Shunning massive corporate operators, criminal justice advocates hope to open a public halfway house in Denver

Former offenders told us how they struggled to succeed in facilities run by companies earning millions on reentry programs.
27 min. read
Kristin Morgan embraces her brother after she was released from the Arapahoe County Residential Reentry Center halfway house in Littleton. Nov. 21, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Snow began to fall as Kristin Morgan walked out of the Arapahoe County Residential Reentry Center in Littleton for the last time as a client. Her brother waited outside the halfway house in the morning cold, taking the laundry basket filled with her few belongings when she finally emerged. They embraced in a long hug as she cried.

It was a week before Thanksgiving. The last few months had been difficult, but Morgan felt a sense of euphoria as she left. She'd get to spend the holiday with her children and begin to be a mother again.

This was Morgan's second time in a metro area halfway house. She'd run away from her first, in Jefferson County, after she was arrested in 2010. In the year she spent hiding in her mother's basement, she decided to deal with her record. She turned herself in and went to prison. Then, in 2018, she was assigned to the Arapahoe County facility just off Santa Fe Drive south of Denver.

Life wasn't easy in the halfway house. She said staffers made it difficult for her to get to work and buy basic hygiene products. She said they treated clients like "their little puppets," ordering them around and teasing them with the possibility of a longer sentence or a trip back to prison. But she had a lawyer and supportive family, and she managed to make it through without succumbing to her urge to run again.

Halfway houses are meant to be places where people recalibrate their lives and transition back to society from the justice system. Some people arrive at these facilities from prison, but many others are sent to them directly after sentencing, as an alternative to prison. They can offer people an opportunity to shake addiction and change long-standing patterns of self-destruction and crime.

But things don't always work out that way. People with support, like Morgan, may be able to steel themselves to succeed in difficult reentry programs. Others may run, like she did once, preferring to deal with their choices, traumas or addictions in a cell.

The people in charge of these programs make all the difference in a client's ability to change their lives. A few in Colorado are run by county governments, but most are private, for-profit enterprises. Local justice reform advocates are increasingly saying the largest of these - the ones run by massive international corporations - are failing people like Morgan.

Last year, Denver voted to end contracts with two of the world's largest private-prison companies, CoreCivic and GEO Group, which owns the Arapahoe County facility. The vote was initially a statement on the comapnies' involvement with immigration prisons, but it has since become a referendum on who should be allowed to oversee offenders' transitions back to society.

Both of GEO's Denver facilities have since closed, and now the city has a chance to create something new in their absence. The decision will have far-reaching effects, and either help people grow from their mistakes or become more deeply ingrained in a cycle of incarceration.

Even with support, Morgan struggled to succeed at GEO's halfway house.

The basket filled with Morgan's belongings weighed on her small frame as she handed it to her brother. Still, she looked a lot stronger than when she was arrested. The woman in the mugshot from 2010 was gaunt, all cheekbones and dark circles under her eyes. She was addicted to meth and had yet to reckon with her demons.

For 11 years, beginning when she was just 2, Morgan said she was sexually abused by a close family member. She tried to drown her trauma, getting into drugs and associating with bad crowds.

At age 27, she landed the arrest that sent her to her first halfway house. The incident came after a couple she knew had gotten hold of some compromising photographs of her, which they posted to Craigslist. Her brother, Brandon Miller, described it as an attempt to "sell her or pimp her out" online. Morgan confronted them at their home, hoping to pull the photos from the internet.

"I went to get them back, and a fight broke out," she said. "I got charged with conspiracy to commit first-degree burglary, felony assault and menacing."

She believes she could have found her way out of the pattern of drug abuse and risky behavior if she'd found more support then, as she entered Colorado's corrections system. She worked with case managers that she liked and found supportive programs in prison, but she said her experience in local reentry programs made it difficult to move past her mistakes.

Halfway houses are more than just a step out of prison. Clients match with case managers who are supposed to coach them through their traumas and criminal mindsets. It's a way to keep an eye on their progress and ensure the state parole board that clients will be successful when they reenter the world on their own. Residents take classes to learn how to recognize why they've made bad choices in the past and how to avoid missteps in the future.

Morgan's treatment plan, prepared by GEO when she entered its program, estimated she could complete ACRC's requirements and make parole in less than six months. She ended up staying for a year and a half.

One reason for the long wait had to do with money. In order to level up and complete her "progression matrix," a state-mandated rubric for graduating from a halfway house, she had to prove she was financially stable. As part of her responsibilities, she had to pay ACRC $17 per day in rent and, to complete the final level of the matrix, have some money saved up. She held a few jobs while she was at ACRC. Her favorite was in sales for a travel agency.

