulators. The situation has led some researchers to wonder if the high failure rate of community corrections in the state is due, at least in part, to the way the private companies operate.

“The whole objective is making money, not helping people,” says Mark Pogrebin, a criminal-justice professor at the University of Colorado Denver. “I call it ‘punishment for profit.’”

Pogrebin recently co-authored a study that involved interviewing dozens of Colorado parolees about their financial situation. The researchers discovered that finding a job, while difficult, was no guarantee of success. Many of the interviewees faced crushing financial obligations for restitution, mandatory drug testing and halfway-house rent that far exceeded their income. Not keeping up with it all can be considered a parole violation and result in a return to prison; for example, a parolee who shows up for a mandatory drug test but can’t afford to pay for the test is typically reported as “noncompliant” or a “no show.” Overall, the researchers concluded, the advent of privatized, pay-or-fail re-entry programs “appears to have added to the punitive nature of the parole system while creating barriers that many offenders simply cannot overcome.”

“This has basically become a for-profit institution,” Pogrebin says. “And these guys can’t afford to pay.”

Colorado’s version of community corrections can be traced back to some modest efforts in the 1970s to provide temporary housing for offenders just out of prison. Ex-cons with no family to take them in could seek out a government-run group home or rent a basement room from mom-and-pop entrepreneurs.

The mission of halfway houses has expanded considerably since those days. They have become not simply way stations for felons on their way from prison to parole, but an alternative (and cheaper) form of sentencing for minor offenders who are serving their time in the community; the 6,000 offenders who pass through Colorado halfway houses each year are almost evenly divided between what are known as “transition” and “diversion” clients. There are facilities that offer specialized treatment for sex offenders or addicts, and others that focus on the mentally ill.

The houses are funded by the state but overseen more directly by local community-corrections boards, which issue contracts to the operators. Although a few of the facilities are run by public agencies or small companies, the industry is now dominated by four private companies — CEC, Correctional Management Inc., Independence House and the nonprofit Intervention Community Corrections Services — that operate at several locations.

“No other state organizes their community corrections in the same way,” notes Jeanne Smith, director of the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice. “The programs don’t operate the same, but they all have to meet the community-corrections standards.”

The state pays operators a subsidy of $42 per client per day — more for “special needs” clients, such as the mentally ill. The operators also charge the residents up to $17 a day for rent. For a relatively small operation such as Tooley Hall, that amounts to more than $100,000 in gross revenue each month. For the largest houses, with an average population of 250, the haul can be more than $5 million a year.

By law, the state’s Office of Community Corrections (OCC) is required to conduct an on-site inspection and audit of each halfway house every five years. Depending on what problems are identified, the audits may be done at three-year intervals. But figuring out what distinguishes a good halfway house from a bad one isn’t as simple as it might sound. Nearly all of them have abysmal success rates. Only 48 percent of Colorado halfway-house residents successfully completed the program in fiscal year 2014, down from 52 percent the year before. And roughly a third of those who do discharge successfully end up back behind bars within two years, making for an overall recidivism rate of two out of three.

Very few of those who wash out of the programs have committed new crimes — except for “escape,” a charge that can result from failing to report back to the house on time. Many more are revoked for rule infractions or technical violations of their parole conditions, such as testing positive for drugs or being somewhere other than where they’re supposed to be. Colorado has one of the worst failure rates for parole in the entire country, a situation that Pogrebin and other critics attribute largely to the hoops parolees have to jump through to satisfy halfway-house operators and parole officers while meeting their financial obligations.

State officials say that it’s not that simple. Smith points out that community corrections has become a placement option for an ever-expanding range of offenders. When half of the clients are classified by assessment interviews as “high risk” before they even reach the facility, it’s no surprise that the actual recidivism rate remains stubbornly high. And OCC director Glenn Tapia suggests that the conventional wisdom about why people go back to prison isn’t supported by the latest research on the subject.

“Historically, our staff has focused on things like employment and finances, which aren’t real strong recidivism-reducing variables,” Tapia says. “Now we ask them to focus on those, but in addition on things like criminal thinking, impulse control, their community support and relationships with pro-social people, and the way we interact with offenders.”

The audits the state conducts of halfway houses examine the level of staffing and turnover, the way offenders are monitored and disciplined, and so on. The reports don’t get into areas such as the condition of the facility, the quality of services or how all those public dollars are being spent.

