Hundreds in prison limbo after Denver council breaks up with halfway house operators
A new councilwoman led the opposition because of objections to how the facilities owners’ operate immigrant detention facilities and private prisons nationwide
By Andrew Kenney
The Denver Post
DENVER — When Cameron Dorkins learned about the threat to the halfway house where he lives, he thought about running away.
“If they pull up the paddy wagons and want to take us back, I’m gone,” he told friends when he heard the news Tuesday. “I’ll take my chances on the street. I’d at least want to be able to say bye to my dad.”
The 25-year-old is one of more than 500 people living in limbo after the Denver City Council’s dramatic decision Monday night not to renew contracts for six halfway houses. New Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca led the opposition because of objections to how the facilities owners’ operate immigrant detention facilities and private prisons nationwide.
The vote is one of the council’s sharpest and most disruptive challenges of Mayor Michael Hancock in years. The body was supposed to approve $10.6 million in new funding for CoreCivic and GEO Group.
The facilities now are operating without a contract, and the companies could close them, city staffers warned. If that happens, hundreds of the homes’ residents could be sent to prison or resentenced. Colorado’s community corrections system is running at full capacity, leaving few other options for placement, state officials said.
“Lots of hand-wringing right now,” Joe Thome, director of the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice, said in describing the situation. “I guess we’ll know more over the next 24 hours. We’ll find some way to get services rolling to these inmates.”
Both of the companies said they’ll keep the sites open for the time being. But the stakes are growing, including for more than 100 people on the wait list for the Denver facilities.
“Those individuals that were anticipating coming this afternoon or tomorrow or next week or next month, their moves have been stopped,” said Shannon Carst, regional director for CoreCivic.
Dozens of fired-up speakers demanded that the city divorce itself from the companies. GEO runs the Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in Aurora.
The council decided 8-4 to reject the contracts, with council members Kevin Flynn, Kendra Black, Debbie Ortega and Chris Herndon in favor of renewing the contracts. Councilman Paul Kashmann was absent.
CdeBaca acknowledged that the decision could disrupt the programs. But she and other council members said it was a stand against an industry they view as immoral — and they said that an answer would emerge.
“I think there is some element of risk, and that is what we were tasked with tonight: weighing the risk of people who are in these specific facilities, versus getting better outcomes in the long run,” CdeBaca said after Monday’s meeting.
Halfway houses, or community corrections facilities, were established in Colorado in 1976 as an alternative to prison. Residents live at a supervised, unlocked facility and are required to find employment. They leave the facility for work or treatment with the ultimate goal of re-entering society.
GEO owns two of the Denver sites and CoreCivic owns four, making up the majority of the city’s 10 facilities. Statewide, they run 11 more sites.
The companies have grown their footprints, including by purchasing the Denver facilities in the last few years. They were expected to prosper under President Donald Trump — and indeed, the Trump administration has embraced private prisons, reversing President Obama’s efforts to curtail them. But they also have faced new backlash, with some investors and Democratic politicians rejecting the companies.
Denver council members debated Monday whether to support the companies or risk chaos.
“If we renew the contract, we’re supporting organizations that provide a valuable service to more than 500 people and 140 employees,” said Councilman Chris Hinds. “We’re also supporting organizations that put kids in cages, run concentration camps.”
Both companies said they run humane and well-regulated facilities. They said that they don’t detain unaccompanied children or run border patrol sites, and they stressed that their community corrections businesses are separate from their immigration detention businesses.
On Tuesday, government officials rushed for solutions but had few firm answers.
The biggest challenge is that there are no other local options. Denver’s zoning rules ban the creation of new community corrections sites, and that can’t be changed for months. And sites around the state are running at full capacity.
“There just aren’t any beds out there right now because of the interest to use community corrections as a safe alternative for offenders who would otherwise go to (state prisons),” Thome said.
Hancock’s administration could renegotiate the contracts if the companies are willing, though they still would need council approval. In an interview after the vote, CdeBaca said she would like to see a revised proposal.
“I think this gives us an opportunity to recalibrate. They can come back to the table and renegotiate a shorter contract,” she said. But she also suggested that the city could try to use the money for other re-entry services. She and other council members are interested in public or nonprofit services.
The state also might try to intervene. The vast majority of money for these programs flows from the state through the city. It’s an arrangement that’s meant to give cities more involvement in the program, but state officials are looking at whether they could sidestep Denver.
“We don’t know at this point yet,” Thome said. “We’re putting our noggins together.”
Legally, there’s little to stop CoreCivic and GEO from closing the facilities, although both have said they’ll keep operating amid negotiations. If they do close, Hancock’s administration and others have warned of dire consequences.
“We understand City Council’s concerns around the holders of these contracts, and share the much broader national demand for better treatment and conditions for those in federal custody due to their immigration status,” wrote Theresa Marchetta, a spokesperson for Hancock, in an email.
But “as a result of council’s decision, more than 500 individuals in need of a second chance are at risk of being placed back in prison, hindering their rehabilitation and further burdening our jails and prisons.”
If it comes to that, decisions about the fate of the residents would go to judges and state corrections officials, depending on each case’s details. They could get probation, but they also could be sent to prison instead. Those who avoid prison also could be left homeless.
“The most disappointing aspect of this deeply misguided decision is how much it hurts vulnerable people and the safety of this community,” wrote Amanda Gilchrist, director of public affairs for CoreCivic, in an email.
Neither company answered questions about how much longer they’ll keep their facilities open.
Meanwhile, Cameron Dorkins has talked himself down from the thought of running away. For now, the staff of CoreCivic’s Fox Street site have told residents to relax and wait it out.
Dorkins is nearly three months into treatment at CoreCivic’s Fox Street site, where he has received therapy and counseling for methamphetamine and alcohol abuse. He was “getting high and hurting people,” he said, while declining to discuss the specifics of his charges. Like the other men, he worried about whether the changes would derail their journeys home.
“All I want to do is get back to my dad. I was literally one decision away from going to prison for 10 years. I have a child on the way. I’ve got a father — he’s always been here for me and my brothers. I don’t want to hurt him again,” he wept. “I — I don’t know. I just want to get back to my family.”
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