Morgan said her parole was delayed for months because she couldn't get ahead of her financial responsibilities and complete the program. Her debts began to accrue the day she arrived at the Littleton facility, as they do for anyone who enters a Colorado halfway house. More than a year later, those debts were still in the thousands. Her lawyer, Gordon Sanchez, called the burden a "moving target." Miller tried to help pay down the sum, but even he couldn't keep up.

These payments are supposed to help people learn to pay bills before they're let out. Greg Mauro, who runs Denver's halfway house system, said the savings are meant to help clients land safely in Colorado's expensive housing market when they leave their halfway home.

But Mauro, who's spent his career working in corrections, said the requirement is "antiquated."

"To expect clients to come with the complexity of needs they're coming into community corrections with, and to already start to accrue debt from the first day or few days into the placement, is just an antiquated model," he said. "I'd like to see subsistence go away, but that's a legislative decision, not a facility or county decision."

Money wasn't Morgan's only problem. In the spring, the state parole board told her she would be free to leave once she completed ACRC's program. More than once, Miller said he sent paperwork to the halfway house that would have moved her closer to parole, but management seemed to keep losing crucial documents. He started to complain. Then, they accused her of failing a drug test. Morgan denied that she'd been using. Miller offered to pay for a second test to confirm the results, but he said ACRC's staff didn't go for it.

Miller feared his persistence was making things worse.

"When you start poking around and asking questions, they start to get super-defensive and then take it out on whoever's staying in there that you're trying to help," he said. "She was told (by the head of security there) that if she got her attorney involved he would have to go through corporate, and he would make things extremely difficult for her in the halfway house moving forward."

GEO eventually dropped the drug accusations and let Morgan leave. She said support from her brother, and the fact that she had a lawyer, made it possible for her to exit unscathed.

When people without help face difficult situations, they run.

Stephanie Goodlow has no problem admitting she made destructive choices as she was growing up in Denver. She caught her first charge in 1998, when she was selling crack and deeply involved with a local gang.

"Somebody owed me some money and they didn't want to pay me, so I pistol-whipped them and they called the police on me," she said. "I've been in and out of prison since then. I got out almost four years ago."

Goodlow was assigned to four different halfway houses during her time in the criminal justice system, but the programs never worked for her: "I ran all four times."

Like Morgan, she remembered clashes with staff. She spent time in Tooley Hall, one of the two Denver facilities that closed, before GEO bought it. She said her case manager was affiliated with a gang, which made it difficult for them to get along.

When she was at ACRC - also before GEO bought that facility - she said guards flashed gang signs at her and called her "cuz." Goodlow said that toxic power dynamic made escaping and returning to prison more palatable than staying in any halfway house program.

"It's a terrible place to be if you want to change, especially when you feel like people are against you and sabotaging you. Because when you're stressed out or you need something, those are the people that you're supposed to be able to trust and rely on," she said. "They have the power to send you back, put you on hold. It's just a struggle."

Like many people we spoke to for this story, Goodlow said there were case managers and staffers who made positive impacts at the places where she struggled to succeed. But the people who seemed to care were drowned out by those who seemed not to. And Goodlow didn't have a lawyer or a successful brother rooting for her on the outside.

Jessica Goodlow poses for a portrait in her Ruby Hill home. March 6, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

On average, between 2016 and 2019, nine of the ten facilities with the highest escape rates in the state were operated by GEO or CoreCivic, according to the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice. All nine were in Denver, Adams and Arapahoe counties. The highest was GEO's Williams Street facility in City Park West, one of the few women's programs in the state. It was also one of the two facilities to close late last year. In three years, 31 percent of people who exited the program did so because of an escape, nearly twice the state average.

Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, previously told Denverite that relapse is the most common cause of an escape. But she said these are complicated people with complicated stories in complicated systems. Several people we spoke with said location matters, and that Denver is the most difficult place to bounce back. Williams Street is just blocks from Colfax Avenue - Denver's "wickedest street."

Any halfway house client who is intentionally not where they're supposed to be, whether at work or at the facility, can be charged with an escape. Some clients earn an escape charge if they're too late for curfew. Others may decide that leaving to tend to a sick family member is worth a new charge. Escapes are usually rewarded with a felony.

(Source: Colorado Division of Criminal Justice)

GEO Group declined to be interviewed for this story, and instead sent us written answers to only some of our questions.

"Escapes happen at all facilities, whether public or private," a statement from the company said. "When individuals have access to the community, they have the freedom to access negative influences such as drugs, alcohol, violence, and abuse, in some cases without enough self-control or the right tools they need to successfully navigate those situations."

