Aurora council cancels hearing on immigrant prison expansion

A public hearing to decide on the expansion of a privatized immigration lockup in Aurora was canceled after it was revealed that an individual challenging the prison proposal had suddenly dropped his appeal.

The Aurora City Council was set to vote and hear testimony on the plan during a council meeting Monday, but the hearing was canceled during the meeting after Anthony Paradiso, who had formally appealed the city planning department’s approval of the expansion, thus bringing the issue before council members, dropped his appeal on Saturday—two days before the hearing.

The plan would nearly quadruple the size of the federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for-profit prison located in the Denver metropolitan area. Corrections firm the GEO Group, a global company that runs for-profit prisons including the Aurora lockup, is behind the expansion, which would add 1,100 beds to the 400-bed facility at an estimated annual income of $30 million.

Opponents of the prison plan with the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, a group composed of social justice organizations, were surprised to find out about the appeal cancellation so close to the hearing. Paradiso, who owns property next to the expansion site, had been coordinating with the coalition when he filed the appeal.

"I think its very curious that someone would be adamantly opposed to the building of this facility across the street from his business and less than an entire business day before the hearing he would decide to withdraw his appeal," said Chandra Russo, an organizer with the coalition, who claims that when she talked with Paradiso on Friday he was still planning to follow through with his challenge.

Bill Davidson, a city official with the planning department who has been handling the GEO Group’s prison plan, said that a written compromise had been reached between Paradiso and the corrections company, although a document of the agreement was not readily available.

Paradiso did not return a call for comment and GEO Group officials at the council meeting directed the media to their press office, which was not available Monday evening.

Because of the appeal cancellation, the public hearing on the prison expansion was not put on the City Council agenda, even though it had been placed on an original draft of the agenda that was released on Friday.

Activists against the expansion spoke to council members early in their meeting asking them to allow public testimony despite the lack of appeal, but council members voted unanimously not to hear the issue.

Nick Spagnolo, an Aurora resident who lives near the expansion zone, said he was concerned about the fact that the GEO Group was adding on to its facility without a contract from federal immigration authorities.

ICE has already stated that the agency has no intention of using the additional space from the expansion, leading to questions of who will be using the new beds.

"I don’t want to walk out onto my front yard and see the lights of the prison," Spagnolo said, speculating about what type of inmates the expansion would hold without an ICE contract. "Do we have rapists? Do we have child molesters? What kind of facility?"

According to Davidson, as part of the agreement with Paradiso, the GEO Group said it would only hold federal inmates in the expansion, although it’s currently unclear what the exact stipulations are and how legally binding they’ll be.

"We are in the process of accessing how it makes sense to continue with this campaign," Russo said after the council decision.

GEO Group executives, including CEO George Zoley, attended the council meeting.

In May 2007 the Florida-based corrections firm lost a state contract to build a private prison in the small northern town of Ault after state auditors found that a former director of prisons was moonlighting for the company while he was still working as a public official.

Another state contract with the GEO Group for a prison in the southern city of Pueblo was rescinded in February 2007 after the firm failed to break ground on the project four years after it was agreed to.

Recent findings released from the federal Government Accountability Office in July also report overcrowding troubles at the Aurora facility, along with poor record-keeping and unsatisfactory sanitation.

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