Denver’s City Council, Led by Democratic Socialist, Stuns For-Profit Prison Operators by Nuking Contracts

It wasn’t about pulling money from the halfway houses but from “organizations that put kids in cages, run concentration camps,” said one council member.

Candi CdeBaca, a resident opposing the expansion of Interstate 70, under the freeway in Denver, Jan. 10, 2017. With Denver booming, the state wants to shore up road infrastructure, but it means a repeat of hardship for the communities living near the highway. "We shouldn't be the people carrying the city on our backs," CdeBaca said. (Nick Cote/The New York Times)
Candi CdeBaca in Denver on Jan. 10, 2017. Photo: Nick Cote/The New York Times via Redux

Two for-profit prison companies have lost major contracts in Denver over their work in immigrant detention, as backlash to President Donald Trump’s immigration policy continues to mount.

The stunning $10.6 million rebuke to the two firms, CoreCivic and the GEO Group, was led by newly elected city council member Candi CdeBaca, who won in June on a radical platform backed by the Democratic Socialists of America. CdeBaca’s stand on Monday against the firms was her first major effort since being sworn in, and she expected to be a lone vote of dissent.

Instead, moved by the plight of those kept in camps run by CoreCivic and the GEO Group, and galvanized by opponents — organized by CdeBaca — at the public meeting, the council delivered an unexpected 8-4 rejection, ending the firms’ contracts to run halfway houses on behalf of the city.

CoreCivic and the GEO Group run the bulk of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s detention centers. The GEO Group also runs an immigration detention center in Aurora, Colorado, which has become a source of local controversy. The disturbing images beaming from the border, and pressure from repeated protests outside the detention center, persuaded council members that their financial support of for-profit companies made them complicit in ICE abuses.

“I was very impressed by the courage my colleagues displayed to vote with me on a very controversial issue,” CdeBaca said.

The vote was another signal of the DSA’s rising influence (even as its recent national convention was lampooned on social media for its excessive displays of off-putting wokeness), and the willingness of mainstream politicians to follow the lead of organizers and activists making a stark moral argument.

CdeBaca told The Intercept that the effort can be traced to before her campaign, and that her work as a community organizer and social worker helped her rally opposition to the contracts. At her urging, the key meeting was packed with opponents of the firms, and experts lined up to testify against them. Broad-based community opposition — from Colorado People’s Action, Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, the American Civil Liberties Union, Black Lives Matter, Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, and DSA — made an impact on council members.

“I brought the testimony to the table so my colleagues could hear the facts and initially did not believe that anyone would vote with me,” she said. “So I was very impressed by the courage my colleagues displayed to vote with me on a very controversial issue knowing we had no power to amend that contract.”

The council’s vote was all the more remarkable because there were credible and sympathetic arguments against taking radical action. Some 500 people are currently in the four halfway houses run by CoreCivic and two run by the GEO Group, and are now at risk of being returned to prison. That’s not their certain fate, however, as parole is an additional option. Advocates of ending the contracts focused on the moral case to be made, and the potential for local community groups to run more humane halfway houses in the future.

“If we renew the contract, we’re supporting organizations that provide valuable services to more than 500 people and 140 employees,” said council member Chris Hinds, spelling out the dilemma. “We’re also supporting organizations that put kids in cages, run concentration camps.”

CdeBaca acknowledged the moral quandary. “I am very concerned about the 500 beds that we jeopardized by this vote, and I want to see a plan to make sure that we transition out of these contracts in a way that is just for the residents of these facilities,” she said, arguing that a transition could be made in six to 10 months, but the power to do it was in the hands of the mayor and the firms. “There’s essentially a monopoly emerging here, not just in Denver but nationally with CoreCivic and GEO and that is a problem.”

