Mayor shames city council for private-prison divorce as Denver charts a path forward

Transition plan could be approved as soon as Monday

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock listens on Tuesday, Aug. 20, as halfway-house residents discuss the effects of the City Council's recent decision to defy Hancock and sever ties with GEO Group and CoreCivic, the private prison companies that operate six halfway houses in the city. (Photo by Alex Burness)

It appears some early fears created by the Denver City Council’s Aug. 5 decision to sever ties with controversial halfway-house providers can for now be put to rest. 

The city Department of Public Safety released a transition plan this week that calls for a contract with GEO Group through the end of the year and another with CoreCivic through June 2020. Council members say they’re on board, and, per a spokeswoman, so is Mayor Michael Hancock.

This proposal, which could be approved as soon as Monday’s council meeting, was released about two weeks after the council defied the mayor by turning down one-year contracts with GEO and CoreCivic. The action was meant in part as a protest over GEO’s and CoreCivic’s widely criticized immigrant detention facilities at the U.S.-Mexico border and, in GEO’s case, in Aurora. Together, the companies run six community corrections centers in Denver and serve about 500 people at any one time. 

The proposal offers major relief to current halfway-house residents who’ve been worried that the council vote meant GEO and CoreCivic, with no active contracts and having been harshly and publicly criticized by city leaders, would close up shop quickly and, in so doing, leave officials with no choice but to send those people back to jail or prison.

At a 44th Avenue CoreCivic halfway house on Tuesday, one resident who’s been in and out of incarceration for 14 years said, “Taking this away is going to set a lot of people up for failure.”

“I wake up every day thinking I still got a chance to go back to prison,” another fearful resident said. 

They had good reason to fret: City community corrections officials explicitly advised the council that their downvote of the one-year contracts originally proposed would put some 500 people back behind bars. 

But that warning seems to have been based on faulty assumptions. 

There is a significant backlog of incarcerated people — 283 at last count, the city said — approved for halfway houses in Denver whose placements are now uncertain. But should the council approve the new transition plan, there’s no reason to believe that mass numbers of current GEO and CoreCivic residents will be kicked out and sent back to jail or prison.

Mayor Hancock has said he is sympathetic to the council’s concerns about private prison companies and their detention of immigrants and others, but he has also maintained that the council was irresponsible to call for a divorce from those companies when there was no plan in place to keep the affected halfway houses operational.

The unexpected vote by the newly seated council earlier this month was not only a protest of the private detention industry, but also a clear message that they plan to make their voices heard. The mayor is not used to such pushback from the council, and he may have been trying to take control of the messaging when he visited the halfway house with a gaggle of reporters. That there is now a likely transition plan to avert city staff’s initial predicted outcome of the council’s vote — that is, 500 people quickly going back to jail and prison — didn’t stop him from playing up that worst-case scenario during his visit to the 44th Avenue facility on Tuesday. 

This visit came less than 24 hours before the transition plan was released, and the plan’s parameters had been well known for more than a week to many involved in the brainstorming. The mayor spent much of his visit shaming the city council members who put the facility and five others in limbo with their original downvote.

“If you had a message to those who decided to mix the national politics around immigration with the current situation, with your situation and this opportunity here, what would you say to them?” Hancock asked five residents who’d agreed to meet with him.

At one point, Hancock admitted the reason for the visit was to send a message to the council that its vote was a mistake.

“Let me tell you why we came,” Hancock told the residents. “They (city council members) need to hear from you, and how important this is, this program is.”

He did nothing in the way of reassuring the residents that they weren’t headed back to prison or jail soon, even though the transition proposal was already far along in its drafting.

Meeting with reporters after his chat with the residents, Hancock continued to slam the council.

As a council member, he said, “You’re asked to make decisions that impact people’s lives … to be thoughtful about it, to make sure you’ve done your homework.

“And, I gotta tell you, I’m not sure there was a lot of thought done that goes along with this decision by city council.”

Hancock did not address the evidently flawed homework his own community corrections chief did to determine that hundreds would quickly be reincarcerated.

Should the council approve the transition proposal, the city will, in addition to extending in the short term with GEO and CoreCivic, convene a 13-member advisory committee to chart a path forward. That body would discuss options for continuation of these services once the short-term contracts expire. Members would have to grapple with the fact that zoning rules limit potential creation of additional halfway houses in the city. 

Candi CdeBaca, the first-term councilwoman who led the push to end the original contracts, said she’ll support this transition plan. She also said she doesn’t appreciate the mayor’s recent rhetoric, nor his prior efforts to further the relationship between the city and the two companies in question.

“What would make the administration believe that investing in private prisons and allowing them to monopolize community corrections is a good idea?” she said. “What thought went into putting the contract before us without a plan to divest (from GEO and CoreCivic)? … It seems the mayor is continuing to deflect responsibility for his own lack of leadership.”

7 COMMENTS

  1. zoning and coding in colorado broadly makes tiny homes and hemp homes nearly impossible to build. i feel like i live in a twilight zone full of slow people in the government slow reacting to the real world. the local gov only progresses when citizen led ballot inititiatives force their hands. For profit prisons is an injustice. So is prison slave labor.

    • What, pray tell, is “prison slave labor” besides rhetoric? I worked as a tutor in the mandatory GED program when I was an inmate in Missouri DOC. The highest pay I received for this 32 hours a week was just $30 per month, which works out to less than a quarter per hour. Because of some physical problems, I didn’t have to work at all but wanted to do something worthwhile, and I was able to persuade state prison officials to allow it.

      All government-run prisons are “for profit” just like any other bureaucracy. The goal every year is to spend all the money that’s been budgeted so you can make the case for needing more. And so-called treatment programs for substance abuse or sex offenders in prison are usually operated by private contractors, as are halfway houses in the communities outside lockup.

      I don’t think AOC Lite and her supporters have any clue what they’re talking about; it’s all political grandstanding.

  2. Any comment about the Hancock administration bringing contracts for Council approval AFTER they expire? Or for being so certain of an outcome that they had not prepared arguments for their prepared position and had to speculate about what COULD happen if the contracts were not extended?

    Optimistically, Hancock’s team will realize they may need to work on their relationships and understanding of Council members.

  3. Is it too much to hope for that City Council members, led by AOC Lite, will understand their duty to be competent administrators FIRST and partisan hacks only when it doesn’t harm the public interests?

      • I’m all for making the Squad into the face of the Democrat Party on the national level, and doing the same with AOC Lite and her fellow travelers in Denver. It’s a great opportunity to force people into thinking about what kind of government they really want.

        They’re also very funny, but not intentionally I’m sure.

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