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.
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.”