For now, the halfway houses are being kept open without a contract, and the firms are under no obligation to close them immediately, as corrections officials and city policymakers transition to a new system. Short-term contracts are also possible as the city works toward a system that returns the re-entry programs to local control and away from the for-profit operators — as it largely was before the firms bought out the organizations doing the local work. Amanda Gilchrist, a spokesperson for CoreCivic, said that the firm would not immediately shutter and send its charges back to jail. “While several questions exist (about what happens going forward), we have agreed to keep our doors open to the clients we serve in the hopes of finding a resolution that works for everyone,” she wrote in an email.

Gilchrist also panned the City Council’s “deeply misguided decision,” which she said was “a result of political recklessness.” Judges will, for now, lose the option of sentencing defendants to halfway houses, making the alternative of prison more likely. More than a hundred inmates in prison who were due to arrive in GEO Group and CoreCivic homes are now in limbo. A residential substance use disorder clinic run by CoreCivic will close, and other supports will no longer be available, she said, adding that CoreCivic does not run any immigrant detention centers in Colorado specifically. “These politicians have failed their community, which will be less safe and healthy, and those in its criminal justice system, who will have much less support to get their lives back on track,” Gilchrist said. “Denver now faces a dire situation.”

GEO Group spokesperson Pablo Paez slammed what he called a “radical partisan political agenda aimed at abolishing ICE,” warning it would backfire. “This reckless action will face significant ramifications and backlash as Denver’s elected leaders took a leap backwards away from nearly 30 years of operation in the city with proven, evidence-based treatment.”

He did not specifically address whether the GEO Group would keep its doors open without a contract, but hinted it might not. “These residents will now be sent back to jail or prison with no programming — how does that solve the problem?” he said.

Paez also forwarded along two testimonials — one handwritten in pencil — from residents lauding the program. “While these best-in-class facilities in Denver have nothing to do with national immigration policies, politically motivated activists, and council members chose to reiterate the same lies and outright fabrications about our more than 30-year record as a government service provider that have led to the endangerment of our employees, of government employees, and the public,” Paez said. “Contrary to their deliberate mischaracterizations, our ICE processing centers are not overcrowded, have never housed unaccompanied minors, and provide the safest and most humane residential care possible.”

Told of the GEO Group’s statement, CdeBaca was incredulous. “Wow. I don’t even have words to respond to that,” she said. “The fact that our federal representatives have to fight as hard as they’re fighting simply to get in — to not even be able to get lists of the people who are in those facilities — that lack of transparency and accountability lets them get away with telling lies like that.”

For-profit prison companies have become an increasingly ripe target for criminal justice reformers and are beginning to have their status as ethically neutral, profit-seeking corporations challenged in mainstream circles. In July, ahead of a critical hearing before the House Financial Services Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., and boasts a number of high-profile progressive Democrats, SunTrust Bank announced it would no longer finance private prisons or immigrant detention centers. In 2018, organizers affiliated with the Democratic congressional campaign of Jess King blocked an effort by the city of Lancaster to outsource its prison reentry program to the GEO Group. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren sent GEO Group and CoreCivic’s share prices on a nosedive in June when she tweeted a plan to end for-profit prisons.

CdeBaca put her radical politics up front during the campaign. At a candidate forum, she bluntly spelled out her opposition to the current capitalist framework. “I don’t believe our current economic system actually works,” she said. “Capitalism by design is extractive and in order to generate profit in a capitalist system, something has to be exploited: that’s land, labor or resources. I think that we’re in late-phase capitalism, and we know it doesn’t work, and we have to move into something new. And I believe in community ownership of land, labor, resources — and distribution of those resources. … I’m excited to usher it in by any means necessary.”

Theresa Marchetta, a spokesperson for Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, said that Hancock was disappointed in the decision.

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. However, Denver’s current zoning presents no other viable alternatives for these community corrections facilities, and now 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. We are disappointed that council did not renew these contracts while other alternatives were explored.

The public, however, has responded well, CdeBaca said, arguing the zoning laws should be amended as the city works on a transition plan. “I haven’t heard anything negative from community,” she said. “Many of my colleagues have stated that all they have received are thank yous.”

Ryan Grim is the author of “We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement,” published by Strong Arm Press. 

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