“We have stuff in our standards that does regulate that,” Tapia says. “We just don’t choose to actively audit that information. Most of the time, facilities have that in order. We choose to focus our audits on core public-safety and security things. Are they monitoring the offenders when they’re out in the community? Are they working with the offenders to get jobs and access to treatment?”

Gripes about living conditions and money woes generally don’t have much to do with whether an offender is going to succeed or not, Tapia adds: “Is the food good enough? That’s not going to reduce recidivism. Do they have $600 in savings? That’s not going to reduce recidivism. We don’t want decisions made based on how much money they have in the bank, but whether they are addressing the things that got them there in the first place.”

Tapia’s office has a staff of eleven. Many of his people are in the field regularly, training halfway-house staff and providing technical assistance. But those visits don’t typically involve much interaction with the residents. The OCC evaluation process, Smith concedes, is not as extensive as the monitoring that the Colorado Department of Corrections does of private prisons operating in the state.

“We would love to be able to evaluate the quality of performance,” Smith says. “Perhaps more on-site and in-depth auditing. Records don’t really tell you what’s going on. You almost have to be there to see how they’re interacting with the offenders.”

In more than two decades of operation, Tooley Hall has managed to garner exactly one Google review, written two years ago. The reviewer gives the facility two stars out of five and declares simply, “This place is hell.”

The state’s appraisal of Tooley isn’t quite as damning. In fact, on paper the facility rates as one of the better-run halfway houses in the state, scoring high in most of the performance measures the Office of Community Corrections uses to assess the programs. Because it has consistently met state standards, Tooley is on a five-year audit schedule instead of a three-year cycle, an indication that state officials don’t consider it one of the riskier operations. Those audits have been generally favorable, albeit with some caveats.

A 2009 audit scolded the staff at Tooley for dragooning residents to paint the place. While routine cleaning chores are “entirely proper,” the report states, “more extensive projects that tend to improve the value of a privately-owned facility are inappropriate.” The latest audit, issued earlier this year but based on visits in the summer of 2014, found the disciplinary process at Tooley to be “somewhat unclear and highly inconsistent,” with some major infractions, such as drug use and curfew violations, going unpunished. Poor supervision of job hunters and inadequate staffing, including “a 6-12 hour window during which Tooley Hall only had one security staff member on duty,” were also noted. A CEC spokesman says that the company now has two security workers on duty at all times and that staff has been “further trained about the disciplinary process and accountability expectations for residents.”

Several current and former residents say that the audits don’t convey the prevailing conditions of the place — the busted plumbing, the noxious smells, the aged vacuum cleaners that spit dirt, the mattresses so thin and worn that some residents prefer to sleep on the floor, the occasional lice or bedbug outbreak. Even if state inspectors were inclined to add such mundane matters to their list, it’s doubtful they would get the full picture of what some describe as a sick building.

“Any time inspectors come, they make us clean the night before,” says Karen, who ended up in Tooley after a drug conviction on the Western Slope. “Stuff they don’t do any other day — just when important people show up. Instead of fixing things, they just wall them off or hide them. I was sick three times the first few weeks I was there. The more time I spend out of that place, the better I feel.”

Given the lack of repairs to the building, the low salaries and high turnover among employees and other signs of distress, residents wonder how much of the rent and subsidies paid to the halfway house are being funneled back to New Jersey, never to return. “I couldn’t tell you where the money goes, but it definitely doesn’t go to the food,” Karen says. “Prison food was five times better than what they serve here.”

Several sources told Westword that food-service workers were under pressure from management to cut costs. According to a former Tooley employee, the cost of feeding the residents was slashed from two dollars per person per meal to 52 cents over the course of a year. “The food they were getting, I wouldn’t feed to my cat,” the former employee says.

“The whole objective is making money, not helping people. I call it 'punishment for profit.'”

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Complaints about staff conduct are even more common than those about the meals or the physical plant. Halfway houses are expected to take charge of clients’ prescription medications and make sure they are administered properly. Michelle says that her stomach medication kept turning up missing and that some staff members refused to dispense the pills to her as needed, despite numerous letters from her doctor demanding that they do so. “They were giving me a hard time about taking them because they lost them,” she adds.

Another resident suggests that Tooley’s handling of residents’ paychecks hasn’t been much better, seriously hampering job searches and any chance of securing an apartment. “I turned in $480, and three weeks later it still wasn’t deposited to my account,” says Joan, who spent many months at Tooley. “Every time I request money for a bus pass, I don’t get that money for three weeks. I was holding back money so I could buy my own passes, and I got in trouble for it.”

