The Denver City Council cut ties with the country’s two biggest private prison companies on Tuesday.
Eight of the 12 council members voted against two resolutions that would have renewed contracts with CoreCivic and GEO Group, which together run six halfway houses in the area. CoreCivic acquired the facilities in 2017, and GEO Group in 2018. The contracts were worth $10 million.
CoreCivic and GEO Group have attracted national attention for their work running private, for-profit prisons and immigrant detention facilities. A number of Democratic presidential candidates have spoken out in opposition to private prisons, with at least 11 candidates calling for their elimination. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) first introduced a bill to end private prisons in 2015.
In recent months, for-profit detention facilities have faced particular scrutiny for housing children in poor conditions. GEO Group has a contract with the federal government to run a detention facility in Aurora, Colorado, which is just outside Denver, though it is not affected by the vote.
Denver Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca led the push against renewing the contracts of the for-profit prison companies. She said that when she spoke with community corrections officials, they were aware of the controversy surrounding GEO Group’s detention centers ― but still contracted the company. Instead of personally lobbying fellow council members to drop the contracts, she said, she decided the best course of action would be for residents to make their views known to the council in a public meeting.
Nearly two dozen people attended the council meeting on Tuesday and spoke out both in favor and in opposition to the contracts.
David Morales was one of the attendees who opposed the resolution. He singled out a current lawsuit against CoreCivic from a mother whose one-year-old daughter died following release from federal immigration custody in Dilley, Texas.
“The worst part of it is, however, they continue to get away with all of this human rights abuse because of the simple fact that cities and states across this country continue to rubber-stamp contracts such as these,” Morales said.
The public policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, Denise Maes, also stood against the contracts, urging councilmembers to “quit feeding the beast of for-profit in our criminal justice system.”
Supporters of the contracts included people working at community corrections centers and members of the Denver Community Corrections Board, whose members are appointed by the mayor and advise city officials on alternative sentencing programs like halfway houses.
The six halfway houses run by GEO Group and CoreCivic house over 500 people coming out of prison or serving non-prison sentences and “offer programming for residents and allow for employment,” said Greg Mauro, the director of the corrections board, at Tuesday’s council meeting.
Though the sites will stay open for now, according to the Denver Post, the fates of the halfway house residents remain undetermined. During questioning from Councilwoman Kendra Black — who ultimately voted to renew the contracts — Mauro said the inmates would return to custody in jail until a court could review their cases, and said it was “unlikely that many would be sentenced to probation.”
Jane Prancan, chairman of the corrections board, said at the meeting that if the halfway houses shut down, residents will lose the services they provide to ease their transitions back into the community. She also asked council members to consider the staff employed at the facilities.
However, CdeBaca argued that canceling the contracts would force city authorities to rethink reentry programs for former inmates.
“Across the country, we shut down schools with thousands of kids without a care in the world,” CdeBaca told HuffPost in response to concerns about the consequences of the vote. The vote could catalyze the city to “think about solutions differently,” she argued.
“This is a good example of how we can take care, or how we can address the problem of mass incarceration in small ways at the local level,” CdeBaca added. “And I think that this is a great start to many steps to transform the way that we do reentry.”
In a statement on Thursday, the Denver Department of Public Safety disputed what Mauro said at the meeting, saying “there are no immediate plans to return individuals to custody who are housed at the two GEO- or the four CoreCivic-owned facilities.” The department said it is “working on an alternate plan that allows for continued care in the community for these vulnerable clients.”
This story has been updated with a statement from the Denver Department of Public Safety.