Denver averts halfway-house crisis — for now

The city council just put out a fire, but several others rage

City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca led a discussion Monday, Aug. 26, 2019, about Denver's Department of Public Safety and the council's divorce from CoreCivic and GEO Group — an effort CdeBaca led, and which promises a transformative, if painful, change in city halfway houses. (Photo by Alex Burness)

There will be no mass reincarceration of hundreds of Denver halfway-house residents, the city council ensured Monday.

The council voted unanimously to approve one contract with GEO Group that expires this December and another contract with CoreCivic that expires next June. They are the country’s two largest private prison providers, and in Denver they combine to run six halfway houses with a total of about 500 residents.

The vote means those residents won’t be sent back to jail or prison, as was originally feared when the council, after a long and wrenching debate, unexpectedly voted 8-4 on Aug. 5 to kill one-year contracts with GEO and CoreCivic. 

Both companies have kept their Denver facilities open since that vote, despite lacking active contracts, despite not having been paid and despite having been publicly blasted by council members who condemned the private prison industry in general and the immigrant detention centers GEO and CoreCivic run both at the border and inland, including in Aurora.

Spokespeople for the companies slammed the council’s Aug. 5 vote, claiming they’d been mischaracterized as agents of evil. Neither company’s reps spoke at Monday’s meeting.

The short-term contracts were intentionally staggered so that all affected residents won’t be transferred at once. GEO runs two Denver halfway houses to CoreCivic’s four.

It became clear after the Aug. 5 vote that Denver had no infrastructure or plan in place to transfer the roughly 500 affected residents to different halfway-house facilities. So council members, the mayor’s office, criminal justice professionals and advocates, the state Department of Corrections and various city officials agreed a “wind-down” deal with each company would be best in the short term. 

Monday’s vote was essentially a mandate from the council to Mayor Michael Hancock — who was highly critical of the Aug. 5 decision — and the city Department of Public Safety: We’re done doing business with these two providers, so come up with a plan to sever ties once and for all without compromising services for affected residents. 

“The message has been delivered,” said Jolon Clark, the council president. “Sometimes change, like the change that we need in this space, takes a moment where it gets real.”

A tremendous amount of work remains.

For one, city zoning restricts the creation of any new halfway houses in the city. That will almost certainly have to change — and quickly — if Denver is to transition hundreds of people by mid-2020. With almost no capacity in other city halfway houses, council members are bracing for a fight with NIMBY-minded citizens. 

“If you care about this issue, it’s important for you to open your hearts and minds,” said at-large Councilwoman Robin Kniech just before Monday’s vote. “It’s incumbent on us to change that zoning as quickly as we can, and that will take support from all of us.”

Many are also bracing for a scenario in which GEO and CoreCivic staff quit en masse between now and the contract expirations. 

“How many of us want to keep a job if we know it’s going to be gone in six months? You’re not just going to do it out of the goodness of your heart,” said Vance Roper, a nonpartisan state legislative analyst, during a Monday morning meeting of Colorado’s committee on prison population management. 

Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca — the democratic socialist who led the Aug. 5 vote — is among those who’ve suggested the city should look to hire some of those affected staff members to work at whichever halfway houses replace the GEO and CoreCivic centers. 

“The concept of community corrections is not on trial tonight,” CdeBaca said. “The issue tonight is really about the corporations that indeed are profiting off of community corrections.”

But there’s no plan in place to recruit staff, because no one knows how, exactly, Denver’s community corrections program is going to be reimagined in the coming months. That will be decided largely by a 13-member committee the city will convene following Monday’s vote. 

The committee will be co-chaired by Denver’s community corrections chief and an as-yet-unappointed community member. CdeBaca and others are pushing for that community co-chair to be Hassan Latif, a formerly incarcerated man who runs Aurora’s Second Chance Center — a respected re-entry program that advocates believe offers an example for Denver to follow as it reshapes its department.

It seems likely that the committee will at least seriously consider a groundshift away from corporate, profit-driven halfway houses and toward a more community-based model, run by and for Denverites, and, pending the imminent zoning debate, sited in neighborhoods. Current zoning shunts the existing halfway houses to warehouse districts, far from homes and amenities.

“Within our community, we have so many wonderful providers who are edged out every day,” said Candice Bailey, a family advocate in the Division of Youth Services, during a conversation at CdeBaca’s office on Monday afternoon. “There is no way we should have (GEO and CoreCivic) gathering these contracts over and over.”

The contracts the council voted down earlier this month were for a combined $10.6 million.

Added Lisa Calderón, a community re-entry expert and former mayoral candidate who now works for CdeBaca: “The city divested in community-based providers years ago. … We have providers who are willing; they just have been ignored by the city for a long time.”

With no guarantee of who’ll run halfway houses in Denver once these short-term contracts expire, or of where those facilities will go, the state DOC is getting nervous. It has a backlog of 600 people waiting to be sent to community corrections, and now, given concerns about staff turnover and other uncertainties, officials say it will have to be very careful about referring prisoners to Denver facilities.

Advocates remain hopeful that something transformative and more community-focused will emerge. But with so much in the balance, few are celebrating this divorce just yet.

“It’s really, exceptionally clear that the (Aug. 5) vote by the Denver City Council will have lasting impact on our entire prison system, on victims, on families, on courts,” state Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat, said Monday. She said the new, short-term contracts are “not a win.” 

“It may be a Band-Aid. But it will not be a solution. It will take all of us working together to actually achieve those long-term solutions.”

1 COMMENT

  1. The Denver City Council’s Aug 5 vote was bold, courageous and the right decision to sever ties with two companies that exemplify the nation’s prison industrial complex. It is also the correct decision to provide off-ramps so that those receiving services are not left stranded and without critical support. Please, Denver Councilors, continue to provide leadership and innovative solutions to a nationwide injustice in states and at our southern borders—private prisons profiting off of those with the least resources in our society. This paradigm must be changed and Denver can lead the way.

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