City Council Approves Temporary Halfway House Contracts

GEO Group halfway house employees and residents gathered outside the Denver City and County Building before a city council vote on halfway house contracts.
GEO Group halfway house employees and residents gathered outside the Denver City and County Building before a city council vote on halfway house contracts. Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
On Monday, August 26, Denver City Council unanimously approved contracts with GEO Group and CoreCivic, allowing the private prison companies to temporarily continue operating halfway houses in Denver. The GEO Group contract for its two halfway houses runs through the end of the year, and CoreCivic's contract for its four halfway houses lasts until next summer. The six halfway houses count 517 of Denver's 748 total halfway house beds.

Council's decision came three weeks after members voted against renewing year-long contracts with the private prison companies.

"We heard the message loud and clear to move ourselves from CoreCivic and GEO," Greg Mauro, the director of community corrections in Denver, said during last night's meeting. But "if the contracts are not approved, individuals under direct sentences will be returned to our jail. It will create complete chaos within the courts to get everyone docketed."

Members of council who originally voted against renewing the contracts framed the first vote as sending a message.

"I stand by my vote last time to vote no and send that message, to deliver that message that the future can't look like the present or the past," said council president Jolon Clark.

Before city council began its meeting, GEO Group held a rally outside the City and County Building. Around three dozen staff and residents of the GEO halfway house facilities in Denver, sporting "We Are GEO" stickers, gathered and chanted slogans like, "Council lacks a plan, now we're in a jam" and "People over politics."

GEO Group is particularly controversial in metro Denver because of the immigrant detention facility it operates in Aurora through a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The detention center has been plagued by allegations of lackluster medical care, infectious-disease outbreaks, and forced labor. Although not an operator of a nearby detention facility, CoreCivic is also a major player in the immigrant detention industry.

Before the early August vote, councilmembers and the companies were at odds over conditions in the halfway houses. During the August 5 meeting, Councilman Chris Hinds quoted an email he received from a resident of a CoreCivic halfway house in which they spoke about "being made to be slave labor" and "mandatory General Inspection Cleaning every single night."

But Mauro pushed back on the testimony, saying it sounded like the resident was referring to daily chores, which Mauro characterized as a norm in community corrections.

Not long after the exchange, Councilwoman Debbie Ortega, who was part of the minority of council that voted in favor of the original contracts, called up halfway house residents who wanted to testify on how they had grown while living in the homes.

"Not being in that facility, I would've come home from [prison] and committed more crimes. I would've been back in prison," said Jeffrey Bradley, a resident of a GEO Group halfway house in Denver, adding that he was looking forward to eventually moving back in with his kids.

Councilwoman Robin Kniech then ran interference. "I don't think we have to prove that the operators in town have somehow done malfeasance or bad things in order to decide that these are not the right partners," Kniech said. "I don't think I have to prove that to you, as a community, or that anyone on this council have to prove that these providers are perfect in order to extend these contracts today."

The Department of Public Safety is forming a thirteen-member advisory committee to help the city move away from utilizing private prison companies. Committee members will be chosen "based on their expertise in community corrections programming and its impacts on the local and state criminal justice systems, the service delivery model and impacts on clients, victims, families and neighborhoods," according to a statement from Kelli Christensen, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety. The committee will make recommendations to Troy Riggs, executive director of the department, by the end of January 2020.

Around that same time, as part of a group-living zoning code update that the city has been working on for over a year and a half, city council is likely to approve zoning code amendments that will make it easier for halfway house operators to expand capacity in Denver.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.