Community Corrections Dilemma Continues As Denver Proposes Buying Tooley Hall

Tooley Hall sits in an industrial area in northeast Denver.
Tooley Hall sits in an industrial area in northeast Denver. Google Street View
Vance Roper, an analyst for the state legislature’s Joint Budget Committee, didn’t mince words when telling Denver’s Community Corrections Advisory Committee his thoughts about the current plan to close six of the city’s biggest facilities housing people transitioning from prison back to society within a handful of months.

“This is a train wreck,” he told the group tasked with dealing with the situation at its October 30 meeting, urging it to rethink the plan for closing down all GEO Group and CoreCivic re-entry centers in Denver. The plan is a result of Denver City Council's historic August vote to defund the companies, two of the country’s biggest players in the for-profit prison industry, and subsequent decisions to temporarily extend the contracts. Roper is one of many who have voiced concerns that under the current timeline, hundreds of people will have to be returned to prison, causing a backlog in the Department of Corrections, and creating what he referred to as a "public safety nightmare."

Last night, December 5, Community Corrections announced to the group of twelve volunteers — elected officials, community members, criminal justice reform advocates and public safety experts — on the committee advising Denver's division of Community Corrections some steps intended to prevent disaster while fulfilling the policy decision to sever relationships with those companies. Greg Mauro, director of Community Corrections, said plans are already rolling forward for the city to purchase Tooley Hall, a community re-entry facility at 4280 Kearney Street that was previously run by the GEO Group, for $1.3 million. The purchase will require city council approval.

Together, GEO and CoreCivic operated six "halfway houses" (formally called "community corrections" or "community re-entry facilities") in Denver, which are theoretically supposed to provide a community-based alternative to prison for those serving the end of their sentences, as well as others sentenced to such programs at the outset. Many allege that the privately run facilities have long been broken, ineffective, profit-hungry and inhumane. But without them, the city loses 517 spots for people who would otherwise be in prison. (Four facilities operated by Independence House and the University of Colorado are unaffected.)

The move to purchase Tooley Hall is supported by many members of the committee, including Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, who had originally pushed to end the contracts. Tooley Hall has a current capacity of 73 beds, and is already zoned as a community re-entry location. The city could theoretically run its own community corrections program there, or contract with a different provider. Mauro says he envisions the latter option, and proposed prioritizing a program for women, since the county has lost its community corrections beds for women at the now-shuttered Williams Street Center. However, the city will have to put out a request for proposals for a provider to run a program and renovate the facility. Mauro estimated that in a best-case scenario, placements would not be made until well into 2020.

That means that while opening a new program at Tooley Hall would help ease the burden on the system, it's still far from solving the problem. By Mauro's calculations, even if all else goes smoothly — the purchase goes through, some low-risk offenders can be placed on intensive supervision with community support instead of being referred to community corrections, and the Independence House and University of Colorado programs can operate at capacity — the city would still need 249 beds to make up for the programs that GEO and CoreCivic operated. And dozens of the city's current beds are for specialized intensive programs that have to be sought and approved at the state level, a process which isn't set to occur again until 2021 or later.

Denver’s contract with GEO is up at the end of 2019. One of its facilities, Williams Street Center, closed on October 21. According to Mauro, roughly half of the women who had been there were placed in residential re-entry programs in neighboring counties. The other half were able to be released for independent living, some on parole or intensive supervision programs. Tooley Hall is set to close operations around December 15. Mauro says some of the men placed there will be transferred to other halfway houses, while others in a ninety-day cognitive behavioral therapy program have graduated, and the program will be moved to the Denver County Jail and staffed by the city.

“It’s been painful,” Mauro says. “We still say this is not just a walk in the park. It’s still a very difficult process for all involved."

There are 360 men in four facilities owned and operated by CoreCivic, whose contract is up in June 2020. There are much fewer community corrections beds in neighboring counties for men, and so Denver would likely have to resort to the unfavorable option of sending some men back to prison.

“It’s a seismic task,” Mauro says of closing the facilities. “You don’t just leave one night and turn off the switch and everything’s closed. ... We’re running out of options to transfer clients or get them stable.”

Given that situation, the committee is coming to a consensus that it may have to take a proposal back to city council to extend CoreCivic's contract past June, to avoid causing a massive backlog in the system and people returning to prison.

