Denver officials will meet next week to begin determining the future of about 500 halfway house residents who are in limbo after the City Council cut short multi-million dollar contracts with the facilities’ for-profit operators.
An advisory committee will have less than a year to find solutions before the city cuts ties with Geo Group and CoreCivic — two companies that, like other corporate players that rule the private prison industry, have faced claims that they put profit over care.
But there’s doubt that the committee will have enough time to achieve the systematic overhaul that some council members envisioned when they supported the move to take money-making out of the equation in Denver’s community corrections program.
“That’s not a lot of time to make some significant structural changes in this system,” said committee co-chairman Hassan Latif, executive director of the Second Chance Center, an Aurora-based non-profit that helps offenders find jobs and transition back into the community after their release.
“I would have preferred that the divestment from these two corporations happened in a way that didn’t put 500 folks' freedom at risk,” Latif said.
Denver’s halfway house dilemma offers a window into the logistical hurdles that arise when a government severs relationships with private providers in the pursuit of better quality services.
In early August, the City Council made the stunning decision not to renew the agreements with GEO and CoreCivic. Candi CdeBaca, who led the push, has cited claims of substandard conditions at the facilities and called for a model that allows the city to hold its providers to account.
“The day after the City Council vote, we fielded about 300 calls from panicked clients, from panicked loved ones, from employers who wondered if they were going to have half a day’s shift missing with no notice,” said Latif. "We’re in a crisis type situation right now."
In late August, the council approved temporary agreements to ensure that the halfway houses owned by GEO and CoreCivic would keep functioning for six months and a year, respectively.
Now, the city is left with only “imperfect options” before the clock runs out on those stopgap contracts, said Greg Mauro, director of the Denver Division of Community Corrections.
“This is going to be a messy challenge to follow the wishes of council,” said Mauro, who will co-chair the advisory committee with Latif.
The 13-member group, slated to meet at 6 p.m. on Sept. 26 at the city’s Carla Madison Recreation Center, also includes CdeBaca, Councilwoman Jamie Torres, 2nd Judicial District Judge Karen Brody and other public safety and criminal justice officials.
One option being considered is to transfer women residing at GEO’s 84-bed Williams Street Center to other residential community corrections programs. But that potential move, as first reported by The Denver Post, would disrupt residents’ lives — even if it was just 10 or 15 miles away.
“Its still not ideal because it does create some level of displacement,” Mauro said. “We want to do everything we can to not get to the most undesirable option, which would be to return people to custody.”
The clients of the halfway houses are either finishing up prison sentences or have been directly sentenced to the facilities by the courts.
In some residents’ cases, the State Parole Board could be consulted to see if they are ready for release. The Colorado Department of Corrections’ intensive supervision program, which allows offenders to live in the community, might be another option for others.
Both of those alternatives, however, depend on a client being stable enough to return to society, Mauro said.
City officials have also floated the suggestion that the city operate the halfway houses on its own.
There are only 11 buildings in Denver zoned for the use, and they're all occupied, Mauro said. One is used by the Bureau of Prisons and six are owned by GEO or CoreCivic. The rest — operated by the city’s other community corrections providers, the University of Colorado and the Independence House — are running at capacity, Mauro said.
The city could try and find the space to do the job. But first, it would probably have to relax zoning rules, Mauro said.
So, the "short-term options" are few, he said. “Whether you’re acquiring or leasing a building or standing up a totally new program, that takes time to start.”
Of the more than 30 some community corrections programs in Colorado, all but three are run by a private entities, Mauro said. Larimer, Garfield and Mesa counties run their own.
The city “has always relied on the private sector to provide halfway house services,” Denver Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Kelli Christensen said in an email. The one exception was a small program that was run at the Denver jail until inmate capacity led to its closure in 2013, Christensen said.
If Denver decides to take on the operation of the halfway houses, discussions about staffing will be “key” to the conversion, said Rolland Zullo, a researcher at the University of Michigan who specializes in privatization.
The fact that GEO and CoreCivic own six of the existing halfway house facilities “creates another hurdle,” said Zullo, who directs the university's Center for Labor and Community Studies in Dearborn, Mich.
But divorces from private providers aren’t uncommon, he said.
“What we often hear about public services being privatized, but it actually happens in the other direction as well. There’s many entities that try privatization and it fails,” Zullo said.
Across the country, governments are increasingly questioning the profit motives and quality of care provided by private contractors, especially those in the corrections realm.
A report released by the ACLU of Colorado on Wednesday blamed GEO for at least two deaths at the immigration detention center in Aurora that the company runs for the federal government. Geo declined to comment on the contents of the report, but said the facility’s healthcare program offers 24/7 services and has nearly 50 positions for medical professionals.
Some have also suggested that Denver recruit community organizations to operate halfway houses, instead of depending on for-profit companies to do the job. Although it’s unclear which organizations, if any, would be willing or capable.
CdeBaca said the model could look “a range a different ways” and could require more funding from the city.
“I don’t know if there are community organizations that have the financial capacity to take them on by themselves. But I think the financial issues around this industry are the problem,” she said. “We’re under-investing in the outcomes that we want. As a city, we need to really decide what are the outcomes that are worth paying for.”