Donner said judging a program's quality solely on its escape rate "feels a little thin" and that it doesn't take into consideration the myriad reasons people leave. Still, escapes are one measure she's using in her own analysis of the state's programs for her watchdog group.

She said facilities run by private companies are not the best places for people transitioning back into society.

"Denver needs to have a higher standard," she said.

The city is now grappling with its decision to oust GEO and CoreCivic, a difficult maneuver given that it had few transition plans in place before the vote. As a result, the state has fewer beds for people hoping to leave prison, and Denver now has no program for women.

Still, Donner, said officials won't regret the hasty decision once this difficult moment passes: "I think Denver will be pretty happy they went through this."

Goodlaw said the halfway houses themselves gave her reason to run. Morgan said they nearly drove her to the same fate.

"I went through hell and back with these people. I was on the verge of leaving," Morgan recalled. "A lot of us don't know how to live. We do need help to get on our feet, and that's what these places are supposed to be about."

An old friendship might help Denver become the model for rehabilitation that some have dreamed of.

When GEO ceased operating in Denver last year, it left Tooley Hall, an old building in Northeast Park Hill, vacant. The facility, which is named for a legendary Denver district attorney, has been a halfway house for decades and was passed down between operators until GEO purchased it in 2017. City Council voted to buy it last December, and it's now determining what to do with the space.

Pam Clifton, who has advocated for statewide justice reforms for more than a decade, wants a revolutionary women's program, possibly operated by local government, to replace GEO at Tooley Hall. She said many incarcerated women probably had pathways like Morgan's, and she doesn't think the state's prisons and halfway houses are doing enough to address traumas that lead to crime.

Clifton should know. She was once on a similar road herself.

"Most of the women that are in the criminal justice system were victims long before they were defendants. We know that their histories are often rooted in trauma and abuse," she said. "We build systems for men. We build prisons for men. We build all of those things. And then we try to fit women into those systems. And it doesn't work, because we're two different animals."

In 1990, Clifton was in a bad car accident that landed her in prison. She got out, but her world soon fell apart when her husband died suddenly. She began using drugs and, in 1998, she was caught with a gram and a half of meth. It put her behind bars for nine more years and caused her to lose custody of her kids.

That separation turned her into an activist. Even before she was released, she began a campaign to change how women, especially mothers, are treated in the system.

Pam Clifton poses for a portrait in her office at the Inner City Parish where the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition is headquartered. Jan. 9, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Today, Clifton works under Donner at the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. She's involved with a group assembled by City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca to present Denver with a new vision for Tooley Hall.

She hopes the vacancy is an opportunity to create a program mirroring Larimer County's halfway house system, where she once did time. It's run by an old friend, Tim Hand, who Clifton met when he became her parole officer after her first stint in prison. In him, she found someone to trust.

"He never yelled at me or made me feel small. It was more like having an older brother for your parole officer," she said. "There's just a kindness about him."

At Hand's direction, she became one of the first inmates in Colorado to participate in a GPS ankle monitoring program, which allowed her to return home.

She had the monitor on when she went into labor with her son. When her ankle began to swell at the hospital, Hand arrived to cut the monitor off her leg.

"He came up and just said, 'Just don't go anywhere, Pam,'" she recalled. She remembered answering through labor pains: "I'm good."

Hand rose from parole officer through the ranks of Colorado's justice system. In 2011, he became director of the state's parole program. But tragedy struck two years later, when his boss and mentor, Tom Clements, was assassinated by a man with ties to white supremacist groups. The gunman showed up to his door, dressed in the uniform of the pizza delivery man he murdered first.

Hand's name was also on the assassin's hitlist, but because the shooter was a parolee - and, thus, under his purview - he was blamed for Clement's death and stripped of his position. Even now, people who know Hand well say he didn't deserve to take the fall.

Hand was quickly hired to run Larimer County Community Corrections, which has long been operated by the local government. He reconnected with Clifton in his role there last year, as she and others began looking for a model for Tooley Hall's replacement.

"It's all about the culture, I'm telling you."

Larimer County's halfway house complex is a cluster of brick buildings not far from I-25 in Fort Collins. Hand might be in charge, but he'd rather not come off as the boss.

"Nobody calls me mister anything. I'm Tim," he said.

A few days after Christmas, Tim roamed the halfway house. The mood was more mellow than usual, thanks to the holiday.

"Whats up, Tim?" one exhausted-looking man said as Hand walked past the cafeteria. "I had a baby last night."

"You did?" Hand exclaimed, with the enthusiasm of a third-grade teacher. "Boy or a girl?"