But members are split on the terms under which a contract extension should occur. Originally some, including CdeBaca and committee co-chair Hassan Latif, the director of community-based prison re-entry organization Second Chance Center, resisted extending the contract.

"Every single meeting devolves into essentially testimony for the contracts," CdeBaca says. She says the frenzy around the pressed contract timeline is inhibiting the committee from working on a plan that would resolve the need to do so. However, she says, "we’ve been open to considering what it would take to phase this out in a responsible way. That was the request from the very beginning, even before we voted."

Mauro proposed three options at the meeting: go with the current plan, extend the contract to operate at capacity for two more years (until 2022), or extend the contract for two more years, but scale back the number of beds. The decision of whether to extend the contract would also ultimately be up to council, but the committee could vote on which proposal to present to it.

That set of options got backlash. CdeBaca points out that both grant CoreCivic a two-year contract, something that other providers, such as the locally based Independence House, are not assured. CdeBaca fears that extending the contract without a set plan that proposes specific milestones could keep CoreCivic funded indefinitely.

Latif says he'd like to see a contract that only funds specified CoreCivic programs at a few of its locations, rather than providing a blanket contract to all of its locations.

Committee members may try to put other options on the table before voting by the end of the month. If they go with the current plan, CoreCivic programs will stop taking referrals and begin phasing out in January.

Meanwhile, earlier this week, CdeBaca postponed a city council resolution confirming appointments to the Community Corrections Board, which oversees the acceptance criteria for offenders referred to halfway houses. The board is currently mostly composed of prescribed seats appointed by the mayor, with only six seats for citizens. CdeBaca says she'd like to change the structure of approving seats and add at least one seat for someone who has been a resident of a facility.

The advisory committee was also hit with an internal twist: The facilitator hired to mediate the meetings, Johanna Leal, announced she would no longer be doing so, but did not specify why.

Subcommittees of the main committee are working on envisioning a more stable alternative than the current system, avoiding dependence on private companies whose operations are entrenched in Colorado’s prison and re-entry system at every level (not only community corrections, but supervision technology, and even urine analysis testing), and creating better outcomes that work to help clients transition back to society with stable jobs and housing, and a lower likelihood of committing a crime. However, there are two major structural obstacles. The first is that current zoning codes severely restrain the possible locations for a community re-entry center in the city. The second is that the state statute includes strict requirements for what kinds of programs can be funded.

Currently, facilities 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. A separate committee working on modifying several elements of the group living zoning code will bring suggested changes to city council that would potentially accommodate more locations.

Community corrections programs are bound to meet minimum standards set by the state. Any future program would have to do so as well.

Roper has been working for the past fifteen months on developing legislation that would implement performance-based contracting for community corrections providers. Currently, providers are paid a set daily rate per bed, which offers no incentive to create successful programming that accomplishes the goal of helping clients transition back to society. Instead, they are incentivized to cut costs to make a profit. "The current way the model is set up incentivizes them to do poorly," Roper said at a joint budget committee meeting.

Performance-based contracting would do the opposite, by offering programs who get better results (especially in terms of lowering the recidivism rate of their clients) more reimbursements. Roper suggested it could work to incentivize better conditions and effective programming for both county-run and privately run community corrections programs.

While there is momentum to change both the zoning code and the way providers are paid, both of those changes would have to go through city and state legislative processes, respectively.

CdeBaca thinks there should be a more strategic plan to change the policy structure that created the current system before agreeing to extend CoreCivic's contract. "We set up the conditions for what we have right now because of discrimination and racism," she says. "We only allowed these people in specific places and warehouses, and then you had companies who were able to capitalize on that or exploit that fear of the other or desire to see them segregated."

Also at stake are the jobs of current staff members and the options for current halfway house residents, who have been rocked by uncertainty about the programs they're in. "I think [residents] feel probably the most anxious because they have the least amount of control over their own situations," Mauro says. "They're anxious, frustrated. They want to see something different, too.

"What I want to see is a model of CC in Denver that’s focused on client success, that produces good outcomes, that provides for safety to communities and considers the justice part of the sentence and victims. We all want that, very few people would disagree with what we want. What I’m concerned about is the time frame that we’re working with," Mauro says.  
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Sara Fleming is a freelance writer and formal editorial fellow at Westword. She covers a wide variety of stories about local politics and communities. A born-and-raised Coloradan, when she's not exploring Denver, she's on a mission to visit every mountain town in the state.
Contact: Sara Fleming