When April Cotton arrived at her halfway house in December 2018, she hoped for support. She had just spent 10 years in prison for racketeering charges and needed to get reacclimated to outside society.
Cotton assumed her new home would do just that — provide classes, transportation and other resources.
Cotton quickly found out that the halfway house didn’t offer any of that. Every resident had to pay $520 rent per month in addition to paying for toiletries, classes and a bus pass. The halfway house confiscated residents’ money and then decided how much of it to distribute to them. Nail polish and other beauty products weren’t allowed. During the months she stayed there, there were three suicide attempts, and one person died by suicide.
Cotton even thought she had it better in prison where she had access to life skills classes and education. After six weeks at the halfway house, she wanted to go back.
“I was very frustrated. I was confused,” she says. “Prison was a better preparation place to me coming out into society than going to a halfway house. It’s sad to say that, but it’s true.”
GEO's Tooley Hall halfway house in August 2019 (Photo by Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Cotton spent 18 months in two halfway houses in Denver. Across the country, residents report experiences similar to hers, of halfway houses being run like prisons. Many complaints centered on halfway houses run by GEO Group and CoreCivic, two of the biggest prison companies in the U.S. Over the past decade, both companies increased their presence beyond prisons and into halfway houses.
Experiences like Cotton’s prompted a decision in 2019: The Denver city council voted not to renew the halfway housing contracts with GEO and CoreCivic. This was a historic move not only for Denver but nationally. No other major city has ended these contracts.
On the eve of the vote, GEO and CoreCivic ran a combined six halfway houses in Denver that served more than 500 residents. Today, both of GEO’s two facilities and all but one of CoreCivic’s four houses are closed, with the remaining one under contract through June 2023.
It was a contentious decision. At the time, Cotton even defended and thanked GEO in front of the city council because GEO representatives had told her that if the house got shut down, everyone would go to prison. Cotton wanted to return to prison herself, but she didn’t want other women to be forced to.
“I kind of allowed them to semi-manipulate me,” she says. Now, Cotton says the vote was a great move on Denver’s part.
Councilmember Candi CdeBaca led the vote to end GEO and CoreCivic housing contracts.
“Because we relied 100% on these private prison operators for so many years, we put ourselves in a corner that we had to get out of because we had no other alternatives,” CdeBaca says. “Embedding people in the community and reintegrating them into community is a great idea. But when it’s an extension of the prison system in the neighborhoods, that’s entirely against what the original intent was.”
Around 2014, Denver began to see a shift that has happened across the country: GEO and CoreCivic bought out more of the small, local halfway housing providers, says Greg Mauro, director of Denver’s Division of Community Corrections. He believes local ownership is more invested in the community and more efficient in making decisions than large corporations.
No more than 56% of people completed their halfway house programs in Denver from 2016 through 2018, according to Denverite news outlet.
Two of GEO’s facilities had the lowest average completion rates. Only 46% of residents finished the program.
But it’s been a challenging transition away from GEO and CoreCivic, Mauro says. Almost three years after the vote, Denver is still trying to develop a more compassionate halfway housing system that shelters everyone. If done right, it could serve as a model for other cities.
Denver used to have 750 halfway housing beds. Today, it has 360. Mauro says the waitlist for new residents has tripled to about nine months, due to not only the 2019 decision but COVID-19 social distancing requirements.
Denver has worked on building up its capacity. But even after the city revised its zoning laws a year ago to expand the land available for halfway houses, areas that allow them are still limited.
“It wasn’t like the city could just pivot to another property that was magically there, ready to house a residential program,” Mauro says. “We had to try to work within our own zoning laws.”
Another issue is the lack of community providers. Denver issued a request for providers to step in and run halfway houses. But of the few responses the city received, organizations either couldn’t meet state-mandated requirements or only wanted to do certain parts, according to Mauro.
Denver ended up deciding on a hybrid model where city staff provides security infrastructure while a local nonprofit runs daily care management. The city purchased Tooley Hall, one of GEO’s former halfway houses, because it came with the necessary zoning in place. Reopening as Project Elevate, the facility will be run by the Empowerment Program, a local social services organization, and house 55 formerly incarcerated women.
The Empowerment Program opened in 1986, but this is the nonprofit’s first halfway house. It will make the new Project Elevate as trauma-informed as possible, says executive director Julie Kiehl, recognizing that almost all residents will have a history of complex trauma.
“It’s so important to know and understand how trauma affects the brain, how that can cause people to get triggered by certain things that otherwise would not trigger people,” she says.
The design of the building and the program will incorporate this philosophy. Ten to 15 people used to share one large dorm but Project Elevate is converting them into smaller spaces with more privacy. The building uses calmer, cooler colors like blues and greens instead of reds and yellows. People living in a community want a feeling of safety, so common rooms will have staff areas nearby, Kiehl says.
Kiehl promises her team will evaluate incoming residents, their medical or other needs, and support them in their job search. The house will provide three meals a day, contribute toward a bus pass and have a van to take residents to appointments and outings. It will not charge rent.
Still, Project Elevate will have to continue state-mandated requirements such as pat searches and drug tests that halfway house residents often denounce. Residents also need to report their whereabouts and get permission to come and go.
“It will be done from a perspective along the lines of, ‘We’re doing this because we care, because we really want to help you move to the next level,’” Kiehl says.
Currently undergoing renovations, Project Elevate is slated to open in mid-May. The state of Colorado pays a standard $49.16 per day for every resident housed, which covers a portion of Project Elevate’s costs. The city of Denver pays the remainder. This year, it’s budgeting $750,000. After that, the city will provide several hundred thousand dollars every year, Mauro says.
Meanwhile, Denver is searching for real estate for more halfway houses. The goal is to increase the capacity to 450-500 beds in two to three years, he says.
Mauro and CdeBaca agree that the aftermath of the 2019 vote could have gone smoother with more planning and notice. CdeBaca says the community wasn’t prepared to step in and take over.
Still, she wants to stop the current contracts with GEO and CoreCivic for operating drug testing and ankle monitoring when their renewals arrive at the city council for a vote.
But CdeBaca has encountered resistance from her fellow councilmembers. In January, the city council approved a contract with a GEO subsidiary for electronic monitoring equipment through Jan. 31, 2025. The contract passed in a 10 to 3 vote, with CdeBaca and two other councilmembers voting no.
Cotton has come a long way since her first halfway house. After she testified on GEO’s behalf, she realized not everything GEO told her seemed correct. So she got in touch with CdeBaca and revealed what was really happening at the facility on Williams Street.
Once the vote passed, GEO transferred all the women at Cotton’s halfway house to a facility in another county, outside Denver’s jurisdiction.
Cotton has been off parole since June 2021 and now lives in her own apartment. She works as a supervisor at a company stripping, shining and waxing floors. Cotton also started school to study business.
“I’m happy,” she says, “no thanks to GEO.”
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Adina Solomon is a freelance journalist based in Atlanta. She writes on a range of topics with specialties in city design, business and death. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, CityLab, U.S. News & World Report, and other national and local outlets.