Hassan Latif, who works to transition the formerly incarcerated back into society, has been on the phone nearly nonstop since the Denver City Council voted Monday night to kill two contracts with private prison companies GEO Group and CoreCivic, which serve more than 500 people in Denver halfway houses.
The council’s bombshell vote, city officials warned, would lead to some — perhaps all — of those people going back to jail or prison, at least in the short term.
“The residents of halfway houses are on panic status right now, afraid that this decision is going to result in them returning,” said Latif, of Aurora’s Second Chance Center, a nonprofit that works with ex-prisoners.
It’s not clear what precise impact the decision will have on these people, both in the short or long terms.
“Nothing is off the table,” said Annie Skinner, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections. Possible options, besides reincarcerating those currently in halfway houses, include Denver signing a short-term, temporary contract with GEO and CoreCivic to keep the houses open while the city gets its plan together.
Centennial South could be reopened
In Denver, GEO Group and CoreCivic operate six community correction facilities, also called halfway houses or re-entry centers, predominantly in industrial areas. These places provide a transitional stop after prison or jail. Residents, who typically stay for anywhere from a few months to a couple years, are supervised but leave during daytime to seek or work jobs, or to get treatment.
GEO and CoreCivic’s Denver facilities hold 517 people total, and they are at or near capacity; other contractors house another 231 former inmates, but their beds are mostly filled, too.
The council’s downvote could have a domino effect that results in the state reopening Centennial South, a shuttered maximum-security prison in Cañon City that is available to house overflow population for the DOC, which had a 1.6% vacancy rate for male inmates as of last month. The halfway house residents, the vast majority of whom are men, would likely not be sent to that prison — but other people currently incarcerated could be, to make room for those displaced after the council vote.
Tristan Gorman, legislative director for the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, told the council on Monday she’d be “shocked” if the DOC didn’t pursue Centennial South in the wake of the vote.
For now, both GEO and CoreCivic say they’re keeping their doors open. Their contracts both expired in July 1, and it’s not clear when they might shut down in Denver, because spokespeople for both companies declined to directly answer The Independent’s questions about timing.
A spokeswoman for Mayor Michael Hancock said his office is “disappointed” the contracts weren’t renewed. Hancock’s staff has been coordinating since the vote with the DOC, among others, to try to devise a plan to prevent the halfway house residents from going back to jail or prison.
But they have very good reason to be afraid of that outcome.
Greg Mauro, the city’s community corrections director, confirmed their fears in a brief distributed ahead of Monday’s council vote.
“If these contracts are not approved, approximately 517 individuals, who can appropriately be monitored in a community-based community corrections bed, will be returned back to prison or jail,” the brief read.
Restrictive city zoning laws prohibit the potential creation of any new halfway houses through at least early 2020.
Among the many touched by the council’s vote are the 188 people currently in DOC custody who are the waitlist to get into a Denver halfway house. Their progressions are paused for now. This situation has put a “strain” on the DOC, Director Dean Williams said. He has been clear that he does not want to see more people added to the state prison population.
No Plan B
Mauro told the council Monday that the city had not devised a Plan B in case the contracts were killed. And following the vote, officials haven’t announced any such plan.
Anxious halfway house residents are prepared to take extreme measures to avoid going back behind bars, according to one current resident of a GEO facility. She said she knows for a fact that some are ready to flee halfway houses.
“I know there are going to be people who are going to run, because it has been discussed between us,” she said. She asked not to be named for fear of retribution. “People are saying they’d rather have the opportunity to get their stuff together and leave. They aren’t prepared to go back to prison.”
The eight council members who voted to kill the contracts — combined, they’d have been worth about $10.6 million for the next year — were keenly aware of the uncertainty and chaos their decision would bring.
At-large Councilwoman Robin Kniech spoke at length on Monday about how the decision not to renew the contracts was one big “gamble.” Others echoed her concerns. Those who did vote against the contracts said that despite the concerns they felt a moral imperative to stand up to the private detention industry.
The four who voted for the contracts — Kevin Flynn, Kendra Black, Chris Herndon and Debbie Ortega — felt the gamble was too high-stakes because of its effect on those currently in halfway houses.
Addressing audience members who advocated for the contracts to be killed, Ortega said at the hearing, “You can look at me with your scowls on your faces, but at the same time, we’re talking about the lives of people, too.”
Candi CdeBaca, the democratic socialist District 9 councilwoman who led the charge against renewal, said potential pain in this uncertain transition period is justified by the greater cause of severing ties between the city and two private-prison companies lately synonymous with immigrant detention.
“For those people who are scared, I completely understand what they’re afraid of,” she said. “It’s not fair that they have to be pawns, essentially, in this game of privatized prisons.”
She’s hopeful, though, that future services to this population can be run by organizations with closer ties to the community and without the same profit motives GEO and CoreCivic have.
“The temporary pains are in service of the long-term safety and stability and reintegration of these people in our communities,” CdeBaca said, adding that she hopes that GEO and CoreCivic staffers in Denver will be recruited to work for city re-entry providers in the future; her gripe is not with them, but with the companies they work for.
‘She asks us to work for free’
CdeBaca also said that GEO and CoreCivic could show good will by keeping these halfway houses open for free, for now.
“The people that they have in their beds, they shouldn’t dismiss them. They should commit to serving those people and help whoever’s coming out until we have an effective plan,” she said. “These are multi-billion-dollar companies. It’s not like ($10.6 million) is going to be crippling their entire organization.”
GEO slammed the councilwoman’s idea in a statement.
It read: “First, she intentionally lies about our company and maligns the dedicated employees who have been providing high-quality services to a vulnerable population for decades. Then, she asks us to work for free to distract from the fact that her total disregard for the truth is going to result in sending hundreds of people back to prison instead of receiving the treatment and support they need and deserve. As a responsible partner, we will continue to work with Denver to ensure the best possible solution for all involved, especially the residents in our care.”
Asked on follow-up what, exactly, CdeBaca had lied about, GEO did not respond.
Not only have the companies declined to specify how long they’ll keep the halfway houses open with no active contract, but the answer doesn’t appear to be clear to the city, either.
Kelli Christensen, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Public Safety, emailed, “I cannot speak to whether or not GEO or CoreCivic will continue to provide services without a contract, but I am told that the clients … will be returned to jail or prison if there is not another option.”
One option that may yet emerge, however, is an abbreviated, transitional contract with GEO and CoreCivic. Councilwoman Kniech expressed doubt on Monday that her colleagues might be open to re-upping their partnerships with those companies for any amount of time, on principle.
But even the council’s most fervent advocate for killing the contracts said an interim arrangement could work.
“I think a shorter-term contract, (coupled with) a plan to do something different, would be acceptable,” CdeBaca said. “I’m completely open to even six months.”