Denver City Council is wrestling with the consequences of its sudden move last summer to sever its relationships with for-profit corrections companies and seek neighborhood-based ones instead.
As a result, CoreCivic — one of two private prison companies the council cut ties with, in part, because of its treatment of detained immigrants — could be given another year to continue running four of its halfway houses in Denver. The $5.5 million contract extension was advanced by the council’s safety committee on Wednesday and would run through June 2021 if approved by the full council later this month.
“We’re on a cliff of losing an additional 330 beds if the contract is not extended,” said Greg Mauro, the director of Denver Community Corrections. Those beds would add to 157 already lost as a result of the contract termination with the GEO Group, which ran two halfway houses in the city.
Meanwhile, Mauro said 120 people are waiting for placement because of the shortage, 75% of whom are waiting behind bars.
If the city can’t come up with a plan for replacing the 330 CoreCivic beds, Mauro told Colorado Politics in a separate interview, Denver will be at risk of losing about 70% of the $18 million the state allocates for its community corrections programs.
Community corrections serve as an option for people “halfway in” and “halfway out” of prison, meaning they’re often both a last chance for people who are on the verge of being incarcerated and are viewed as a tool for those transitioning from incarceration back to society.
Without other options — which the city currently doesn’t have in place — inmates and people leaving prison are left in limbo, and potentially posing a public safety risk. Colorado Politics recently reported that the number of violent offenders in Denver’s halfway houses has more than doubled since 2009.
Other concerns abound by not passing the contract, some city officials say. Not only will “exponentially” more people be held up in prison or jail because they have nowhere else to go, but a growing number of people have already escaped from their halfway houses out of fear.
“Folks ran because they were nervous they were going to get sent back to prison,” Councilwoman Robin Kniech said.
There’s also the issue of retaining staffing, Mauro said. Once it’s clear a company closure is imminent, “you can’t staff a program safely,” and the prison system “loses its capacity even further.”
Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, who led the fight against Denver’s private prison companies, isn’t opposed to renewing CoreCivic’s contract for one more year, but she first wants Denver Corrections to make clear which new service providers could be eligible to replace the company.
“We’re saying to the public that we want to end this contract … but we still haven’t opened a door for new people to come in,” CdeBaca said.
She also requested CoreCivic commit in some way to keeping their facilities off the market until the city has had its say. With Denver ownership, community organizations strapped for cash could have access to more affordable spaces.
The city recently bought the GEO Group’s Tooley Hall facility for $1.3 million and is considering a similar move with one of CoreCivic’s properties.
Councilwoman Deborah Ortega, who voted against the Tooley Hall deal, raised the fact that she is “uncomfortable” acquiring any of CoreCivic’s four halfway houses without a request-for-proposal process.
“That just assumes we’re going to purchase the properties from the very people we’re saying we’re divesting from,” she said. “That is not divestment.”
Kniech said an RFP process is not in the city’s favor because it will drive up the price of the building, which the city must compete for.
“I’ve never in my years of government service seen people compete to sell a building to the city,” she told the committee. “This is absolutely the wrong approach.”
A letter of intent from CoreCivic stating it will not place its properties on the open market will suffice, Kniech said, pointing to the fact that it operated for several months with no funding while the city figured out its first contract extension, which would expire this June if no action is taken.
“I in no way, shape or form believe there’s evidence that this operator is acting in bad faith as it pertains to the City and County of Denver,” she said.
The contract is expected to have its first reading on the floor of City Council on Feb. 18.