Denver’s push to cut ties with for-profit halfway houses meets harsh reality

A shortage of beds means 120 people were waiting to be placed in a halfway house as of Jan. 31.
4 min. read
Mayor Michael Hancock meets with inmates living in CoreCivic’s 90-day addiction treatment halfway house facility. Aug. 20, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

As the Denver City Council seeks to break ties with for-profit corrections companies linked to immigration prisons, its safety committee advanced a contract on Wednesday that will keep one of them operating in the city for another year and a half.

CoreCivic would receive a one-year, $5.5 million extension on its contract to run four halfway houses for people transitioning out of jail and others sentenced to live there by courts. The deal's final approval will depend on a vote of the full city council later this month.

Legislators nixed contracts for CoreCivic and GEO Group abruptly last year, on moral grounds, before extending them both temporarily. Council members said investing in the private prison companies contradicts the city's stated goal of welcoming immigrants. CoreCivic faces a lawsuit from a Guatemalan mother whose 1-year-old died a week after leaving a federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement prison operated by the company.

Denver's move earned Twitter applause from Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez but left a gap in services here in the city. GEO closed two local halfway houses, resulting in a loss of 157 beds, said Greg Mauro, head of Denver Community Corrections.

CoreCivic's current contract ends June 30. The city is "on the cliff" of losing 330 more beds "if this contract is not extended," Mauro said.

As of Jan. 31, 120 people were waiting to be placed in a halfway house because of the shortage. Ninety of them were in prison while they waited.

City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca and others want to fill the void with a system that doesn't rely on for-profit companies. And they might want to use one of CoreCivic's buildings to do it.

The first-year councilwoman led the fight against the companies last year. She wants to find an eventual replacement that she hopes will include not-for-profit partnerships with the city government. On Wednesday, Cdebaca hesitated over giving CoreCivic more business without a roadmap for what would replace them. Denver Corrections has yet to outline what the replacement structure will look like and which vendors might be eligible.

"We're saying to the public that we want to end this contract -- or this relationship -- permanently, but we still haven't opened a door for new people to come in," CdeBaca said.

Mauro, with Denver Corrections, co-chaired a group tasked with triaging the halfway house issue. Social justice advocates, judges and elected officials, including CdeBaca, joined him in recommending the extension.

CoreCivic is also in real estate development and they own the four halfway houses it operates in the city. That means the company could sell its Denver properties as soon as the contract is up, potentially leaving the city without fewer places to operate halfway houses.

The company has every right to do just that. But CdeBaca wants some sort of assurance that it won't sell its facilities, particularly the Fox Street halfway house, which the government is eyeing for whatever comes next.

Councilwoman Robin Kneich said she would be content with a letter of intent from CoreCivic agreeing to discuss a sale down the road, and perhaps even to keep the properties off of the open market after the contract expires.

"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, because they did in fact operate for several months rather than displacing folks while we figured things out," Kniech said.

A representative from CoreCivic would not comment on the idea floated just minutes before. Skye Stuart, an attorney with the mayor's office, said the Hancock administration will discuss the idea with CoreCivic prior to the final vote later this month.

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