Letter: Prison expansion set for federal inmates

The planned 1,100-bed expansion of a for-profit prison holding immigration detainees in Aurora will be reserved only for inmates of the federal government, according to a letter from the prison’s owner to city officials that was meant to ease questions over how the new space will be used.

The GEO Group, a Florida-based prison contractor, has been successful in a recent and controversial attempt to gain approval for nearly quadrupling the size of its 400-bed lockup that detains prisoners of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency in Aurora, a metropolitan suburb of Denver.

Observers say the success is due in part to the letter, which was sent to Aurora City Council members less than one business day before a council hearing was supposed to decide on the expansion.

In the letter obtained by the Colorado Independent, GEO Group senior vice president Thomas Wierdsma wrote that his company would agree to have the expansion be “used solely for federal clients” and that the business would seek the city’s approval if GEO decided to use the space for any other purpose.

City council members have expressed concern over the fact that the ICE has stated that it has no plans to use the new space, prompting speculation that the expansion may be a maneuver to construct a new for-profit prison to hold state inmates.

The letter is legally binding, according to Aurora city attorney Charles Richardson, who said the document had been “memorialized,” officially becoming part of the city’s record on the expansion. Richardson said this immediately eased council members’ anxiety about who would be using the 1,100 beds.

Members of the city’s planning commission initially approved the GEO Group expansion in April, but the decision was later appealed to the city council for a public hearing by Anthony Paradiso, a man who owns a doggy daycare business next to the prison.  

Paradiso later dropped his appeal by sending the city a letter on the same day the GEO Group sent its letter announcing the federal inmates agreement, less than one business day before the planned public hearing.

As a result of the withdrawn appeal, the council unanimously voted not to hear the issue, clearing the way for the expansion.

Paradiso has not returned requests for comment, but he did write in his letter that the GEO Group had met with him and addressed his concerns.

But now that the corrections company has confirmed to Aurora that it will only be incarcerating federal inmates — and since ICE has confirmed it has nothing to do with the expansion —  there is still a question of who will be using the 1,100 new beds.

Right now, the GEO Group isn’t offering any definitive answers. A spokesman for the company has not commented on where the inmates will come from, citing that the expansion is still in the planning stages.

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 erosa@www.coloradoindependent.com.