When Denver City Council made the surprise move to nix two contracts with private prison giants GEO Group and CoreCivic, which together operate six halfway houses in Denver, there was no plan in place to replace the current system. The advisory committee that's supposed to help come up with that plan — comprising experts in different sectors of the criminal justice system — laid out an uphill battle at its first meeting on Thursday, September 26.
The committee is tasked with the immense project of figuring out not only how to fill the gap left behind GEO and CoreCivic’s beds in Denver’s community corrections system, but to re-envision and improve the community corrections system. And it’s supposed to do so in only six two-hour meetings by the end of December, when GEO’s temporary contract is up (CoreCivic's ends in mid-2020). The committee is supposed to make recommendations to the Department of Safety by the end of January 2020.
"I wouldn’t necessarily agree with how we got here and the way we got here, but we’re here,” said committee co-chair Greg Mauro, director of Denver's Community Corrections.
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Other committee members said they were excited about the opportunity to push the system away from for-profit companies. Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca had led the charge to divest, arguing that GEO and CoreCivic make profits while violating human rights. Denver's halfway houses have also been alleged to maintain decrepit conditions, overcharge their residents and subject them to emotional turmoil.
“We would probably still be stuck in a holding pattern if it were not for Ms.CdeBaca’s resolution,” said committee co-chair Hassan Latif, founder of the Second Chance Center, an Aurora nonprofit that works to help transition prisoners back into society. At the same time, he acknowledged, “This is a really big task, we don’t have a lot of time to get at it, there are real actual human lives at play here, and not just the 500 that we’re talking about.”
The halfway houses in question, also called “residential reentry facilities” or “community corrections facilities” in industry lingo, are intended to help released inmates transition back into society; courts can also refer offenders who otherwise might have served jail time to these programs. But many argue that they’ve drifted away from the noble goal of helping those in the system improve toward a profit-oriented model.
Committee member Mannie Rodriguez introduced himself as the “godfather” of Colorado’s community corrections system — he founded the Independence House, one of the few locally owned halfway houses that remain.
"The original intent of community reintegration centers, when they were started, was to return that individual back to the community where he's from," Rodriguez said. "They were small programs all over Denver where [ex-prisoners] were able to return to their part of town and they would have jobs...all that has stopped. It got so big that now...I don't know where the profit came from, because there didn't used to be any profit."
For at least the past two decades, Denver, along with most of the state, has relied heavily on private corporations to provide halfway house services. The six halfway houses owned by CoreCivic and GEO account for 517 of Denver's 748 total halfway house beds.
GEO Group also runs the controversial immigrant detention facility in Aurora, and CoreCivic is the second giant in that business, imprisoning over 7,000 immigrants across the country. Detention facilities owned by both companies have been accused of various human-rights abuses.
The committee’s first exercise was to brainstorm what the ideal solution for released inmates would look like. CdeBaca jumped in first: People with lived experience in the criminal justice system should lead the community corrections system and mentor those going through it, she said. Denver should move away from the domination of private companies, she said. The halfway houses should be smaller in size, rather than feeling like “warehouses,” and should offer paths to permanent housing, jobs and mental health treatment. Many committee members elaborated on her concerns.
One of the major hurdles the committee faces is that it's almost impossible to build new halfway houses under the city’s current zoning code, and the extremely high cost of land and buildings doesn’t help. Because GEO and CoreCivic will still own the facilities they currently operate, it would be difficult for a community-based non-profit to buy that land off a multimillion dollar corporation, and the committee wants to move away from large-scale facilities anyway.
Because community corrections facilities are subject to one of the most restrictive zoning codes in the city, they are only permitted in industrial and some downtown districts, must be 1,500 feet away from all schools and residential zones, and at least 2,000 feet away from any other community corrections facility. The requirements are so strict that most current facilities, many of which were built before the zoning code changed, are in violation. There are some 3,000 acres where new facilities could be constructed, the city estimates, but most are in heavily industrial areas.
Any new halfway house will likely face some degree of opposition from surrounding neighbors, because of a prevailing belief that the presence of recently imprisoned people reduces nearby property values and threatens public safety.
"These restrictions are basically fear-driven and discriminatory," Latif of Second Chance Center said about the zoning code.
City planners are considering modifications to the zoning code as part of a bigger project that’s tackling zoning regulations for other group-living situations including shelters, assisted living, nursing homes, tiny home villages, and co-op living. But that project won't be completed until mid-2020.
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Some members pressed Community Planning and Development to speed up the process for community corrections. But city planner Andrew Webb resisted that idea, saying it would slow down everything else.
The committee will begin outreach to take public comments and hear from current halfway house residents.
Meanwhile, because GEO’s contract is up at the end of the year, Community Corrections is negotiating with surrounding counties to find halfway house beds for the people in Tooley Hall and the Williams Street Center. The Denver Community Corrections Board has stopped accepting new referrals for the Williams Street Center, though there are hundreds on the waiting list. Twenty-nine women formerly at Williams Street will soon be transferred to the Arapahoe County Residential Center, which is also owned by GEO.
Update, September 27: The last paragraph of this story erroneously stated that the 29 women from the Williams Street Center have already been transferred, and that Community Corrections is not accepting any new referrals. We have corrected the error.