In stunner, conflicted Denver City Council kills contracts with private prison giants

Councilwoman who led the charge figured she'd be the lone dissenting vote, but then seven others joined her. Their vote will force major changes — many of which are unknown.

More than 1,000 people marched on July 12, 2019 in protest of the detention of immigrants in private prisons, including the detention facility in Aurora, Colo. run by GEO Group.
More than 1,000 people marched on July 12, 2019 in protest of the detention of immigrants in private prisons, including the detention facility in Aurora, Colo. run by GEO Group. GEO and CoreCivic — the nation's second-biggest private prison company — both saw their contracts with Denver die on August 5. (Photo by Cullen Lobe)

Taking an extraordinary stand against the nation’s two largest private prison companies, GEO Group and CoreCivic, Denver City Council voted late Monday not to renew contracts with them worth a cumulative $10.6 million.  

The companies run halfway houses in the city and combine to serve more than 500 former jail or prison inmates transitioning back into society, whose immediate futures are now unknown. 

Both companies have come under fire lately for their treatment of detained immigrants, which has prompted a larger debate over private detention in general. Many Democratic politicians are calling for an end to the widespread practice in which governments contract with profit-driven corporations to oversee detainees, prisoners and — as is the case in Denver — those re-entering society after incarceration.

The council was deeply conflicted. Its choice: Renew contracts with companies whose missions and actions council members oppose, or vote down the contracts and leave those 500-plus people in limbo — and possibly headed back behind bars. 

The vote affects another roughly 200 people currently in prison who will be released soon who have stated they intend to relocate in Denver.

At-large Councilwoman Robin Kniech called the vote the toughest of her eight years in office.

The decision, Council President Jolon Clark said before casting his vote, “is tearing all of us apart.”

“We’re all going to go home, and we’re going to struggle to sleep tonight,” he added.

Politically, the vote was a stunner. 

Related: Bombshell Denver vote to kill halfway-house contracts has ex-inmates scared, officials scrambling

That the issue got such vigorous debate at all — its hearing took four hours — is likely due to the advocacy of first-term Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca of District 9, who was one of five new members sworn in last month. CdeBaca led the fight against renewal and rallied supporters to show up and speak out at the hearing.

At 1 p.m. Monday, CdeBaca told The Independent she expected to be the lone dissenting vote.

But about nine hours later, she was joined by seven others: Clark, Kniech, Jamie Torres, Amanda Sandoval, Amanda Sawyer, Chris Hinds and Stacie Gilmore.

Kevin Flynn, Chris Herndon, Debbie Ortega and Kendra Black voted to renew the contracts. Paul Kashmann was absent.

“I am blown away,” CdeBaca said after the meeting. “I have a newfound respect for my colleagues who showed immense courage and determination tonight in one of the most challenging votes possible.”

For her, the choice was always clear.

GEO and CoreCivic, she said during the hearing, “are market failures, and we as a government have an obligation to intervene.” 

She argued that community re-entry programs run by community-based organizations can do a better job than these two companies do at transitioning former inmates back into society. And, she said, they don’t bring the moral baggage of companies that run private prisons and immigrant detention centers all around the country, including at the border and in Aurora.

No representatives of GEO or CoreCivic leadership spoke at Monday’s hearing, although several staffers from Denver halfway houses defended their work and said their programs are effective.

No one on the council spoke in defense of either GEO or CoreCivic.

“I don’t think there’s anyone here who’s OK with the ICE detention center in Aurora or anywhere else,” Councilwoman Black said.

The companies, Councilman Hinds said, “put kids in cages, run concentration camps.”

But the outraged members were split on what to do about the contracts, because there is so much uncertainty that comes with a non-renewal — especially for the 500 people who today live in the re-entry centers that the city just broke up with.

“If these contracts do not pass,” warned Greg Mauro, the director of the city’s Division of Community Corrections, “the only option is to return (the 500) to custody, into the Denver jail, until the court could review their cases. … They’d all be returned to custody in very short order.”

It’s not clear that’s exactly what will happen. Following the vote, very little is clear, in fact.

“There are folks optimistic that (the state Department of Corrections) will send them all to parole. That’s a gamble,” said Kniech. “And it’s a gamble that some folks might get another placement. That’s what we’re doing. Perhaps we’re gambling that (Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration) will negotiate a shorter contract” with GEO and CoreCivic.

She summarized how most of the council seemed to feel: “I don’t want to vote for this contract. And I don’t want to gamble with people’s lives.”

Kniech was one of the eight who did make that gamble.

Ortega, one of the four in the minority, said, “You know what? I care about the (500) who are in these facilities. What the hell are we going to do?”

The full answer to that question will not come from the council, which has no say over where the affected people will be housed, detained or released in the immediate future — though it does have significant sway regarding where community re-entry centers might be sited in the longer term, and with whom the city might do business. 

Plenty of community members offered thoughts Monday on how Denver might serve this population in a post-GEO and CoreCivic era, and CdeBaca encouraged her fellow council members to listen to them moving forward.