Joan says she was told that withholding money from management was anti-social behavior. Having a copy of Westword in her room was also deemed anti-social behavior. Residents are required to take classes that are supposed to address behavior and substance-abuse issues, but several Tooley clients describe the classes as “a joke” or “worthless,” saying considerable emphasis is put on learning rote answers to questions that will be on the final exams.

“They’re trying to teach us that PMS is a trigger for these girls to go back and use,” Joan scoffs. “Every woman on the planet has PMS, and it doesn’t make most of them want to use. They spend a lot of time on impulse control, but personally, my offense had nothing to do with impulse control. I thought about it a long time before I went out and did my crime. But they keep telling me that I need to conform and just do my matrix and make up whatever I have to say to appease them.”

“For most of us, it was just bringing up our past or stuff that had nothing to do with us,” says Gina, who spent ten months at Tooley, about the classes.

Gina was bounced from the program last March and is now back in prison. She was accused of breaking the rules by having sex with another resident. She acknowledges that she’s had a longtime relationship with that resident but denies the charge. “I never had sex in the facility,” she says. “However, staff were having relationships with clients.”

A member of the halfway-house management involved in revoking Gina to prison was terminated herself weeks later for allegedly having an improper relationship with a former resident. Gina insists that she was retaliated against for complaining about the facility to CEC upper management. Claims and fears of retaliation are echoed by several other residents who spoke to Westword; as they see it, the disciplinary process at Tooley isn’t just “highly inconsistent,” but downright capricious. Some women skated despite repeated drug incidents or other violations, they say, while others got sent back on what seemed to be minor provocations.

Until recently, just having a smartphone was considered a serious offense at Tooley. While most halfway houses in the state now permit the devices, recognizing that e-mail and Internet access are crucial to job searches, Tooley management banned the phones because a few residents were using them to advertise prostitution services, looking for quick, untraceable cash for drugs. The policy was changed in August, and smartphones are now tolerated. But some residents believe that staff members still go out of their way to write up certain offenders while ignoring others.

“I don’t think they try to help you succeed,” says Molly, a college graduate in her late twenties. “It’s difficult for me to be micromanaged by uneducated people who are younger than I am. They get on major power trips, and they like sending people back.”

A former CEC employee who worked her way up from security to case manager at Tooley seconded many of the allegations by residents about poor maintenance, money- and prescription-management problems, inadequate programs and vindictive staff. She says that her security training consisted of shadowing another employee for three days and that her training in case management was just as sparse. “There are staff members who truly care and want to help,” she adds. “But the others — if they don’t like you, they’ll find every reason possible to get you written up and sent back to jail or prison.”

She cites the case of one client who suffered from anxiety attacks and had a history of suicide attempts. The woman attempted to smuggle in a Chihuahua as her “service dog,” creating some conflicts with staff. At one point she asked a case manager if she could tell her something in confidence. Assured that she could, she admitted that she was angry with another employee and wanted to punch her in the face. The case manager reported the thought crime to management. “They sent her back to prison for that,” the former employee says. “She had a job, she was caught up on everything. Sometimes they just set them up for failure.”

CEC officials declined to grant interviews for this story with any of the management team at Tooley Hall and insisted that all questions be submitted in writing. Their e-mail response acknowledges that the operation has switched to a lower-cost food vendor but insists that “the menu, quantity and quality of the food has not changed.” The company refused to specify how much of the house’s revenues are reinvested in the operation: “CEC spends what is needed to maintain and operate our facilities…. We are constantly looking for ways to improve our services and the assistance we provide to women at Tooley Hall during their re-entry.”

Corrections professionals insist that lousy food and poorly trained staff shouldn’t make much of a difference to felons who really want to go straight. But it’s difficult not to perceive some link between the totality of the Tooley experience and the facility’s high rate of escapes, technical violations and other failures. (“Last winter, we had twelve girls go back or run in two weeks,” Joan recalls.) Statistically, women succeed slightly more often in halfway houses than men, despite having greater needs for substance-abuse treatment. They also have lower recidivism rates than men. But Tooley’s success rate is actually lower than that of many men-only halfway houses. The house had a 46 percent rate of successful completion in 2014, a significant drop from the year before.

Greg Mauro, Denver’s director of community corrections, cautions against reading too much into those numbers. The success rate of halfway houses across the city has been dropping, just as it has across the state, and now hovers around 50 percent. “What we have occurring is a trend in the wrong direction,” he says.