"Boy, my 6th," the man replied. "I'm tired."

Hand reached out for a high five: "I bet you are."

As Hand walked through a crowd of men waiting to eat, it was clear he knew the names of many. He knew how they were doing in their addiction programs and in therapy. He knew that one person he passed in the hall had recently dealt with a difficult anniversary: the day he killed someone in a car wreck.

His clients knew his name, too. Nobody called him "sir." Just "Tim."

Tim Hand sits at a table in his office where newly minted certificates of completion wait to be taken to clients in his halfway house program in Larimer County. Dec. 27, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The environment is one reason Hand thinks people in his halfway houses are less likely to commit a new crime after they leave or escape. On average, just 6 percent of his clients escaped the program between 2017 and 2019. Colorado's other two government-run operations, in Mesa and Garfield counties, had rates below that, the lowest in the state.

"I'm pretty committed. If you do this kind of thing, you're in it. It's running through your blood. I'm in it because there's a lot riding on it. For a lot of people, it's like life and death," he said. "It's all about the culture, I'm telling you."

Hand doesn't think people should have to be ready to kick addictions or criminal patterns before they arrive at a halfway house. Not everyone is ready like Morgan was when she transferred to ACRC. Some people who end up at Larimer might resist going at first.

"I fought tooth and nail coming here," Cassandra Tippmann said as she stood by the front desk. But, "being sober has given me a completely different outlook on life, and this program has given me a different outlook on life."

The glimmering atmosphere here is why representatives from Denver have paid visits in recent months as they look for something to replace Tooley Hall. Councilwoman CdeBaca and Rep. Leslie Herod recently made the trip north together, and both said they heard positive reviews as they spoke to clients away from Hand's watchful eye.

Denverites make the case for a public halfway house.

Most Saturdays, Clifton meets with the group CdeBaca tasked with dreaming up a new plan for Tooley Hall. It's an informal convening, made up solely of women, that stemmed from Denver's official taskforce on phasing out GEO and CoreCivic's contracts. Many of the women involved have direct experience in Colorado's justice system.

The city's division of community corrections will ask the public what should be done with the shuttered halfway house, a process that will likely begin in March before a more formal call for proposals. Clifton and her colleagues want to be ready when Denver opens that door. She toured Larimer County's program and many others across the state, and the group has been building a framework for a women's program that they hope will earn Denver City Council's support. (Denver's purchasing division must approve any contract that comes out of the city's official request for proposals, but City Council must ultimately approve whatever rises to the top of that process.)

Clifton said the shake-up last year, no matter how difficult it's been, has created a unique opportunity for change.

"Often, when you work in this business, you have to wait for that perfect moment and the perfect storm to have an opportunity to do big things," Clifton said. "Right now, it really is the perfect storm."

Reform advocates like Clifton would like to see Denver move away from operators like GEO and CoreCivic that they say have a "profit motive" that gets in the way of their responsibility to rehabilitate clients.

Herod, who recently passed a bill shifting the state's prison system away from private operators, said Colorado's reliance on these companies has been "setting people up to fail."

Herod has sponsored a lot of justice reform measures at the state since she's been in office, like the elimination of cash bonds for low-level offenses. Caring 4 Denver, a local ballot measure she championed to create a fund for mental health and justice matters, could help supplement state dollars for a new kind of program in the city.

"Colorado still has one of the highest recidivism rates in the nation, and we are not an unsafe place or an unsafe state," she said. "I believe these larger private companies that come in and just have a profit margin are very problematic for the outcomes and the system."

Gov. Jared Polis voiced a similar concern in February, when he spoke to Colorado Matters about private prisons, saying a "profit incentive for recidivism" means companies are "making money off of people having to reenter the criminal justice system."

But before City Council voted in August, some people testified in support of renewing GEO and CoreCivic's contracts. Their biggest concern was the possibility that more than 500 clients would soon find themselves back in prison or on Denver's streets.

They said alternatives were off the table. Zoning rules had tightened since the 1990s, when rehab programs were strewn across the heart of the city, making it nearly impossible to open any new programs.

"There are no other options," Jane J. Prancan, former chair of Denver's community corrections board, said before council. "Those people will come back to our community, and they will come back to no services at all."

She added: "We have 150 staff who all care deeply about these clients, and I'd like you to think about them, too."

Advocates for change say who's in charge of halfway houses makes all the difference.

Last year, a Tooley Hall counselor pleaded guilty to allegations that he'd repeatedly raped three men in his care there. In March, civil rights attorney David Lane sued GEO for a lack of oversight, and described in court documents how the perpetrator used his power to send the victims back to prison as leverage to continue the abuse.

