After Denver City Council Declines To Renew Contracts With Private Halfway Houses, Officials Wonder Where The Plan Forward Is

Pat Mack/CPR News
Denver’s City and County Building, April 2014.

Denver city councilors have refused to renew more than $10 million in contracts with two of the nation's largest private corrections companies that operate halfway houses in the city partly due to their track record running immigration detention facilities, a sudden move which puts current inmates and people leaving prison in limbo.

Supporters of the change approved Monday night — many of them newly elected — said they could not endorse sending money to Nashville, Tenn.-based CoreCivic and Boca Raton, Fla.-based GEO Group because of their treatment of detained immigrants. They also objected to having large, for-profit companies handle the job of helping inmates transition back to life outside of prison and faulted them for not being accountable to the public.

"These entities are essentially the Walmarts, taking away the businesses from our mom and pops and they're taking away our ability to serve our community in ways that we would know are best for our community because we're part of them," Council member Candi CdeBaca said.

CdeBaca also cited allegations of GEO's use of low paid labor by those held at its suburban Denver immigration detention center, the subject of a federal class action lawsuit. CoreCivic has also faced similar allegations at a prison in New Mexico. It does not run any immigration detention centers in Colorado.

Both companies have said their work programs are voluntary and comply with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement standards.

Denver District Attorney Beth McCann said she didn’t know the contracts expired immediately and thought that there was a strategy to transition away from the two companies.

"We need to have something in place for these people that are in the facilities. And, ultimately, the employees of these two companies will be out of their jobs," McCann said. "I’m hoping now that the vote’s been taken, the city and state will be able to come up with some sort of a plan to move forward so these folks don’t automatically go back to prison."

The GEO immigration facility in Aurora has come under scrutiny by members of the state's congressional delegation. In June, the Homeland Security Department's internal watchdog noted that detainees in GEO's facility in Aurora were not allowed visits from friends and family even though there was room for them to accommodate them.

Council member Chris Hinds questioned why public dollars should go to companies that he said "put kids in cages" and run "concentration camps."

"We're supposed to represent the people. What are we doing getting in bed with companies that clearly do not represent the people?" he asked.

GEO and CoreCivic criticized City Council members for what they called a political decision that they said would hurt vulnerable people, some of whom they said could become homeless without their services.

"Contrary to their deliberate mischaracterizations, our ICE processing centers are not overcrowded, have never housed unaccompanied minors and provide the safest and most humane residential care possible," GEO said in a statement. GEO does not run any detention centers on the border.

Theresa Marchetta, a spokeswoman for Mayor Michael Hancock, said the city doesn't currently have any other viable alternatives for halfway houses because of zoning restrictions and that the more than 500 people in the companies' facilities are at risk of being placed back in prison, hindering their rehabilitation.

"We are disappointed that council did not renew these contracts while other alternatives were explored," she said in a statement.

The city is working with state and regional partners to try to find places for the current halfway house residents to try to prevent them from being returned to jail or prison. However, no new inmates are being placed in the six facilities run by the two companies, which provide substance abuse counseling and job readiness training, because of the vote, said Kelli Christensen, spokeswoman for Denver's Department of Public Safety.