In just its fourth meeting, the new-look Denver City Council affirmed that it's ready to change the status quo in the city. On Monday, August 5, Denver City Council voted against renewing two multimillion-dollar contracts with GEO Group and CoreCivic, the two largest private prison companies in the U.S. The companies run halfway houses in Denver.
“It is an absolute shame that the owners of the companies are who they are," said Councilwoman Jamie Torres, before announcing that she would vote against renewing the contracts with the companies, which also run immigrant detention centers. GEO Group has been singled out by Colorado lawmakers for shoddy conditions at the immigrant detention center in Aurora it runs through a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The decision, which split council eight to four, marks the end of contracts that had been renewed on an annual basis in recent years and totaled about $10.5 million; that money was doled out from state coffers specifically to fund halfway houses.
Anti-private prison advocates might celebrate, but the decision to nix the renewal of the contracts could result in the possible closure of some halfway houses, meaning that hundreds of individuals working their way out of the corrections system could potentially get sent back to prison or jail.
"There are human beings’ lives at stake if we choose to vote down this contract," Councilman Chris Herndon said. "By supporting this contract, we continue to serve them and figure out how to better do this."
Herndon joined councilmembers Kevin Flynn, Debbie Ortega and Kendra Black in supporting the renewal of the contract, all with the caveat that they wanted to explore moving away from the private prison companies in the next year.
Other councilmembers expressed doubts about voting against the contract, but still sided with the majority. "It is tearing all of us apart," said council president Jolon Clark, one of the "No" votes.
GEO Group Vice President of Strategic Marketing Monica Hook sent this statement to Westword:
“Last night, the Denver City Council put an unrelated, politically driven issue over the needs of hundreds of Denver residents looking to rehabilitate and return to the community. Denver’s elected leaders took a leap backwards and voted to wipe away 30 years of successful reentry programming in the city including proven, evidence-based treatment for at-risk individuals. Our reentry programs are designed to engage and stabilize individuals while promoting successful reintegration in a safe and supportive environment. We agree with Councilman Chris Herndon who said, ‘There are human beings’ lives at stake if we choose to vote down this contract.’ Yet council walked away from their residents with no plan B or safety net for these vulnerable individuals and their families. These residents will now be sent back to jail or prison with no programming – how does that solve the problem?
“Like all Americans, we are concerned about the unprecedented humanitarian crisis at our Southern border; we acknowledge the challenge, but we are disappointed by the historically and factually inaccurate portrayal of our facilities driven by politically motivated attacks.
“These best in class treatment facilities in Denver have nothing to do with national immigration policies, yet politically-motivated activists and council members chose to intentionally share false information about our parent company’s more than 30-year record as a government service provider and overlooked the needs of Denver residents whose voice is so often ignored – those trying to successfully re-integrate into the community. Contrary to the deliberate mischaracterizations, our parent company’s ICE processing centers are not overcrowded, have never housed unaccompanied minors, and provide the safest and most humane residential care possible.”
CoreCivic and GEO Group run a total of six halfway houses in Denver and house over 500 individuals transitioning out of Denver County Jail or state prisons. Locally owned Independence House and the University of Colorado operate the city's four other halfway houses, rounding out the total number of individuals utilizing such services to about 700.
It's likely that the private prison companies would have received the new contracts had it not been for Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, who called out the deals for further discussion and a vote.
"I believe we shouldn’t be investing in organizations that are perpetuating harm," CdeBaca told Westword in the days leading up to the vote.
Over fifteen members of the public, including criminal justice reform experts, joined CdeBaca in opposing the contracts and spoke at the city council meeting.
"We've got to quit feeding the beast of for-profit in our criminal justice system," said 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."
Although most counties in Colorado contract with private companies for their halfway houses, Larimer, Mesa and Garfield counties all run their own. Denver could follow the same path, albeit with the risk of increased costs, according to Greg Mauro, the director of the Division of Community Corrections at the Department of Public Safety.
"This would not be an easy transition," Mauro said about the possibility of having just one year to figure out a new plan for halfway houses in Denver.
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Mauro says his team will have to scramble to figure out what to do with the 500-plus individuals — and the close to 250 people on halfway house waiting lists. Experts said at the meeting that the state's Department of Corrections only has approximately 100 vacant beds in its prisons.
At the meeting, Mauro and other city officials committed to forming a task force to figure out alternatives to contracting with CoreCivic and GEO Group. But they made that commitment with the understanding that the contract would be renewed for another year.
In addition to the new time constraints, Denver's zoning code severely limits where a company can operate a halfway house. GEO Group and CoreCivic own the six properties that host their halfway houses, so the city can't evict them as tenants and hire new operators.
A fix to the zoning code is coming, but not until early 2020, when city council is expected to adopt group living updates that would allow for some of the existing halfway houses to expand their capacity.