Immigrant prison expansion plan in Aurora challenged

The fate of a proposal to nearly quadruple the size of a federal immigration lockup will be in the hands of the Aurora City Council Monday night, amid concerns that the expansion is merely clever maneuvering to build a new for-profit prison in Colorado.

The GEO Group, a global company specializing in for-profit prisons, is planning construction to expand one of its privatized Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities by 1,100 beds. The lockup is located in Aurora, a metropolitan suburb of Denver, and currently has 400 beds.

But while the GEO Group is counting on Aurora City Council members to approve plans for the construction, there are still questions over what the extra space will be used for. Officials with the federal immigration and customs agency have already confirmed that they are not planning to use the additional beds, and the company is not disclosing who they expect to be populating the new 215,000-square-foot addition.

ICE spokesman Tim Counts said his agency has not been involved with the recent Aurora expansion and that there are no upcoming contracts with federal immigration officials and the GEO Group to utilize the room, saying, “We have no plans to acquire additional space at the facility.”

When asked about what inmates were expected to be detained in the new addition, GEO Group spokesman Pablo Paez would only cite a press release issued by the company last October. “I really can’t comment beyond what we have disclosed publicly," he said. The release only mentions that the expansion is expected to be used by “federal agencies” for an estimated annual income of $30 million.

The company, based in Boca Raton, Fla., recently reported revenue of $275 million for the first quarter of 2008.

1,100 new beds for who?

The fact that the Aurora City Council is about to vote on a site plan for additional prison space at a federal immigration detention facility — space that federal immigration officials say is not wanted — without knowing exactly how it will be used or who will be in it has both activists and City Council officials questioning the GEO Group’s new construction project. The proposal will be discussed during a public hearing tonight, beginning at 7:30 p.m, at the Aurora Municipal Center, 15151 E. Alameda Parkway.

Larry Beer, a councilman representative for Ward III in Aurora, says it’s possible that the GEO Group could use the bed space to hold inmates under different contracts with state or differing federal agencies, meaning that the council members could essentially approve the construction of a new private prison having nothing to do with detaining immigrants.

“At this time there’s no written commitment that there wouldn’t be contracts with other correctional facilities, so I expect that it will be an issue that will come up during the public hearing,” Beer said. “I think that it’s an issue that a lot of council members are concerned about.”

Community activists opposing the expansion are also wondering about the GEO Group’s future plans for the new addition and plan to bring up the question during the council meeting.

“We have to believe that there are some serious land use issues at stake that have to do with the fact that this is a speculative prison of 1,100 beds,” said Chandra Russo, an organizer for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, a group composed of dozens of religious and social justice organizations across the state. “A prison is a prison. I can’t imagine that they would turn down other sorts of contracts such as state Department of Corrections if that’s the only contract they can get.”

But even if the addition is used for something completely different — like as a private detention space for state inmates — it’s unlikely that the City Council can do anything about it.

‘We don’t get to decide’

It seemed that the GEO Group had reached the finish line for the Aurora expansion when the city’s planning commission unanimously approved the site plan for the addition in April, but the verdict was thwarted when a property owner with land near the planned construction area and ties to immigrant rights activists appealed the decision to the City Council, putting the plan up for a vote before council members.

According to Aurora councilwoman Molly Markert, the city can’t make the decision to approve or deny the planned prison expansion based on how it could or could not be used, even if elected officials are concerned about it.

“It’s just like if we were deciding a strip mall," she said. "We don’t get to decide who moves into that space. The question is, does the site plan meet approval criteria?”

Rather, she said, the council’s vote would be limited to issues like parking, landscaping and zoning.

Russo, of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, said that because of the strict way in which the city is able to determine the merit of a site plan for construction projects like the GEO Group’s expansion, it has been difficult for immigrant rights activists to argue their case.

“It’s disappointing that the actual issues like the impact on the community, justice, humanity and immigrant detention apparently don’t matter to the city in this decision making process,” she said.

Markert, who has met twice with activists to discuss the issue, echoes the frustration.

“They’re asking the wrong questions and my heart goes out to them because I sure would love figure out a way to not be known as ‘Aurora, home of the ICE prison,’ " Markert said. "I’d love to be able to have an opportunity to have that discussion, but we’re in the wrong place. We can’t tell them what they can do in their building.”

Two State Contracts Rescinded In One Year

Executives with the GEO Group, including company CEO George Zoley, have been working to secure the firm’s prison expansion in Aurora, but the same company hasn’t fared well when it comes to doing business in Colorado. Two prison contracts were rescinded by state officials in 2007, after the company failed to begin building, and was also intertwined with a political scandal at the state’s Department of Corrections.

In May 2007 the firm lost a contract to build a private prison in the small northern town of Ault after state auditors found that Nolin Renfrow, the department’s former director of prisons, was moonlighting for the company to help obtain the contract while he was still working as a public official.

Before that, in February 2007, another GEO Group-planned prison in Pueblo was rescinded by the state after the company failed to break ground on the project four years after it was agreed to and company officers kept seeking to change provisions in the contract.

The federal Government Accountability Office also released a report in July that found overcrowding troubles at the company’s Aurora facility, along with poor record-keeping and unsatisfactory sanitation.

The Aurora lockup is 20 years old and its current contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement ends May 2010, according to company documents.

Erin Rosa was born in Spain and raised in Colorado Springs. She is a freelance writer currently living in Denver. Rosa's work has been featured in a variety of news outlets including the Huffington Post, Democracy Now!, and the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, an alternative-weekly in Northern Colorado where she worked as a columnist covering the state legislature. Rosa has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for her reporting on lobbying and woman's health issues. She was also tapped with a rare honorable mention award by the Newspaper Guild-CWA's David S. Barr Award in 2008--only the second such honor conferred in its nine-year history--for her investigative series covering the federal government's Supermax prison in the state. Rosa covers the labor community, corrections, immigration and government transparency matters. She can be reached at