For now, Hancock, the Department of Corrections, the state parole board and others likely have a lot of brainstorming to do. The city’s current zoning rules heavily restrict where potential new community re-entry centers might be sited in the future.

Despite all the uncertainty, council members said they had to make a moral choice.

“I have to vote with my conscience,” Gilmore said. “I cannot vote yes on something that is going to put money into these businesses.”

13 COMMENTS

  1. Don’t think this decision was made with Citizens on mind vs illegal immigrants or ones held Detention to be returned etc. I believe the decision was made solely about illegal immigrants/immigrants not approved yet and hell be damn to our citizens and their lives. Otherwise the decision would have been made much much much sooner (like in last 5-15 years) to curb private ran facilities. Being a sanctuary state is illegal per federal law..and ststes should obey federal law and illegal immigrants/immigrants should have to obey all laws or have co sequences just like citizens do. Based on these types of decisions.. change from private due to immigration and sanctuary state…means no one has to obey laws since exceptions are made for non-citizens

    • this has nothing to do with immigrants, it has everythin to do with corporate prisons teaming up with judges and police to get kickback per prisoner. You see so many vids these days of cops arresting people for swearing at them for false arrests. The prison system should never be on the stock exchange- it enables corruption in courts. and payoffs by rich offenders to a higher degree than it is now. Privitizing any service is a crime in itself, breeding corruption like money did to politics.. As far as refugees, they are not to be arrested at all nor held by prison companies, that is illegal. refugees are not considered illegals and have to set foot on US to apply for asylum, given a trial date and released to find jobs. Over 90% show up for their application trials. This has worked for decades and farmers desperately need workers in the west. Trump has broken every refugee law on the books.. Sessions owns alot of stocks in private prisons. Figure that one out. It is all for money, they dont care who crosses the border, they just want profits.

  2. Fucking morons. Everyone in this state. All these people are going back behind bars. Now instead things became complicated because a bunch of fucking “muh conscience” wussies gutted a rational contract.

    These people would have been tarred and feathered back in the day.

    • Perhaps you should leave this state if you despise the ethics of our representatives so much! It’s about time these private companies are exposed and addressed for their “profit driven” ethics!

  3. A principled decision, made with the conviction that the mayor and others (parole board) will do what is right, feasible, and fast, in getting these individuals transitioned back into their communities. This decision, the need to make it, sucked from the beginning. Neither way was a winner for everyone. You made the right decision, City Council. Thank you for your courage. and Councilwoman Candi CdBaca, I am in your district and voted for you and am very proud today!

  4. It is the responsibility of public officials to end the distribution of public monies to a contractor who cannot be trusted to provide the services being purchased in the manner and quality expected. However I expect that some short term contract to enable the governor and the Dept. of Corrections to plan the resolution of those issues arising out of the City Council vote.

    These people are protecting the interests of Denver taxpayers.

  5. I am in a GEO halfway house we have black mold in are facility are money taken but 10$a week not even enough for bus fare. We also was running on a Generator for four months due to the electrical box catching fire we had two days of no electricity heat hot water. Cooks walked out on us ,so we was fed hotdogs and sandwiches for a couple months..

  6. housing costs are sky high, way too high. there is a closed school on Colfax that can be bought by the city and jobs provided the homeless. It could house several hundred. There are always solutions to homelessness. It is the states job to house everyone, even in bunkrooms with lockers, provide mental healthcare. The homeless can maintain the buildings. Banks have thousands of forclosed homes they can use as a write-off while the land appreciates- I assure you they are NOT maintaining the properties. Homeless can.People dont choose to be homeless, veterans, medical and foreclosures during Bush made them homeless. Drink and drugs keep them there, they cant get jobs and live in shame.

    • Uh, I was homeless from 2002 until the end of 2017, when I moved into a nursing home. NOTHING you say about homelessness or homeless people bears any resemblance to reality as I experienced it. BTW, I didn’t drink nor did I abuse other drugs and although I now have disabilities that prevent me from doing the farm / ranch labor I did for thirty years, I’ve never lived in shame.

      The issue in Denver is almost 4,000 homeless people counted in the Point-in-Time Survey last January (probably an undercount by a factor of 2, at least), not several hundred who might be warehoused in an abandoned school on Colfax. I guess you’ve never been in a homeless shelter yourself, or you wouldn’t think that “homeless can maintain the buildings.” The small minority who are violent sociopaths ruin everything they touch.

      The best that can be done is to identify the homeless people who can benefit from family housing options, or single adults who will be a positive addition to Tiny House Communities.

      Simply throwing more millions-of-dollars at the issue with dumb programs like Housing First (for chronically homeless alcoholics) solves nothing. (They drink themselves to death in expensive new apartments, just like they do living under bridges — case in point, 1175 Lee Hill in Boulder, CO.)

      • Wow whataboutism. Never heard that one before! Your passion is noted but this isn’t an article about the homeless. Why don’t you take your diatribe there and stop attempting to snipe the validity of this vote with a completely different topic you actually do have prepared talking points for.

  7. thank you councilwoman Robin Kniech for your courage. the only way for there to be change is to stand up for what’s right.

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