What is the future for private prison companies in Colorado?
The messy process of ending Denver’s connections to private corrections companies highlights how enmeshed Colorado’s criminal justice system remains in the private prison industry
By Elise Schmelzer
The Denver Post
DENVER — City Council may have ended Denver’s relationship with private prison corporations that run its halfway houses, but in the coming months the city also will have to rethink its ankle monitors and find a new provider for jail residents who have addiction for the city to fully divorce the controversial industry.
The city for years has contracted with a GEO Group subsidiary for those services, which public safety leaders fear will be difficult to replace at a comparable cost. Even with a plan now in place for finding new halfway house providers, Denver Department of Safety Executive Director Troy Riggs isn’t sure he’ll be able to provide the same amount of services a year from now.
The messy process of ending Denver’s connections to private corrections companies highlights how enmeshed Colorado’s criminal justice system remains in the private prison industry. But with a governor who supports phasing out the companies, a Democrat-controlled statehouse successfully implementing criminal justice reform and a drastic change in prison population forecasts, some experts and lawmakers are hopeful.
“We’re in a different period where frustration has lead to political pressure, which I don’t think we’ve seen before,” said Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, which has opposed the industry for two decades.
Earlier this month, Denver City Council voted to end its contracts for operating halfway houses with CoreCivic and GEO Group, but the companies don’t just manage community corrections in Denver.
CoreCivic runs 39 facilities across Colorado and GEO Group operates at 13 sites. Combined, the companies’ services in Colorado span nearly every aspect of the corrections process: electronic monitoring for those on pre-trial release, incarceration, treatment, re-entry and parole monitoring. A tiny amount of the public-sector employees’ retirement pool is even invested in one of the industry’s biggest companies, GEO Group.
“They have aggressively purchased halfway houses, day reporting, electronic monitoring, treatment centers,” Donner said. “They’ve become a more and more dominant player in all of those things.”
Some Colorado activists and lawmakers have worked for years to end the private prison industry in Colorado, citing lack of oversight of the programs and a moral objection to companies profiting from crime. News coverage of conditions at private immigrant detention camps at the border this year has brought nationwide attention to the companies and increased pressure on governments and business interests to cut ties with the industry.
A flurry of push back by local governments in Denver, Aurora and Boulder this month prompts the question: Could Colorado end its use of private correction companies? It’s hard to estimate how long it would take, but it’s not inconceivable to prepare for that eventuality at the state level, said state Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver.
“We could start to roll out a timeline very soon,” she said.
A spokesman from GEO Group declined an interview with The Denver Post for this story and offered a statement reiterating the company’s commitment to “deliver desperately needed services in Colorado will not be impacted by misleading political activism.” A spokesman for CoreCivic said in a statement that the company looks forward to continuing to work with the state Department of Corrections and Denver.
Local push back
Taking a cue from city council, leaders at the Denver Department of Safety already have begun the process of transitioning from other services provided by GEO Group, CoreCivic and their subsidiaries. The council voted Aug. 5 to end contracts with the two industry giants, which operate six Denver halfway houses for about 500 clients.
GEO Group’s subsidiary, BI Incorporated, will continue to operate the Denver County Jail addiction treatment and re-entry program through September, when the city hopes to transition to another provider, said Kelli Christensen, spokeswoman for Denver Department of Public Safety. The city also maintains a contract with GEO Group for drug testing services that will expire in December as well as a contract with BI Incorporated for ankle monitors that expires in January 2022.
“They are in the process of trying to transition all those services to another provider,” Christensen said.
Two more of Colorado’s largest cities are also confronting push back for private prison operations there.
Three days after the Denver City Council decision, Boulder’s city manager and city attorney told the police department that its officers could no longer work in an off-duty capacity for BI Incorporated, the GEO Group subsidiary. The decision followed protests by community membersabout the company’s lucrative contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for ankle monitor services.
In Aurora, a city council committee last week gave preliminary approval to a new city rule that would require the staff of the GEO Group immigration detention facility there to report any infectious disease diagnoses to the fire department. Councilwoman Allison Hiltz, who is championing the proposed ordinance, said she would pursue the end of all private corrections companies in the city if she could. She hopes that after the city’s elections in November there will be more support on council for such decisions.
The day after the Denver vote, she reached out to the city manager to see if Aurora had any similar contracts with GEO Group or CoreCivic. Although both companies operate monitoring service there, they do not need a contract with the city to do so, she said.
“If we had contracts with any of those companies, I would ask for them to be ended,” she said.
Donner said she wasn’t aware of any other local communities making significant reforms regarding the industry.
“It’s likely they’re just watching Denver and seeing how things shake out,” she said. “Denver is kind of pioneering the new conversation.”
The local push back in Colorado comes at a time when private prison companies are facing unprecedented backlash due to the immigration policies of a president, whom the industry had expected to be a financial boon.
President Donald Trump’s administration rolled back a decision from the previous president to stop using private prisons to house federal inmates after a U.S. Inspector General report found more safety issues at such facilities. But the humanitarian outcry over the Trump’s immigration policies and inhumane conditions at private border detention centers has caused a series of major banks to announce they will no longer provide funding to the companies. Multiple cities have started the process of divesting, said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, acting director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program and author of “Inside Private Prisons: An American Dilemma in the Age of Mass Incarceration.”
“There are some states that are feeling the pressure to end their contracts,” she said. “But at the end of the day the state has to have enough beds and correctional officers to house and care for these people.”
The companies are also facing another issue. On average, state prison populations are falling. Seeing the trend, the companies started to diversify and bought halfway houses, rehabilitation programs, ankle monitoring systems and drug testing sites, as they did in Colorado.
“The industry has been reading the tea leaves for many years,” Eisen said.
In Colorado, about 20 percent of the state’s prison population — approximately 3,800 people — live in three facilities, two owned by CoreCivic and one by GEO Group. That proportion has remained steady since 2012, according to a Department of Corrections report.
The key to to reducing the use of private prisons in Colorado is reducing the overall prison population, experts said. Herod, the state legislator, said that’s been one of the main goals of the criminal justice reform she’s sponsored.
The state forecast that the Colorado prison population was expected to rise significantly in the next few years, but revised that estimate in June to remain level or decline until 2021 before slowly growing again. Multiple private facilities have already closed in the state, most recently in 2016.
“I have received strong indications from the governor’s office and the (Department of Corrections) that we, as a value, believe that people shouldn’t be profiteering on the backs of inmates,” Herod said.
Colorado Department of Corrections Director Dean Williams said he is advocating for strategic decisions if the legislature makes more moves to step away from the industry.
“You don’t turn this on a dime,” he said. “It doesn’t mean you don’t make the turn.”
Donner said the decision in Denver should prompt leaders to re-evaluate their programs and if they are needed. Do we still need ankle monitors when so many people have smart phones? Are halfway house programs effective?
Across all community corrections programs in the state, about 42% of those who complete the programs are arrested on new charges within two years, according to state data.
“It’s an opportunity to step back and say, ‘What does a 21st century program look like?” Donner said. “We don’t have to be on autopilot.”
©2019 The Denver Post
- Private Prisons