Like Smith at the Division of Criminal Justice, Mauro attributes the drop to the “more complex population” of offenders now in community corrections, including dual-diagnosis clients who are battling addictions and mental illness at the same time. While success rates are important, “they’re not the only measure you look at,” he says. He’s encouraged by a statewide effort to put more emphasis on incentives and “positive reinforcers,” including ways to promote and reward what the professionals call “pro-social behavior.”

“The biggest thing we’re encouraging in Denver is cognitive-behavioral treatment in the programs, which has proved to be a method for reducing recidivism, especially among prior offenders,” Mauro says. “That’s where the future of community corrections has to be.”

State director Tapia says that one of the fundamental challenges his office faces is training halfway-house staff to interact with offenders in ways that motivate them to succeed rather than on a punitive level. “It’s a long and complex process to change the culture of a system or an organization,” he says. “It requires a decade or two of commitment.”

It takes some doing to lose a contract to operate a halfway house in Colorado. In rare instances, local community-corrections boards have cut off funding or rejected new bids by providers, usually after a history of public-safety concerns, poor supervision, financial problems or criminal misconduct by staff.

Four months ago, the Office of Community Corrections released an audit that found numerous problems at Phoenix Center, a 160-bed halfway house in Henderson that was operated by CEC and served both male and female clients. Among other concerns, the auditors cited a lack of adequate training of staff and missing documents pertaining to the supervision of sex offenders; a disciplinary process that included confining residents to the house for days before they could even learn what infraction they’d committed, jeopardizing their jobs in the process; and a pattern of ignoring client complaints to the extent that many residents “felt that staff would retaliate against any client filing a grievance.”

Medications at halfway houses are supposed to be locked down in the security office; the cabinet holding the women’s prescriptions had the combination for the lock posted on the side of the cabinet. Residents were terminated for illegal drug use without formal notice or supporting paperwork, and seized drugs were sometimes simply tossed in a local dumpster. Passes to go off site were handed out with little regard to the actual whereabouts of the offender; for example, one client “was found to have signed out to Walmart twice in one day for four hours each time.” A broken gate, surveillance-camera blind spots and a failure to report escapes in a timely fashion were also mentioned.

“If they don’t like you, they’ll find every reason possible to get you sent back to jail or prison.”

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In August, CEC’s contract for Phoenix Center was up for renewal. James Hyman, the company’s new CEO, appeared before Adams County officials to plead for another chance. He attributed many of the problems to prior management and noted that his top leadership had made an “unprecedented” number of trips to Colorado to review operations here in the past few months.

“I apologize for the frustration that we, CEC, have caused you and the issues you have experienced with our Phoenix Center,” Hyman said. “I cannot change the past.”

Despite Hyman’s pledge to do better, the contract wasn’t renewed. Adams County spokesman Jim Siedlecki says that the state audit was only one factor in the decision and that the local community-corrections board had fielded other complaints about the operation. “There were significant performance issues,” he says. “Regardless of their change in attitude, it’s their actions that will be judged.”

The county had to scramble to find placement for nearly a hundred clients when Phoenix Center closed. Siedlecki says the local board will seek bids for a replacement facility. It’s not inconceivable that Phoenix Center will rise again, perhaps after it’s leased to a new operator. “It’s possible we will use that facility again,” he concedes.

Possible, even probable. Nobody is terribly keen on having a house full of felons next door, so community-corrections programs have become increasingly reliant on the beds available in dilapidated, outmoded facilities situated in quasi-industrial areas or other zoning anomalies. Pressured by neighborhood groups, Lakewood officials recently rejected an effort to build a new halfway house for 220 offenders — the third unsuccessful attempt to replace a badly decaying operation near Casa Bonita that needs an estimated $5 million in repairs just to meet current code requirements.

Perhaps because they need the beds, community-corrections officials are reluctant to criticize any of the private companies they rely on to house thousands of offenders. Asked for his personal assessment of CEC and Tooley Hall, Denver’s Mauro responds, “We are continually trying to improve the services of all our facilities.”

Michelle’s view of the services Tooley provides is less upbeat. The place didn’t offer her survival skills or hope, she says. It was her own determination not to go back to prison that sustained her, that compelled her to go out and find what she needed to succeed on her own.

“Everybody in there is struggling,” she says. “I have two friends who ran from there recently. When I left, they were both doing really well. But for some reason, they ran. I think they just couldn’t stand it anymore.”