GEO Group Not Renewing Lease for Empty Prison in Hudson

Hudson Correctional Facility from above.
Hudson Correctional Facility from above. Google Maps
Early on in Donald Trump's presidency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement was considering expanding its detention capacity into a prison in Hudson, Colorado, according to emails between executives of private prison company GEO Group and Hudson officials.

The ten-year-old prison in the small town about thirty miles northeast of Denver can hold 1,250 detainees, but had been barely used since 2013. GEO Group, which runs the controversial immigrant detention center in Aurora, had been leasing the prison since 2010 and was ready to open it for ICE by May 2017, according to the emails.

But a source familiar with the transaction who asked to remain anonymous says GEO Group will not renew its lease of the prison, saving about $10 million annually. The Hudson facility is owned by Highlands REIT, a Chicago-based real estate trust.

In the past year, protests at the Aurora detention center have increased because of Trump's controversial immigration policies and conditions at the facility, which has seen multiple quarantines. In early August, Denver City Council voted against renewing longstanding halfway house contracts with GEO and CoreCivic, another private prison company. When asked if the current political climate in Colorado led to the decision not to renew, GEO vice president Pablo Paez notes that in quarterly-earnings calls with shareholders, GEO Group officials have been saying since at least February that the company wouldn't renew the contract.

"GEO inherited the lease for the Hudson, Colorado Facility as part of the corporate acquisition of Cornell Companies in August 2010 and the facility has remained idle by and large since then," Paez wrote Westword in an email. "For several quarters, our company has disclosed the upcoming expiration of the lease and the related annual cost-savings of not renewing the lease in our public filings and our publicly available quarterly earnings conference calls. Therefore, the decision to not renew the lease was both made and publicly discussed by our company well before any of the recent developments cited in your email."

But GEO Group didn't officially notify Highlands about its plan to drop the facility until late July, according to the source familiar with the transaction. In May, GEO Group posted a job advertisement for a head security officer at the Hudson facility. While past job postings for the facility have been mostly for groundskeeping, the head security position listed duties like monitoring "detainees" and conducting shakedowns for contraband materials.

Immigrant-rights activists and lawyers in Colorado have been speculating for years as to where ICE would expand its capacity in the state, especially given that the Trump administration is constantly searching for more beds for immigrant detainees. One common guess was Hudson.

In January, the Aurora immigrant detention facility opened an annex that expanded the bed count there by 432. It was supposed to be a temporary addition; however, the contract between ICE and GEO was extended in April for a year "due to the surge of illegal aliens crossing the Southwest border," according to a Homeland Security document that details the contract.

As of now, there are no plans for another private prison company to purchase or lease the Hudson facility.

When it began operations in 2009, the Hudson Correctional Facility housed inmates from Alaska through a deal between that state's department of corrections and Cornell Companies, which built the facility. Alaska needed the extra beds while it built a new prison, according to the Greeley Tribune. After acquiring Cornell Companies, GEO Group started running Hudson Correctional.

The town of Hudson considered the prison a win for the local economy, according to a KUNC story from 2009. But the prison has been plagued with problems practically since its inception. Pollutants from the facility's water damaged the town's water-treatment plant, costing Hudson tens of thousands of dollars in maintenance fees; the Environmental Protection Agency even fined GEO for the pollution and other problems it caused at the treatment facility. The contract for the Alaskan inmates ended in 2013, and the facility appears to have been staffed minimally since it closed.

In 2017, GEO Group began communicating with Hudson about possibly reopening the facility. "ICE will be there Monday with my Director to tour the facility, so it's just a matter of time before all of CO knows it," James Black, then the head of GEO's western region office, emailed Hudson City Manager Joe Racine on February 3 of that year.

Racine followed up not long after, asking Black for more information about when the prison might reopen. But Black's response indicated that ICE wasn't interested.

"A couple of things about ICE. First, the border crossings appear to be down across the border, and no one knows when they'll be back up. Everyone believes it's the Trump affect [sic], and that illegals are simply scared now to come over. This had led to a slow down on the ICE bed needs and impacted Hudson. That said, things have a way of changing, and we continue to remind them that we have a 1200 bed state of the art facility that we can activate in 30 to 45 days," Black wrote to Racine, who eventually left his role, on May 5, 2017.

Guy Patterson, Racine's successor, followed up by email to GEO Group as recently as November 2018, but did not receive a response when he asked to set up a phone call.

Patterson says Hudson has other development projects in the works, but that he would welcome the return of an operational prison to the town.

"There's no doubt that it's a part of the community," he explains. "And there's no doubt that high-paying good jobs are better than low-paying bad jobs."
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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.