Mauro, who leads Denver's halfway house program, said this was a rare occurrence.

"I think oftentimes this is a function of the individual, not the organization," he said.

But when Lane spoke to Denverite, he said Tooley Hall's private operation was a precondition for something this horrific to occur.

Halfway houses like ACRC might take direction from multinational corporations, but the people they hire often come from local communities and may spend entire careers working in the field. Before Tooley Hall closed, for instance, it was the site of a promising new therapy program that case managers said they were excited to be a part of.

But even though GEO reported $580 million in revenue from its halfway house business in 2018, the most recent figures available, some of its local operations haven't been able to maintain a stable base of employees.

Faith Cariaga was a client at Williams Street when it closed. She spent two more months at ACRC before she was allowed to serve the rest of her time at home.

"In about 18 months I've been through at least 10 case managers," she said.

The lack of consistency made her exit difficult. She said she had to start over with every new case manager.

A GEO spokesperson wrote Denverite explaining that turnover is not related to who runs a halfway house, be it a government or a private owner. The company argued that turnover "is influenced by internal and external factors, including the state of the economy," adding, "Like probation and parole officers, case management positions are difficult jobs that test a person's resilience."

It's a different story in Larimer County. There are a number of people on Hand's team who've been with the program for a decade or more. Beth Corbitt is a supervisor who will soon celebrate 30 years on the job. The same culture that influences client outcomes in Larimer's program also influences people like her to stay.

"I love the environment here, it is exactly why I've been here for so long," she said. "The culture here is about treating people with respect and transitioning people back to the community in a healthy environment. To me, you can hardly ask for anything more than that."

Larimer County opened its program in 1976, and it's been publicly run ever since. But Corbitt said there were a few times when officials considered privatizing the operation. She recalled one such effort in the '90s.

"It was a scary time because we knew that probably not all of us would be kept on," she recalled. "It would change and it would be more about profit and it would be more about numbers and moving people through."

Clifton said that a profit-driven motive plays into all kinds of decisions.

"That's going to be reflected in staff selection, in site selection, in program selection, in food selection. I mean, it's going to affect every single thing," she said. "They're not going to be in business in corrections unless they're making money."

She sees a public program like Larimer operating with a different incentive.

"Their margin is public safety, real public safety, and serving their community," she said. "They want to make sure that their county is safer. And so that's what they do. And they do it the best way they can."

GEO said success for all of its facilities is "based on program performance and outcomes."

"Historically, GEO has made large investments in facilities and programming and people (wages)," the statement from the company reads. "As a private entity, GEO can probably adjust to shifting needs and environments easier than public facilities."

The real motive for keeping contractors like GEO in Colorado may boil down to economics. Before Herod's measure to steer Colorado away from private prison operators passed last month, legislators from the eastern plains warned that an outright ban on the private sector could impact rural, cash-strapped communities that would suddenly be responsible for running complicated operations.

"In working in partnership with government agencies to deliver services more efficiently and cost-effectively, we are part of the solution," GEO's statement read.

Herod said Denver could finance any system it sets its mind to building.

In recent weeks, Mauro met with Clifton and her colleagues to discuss their big ideas for a new program at Tooley Hall. While he thinks it's possible for both private and public configurations to produce positive outcomes, he said he's excited about the things the reform group is talking about. Still, he's not certain they'll get everything they want.

"We may not be able to get everything we want in year one, and we may not be able to get everything we want at all," he said. Still: "We're working hard, and we hope to build something that serves women and all clients in community corrections well, and that the residents of Denver can be proud of."

In the meantime, it's likely the state's justice system will continue to churn out activists like Clifton.

Dissatisfied with their experiences during their rehabilitation, it's not uncommon to hear people say they've committed themselves to helping those still serving time.

In the four years since she left prison, Goodlow has become an advocate for halfway house clients. She recently started a business, "No More Chains Mentoring," that she hopes will help people navigate the tricky systems that failed her.

Morgan said she's thinking about becoming a therapist or mentor as she figures out what the next era of her life may look like, and possibly go back to a place like ACRC.

She said people are stripped of their voices in halfway houses and prisons. It's so easy for them to fall through the cracks. She'd like to see something change.

She doesn't want anyone to struggle to change like she did.

"My biggest thing is to give these people a chance, give them a chance to better their lives. We all make mistakes and if people keep throwing those mistakes on them, they're never going to be able to grow," she said. "All I want is just for people to know that a lot of us want to be better. We want to get better, we want to have a successful life. And the only way that that can happen is people give us a chance."

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