For the first time in his life, Andrew Johnson is registered to vote. In and out of the criminal justice system for years, Johnson is one of thousands of Coloradans on parole who had their voting rights restored under a 2019 criminal justice reform package passed by the state legislature.
“I’ve waited my whole life,” Johnson says. “I’ve been a felon since I was young, since before I cared about voting, for sure. And now that I can, yeah, I’m definitely voting this year.”
It’s just one of many steps Johnson says he’s taking to turn his life around in recent years. During his last stint in prison, he began working with reentry programs to ensure he didn’t resort back to his old lifestyle once released. Paroled at the end of July, he specifically asked to be transferred to a community corrections facility in Boulder so as not to become homeless. But since then, his time has been plagued with frustrating interactions with staff and with policies that he says have limited his ability to be successful.
“I begged for this opportunity because I didn’t want to go homeless. I want to make sure I succeed, and my biggest trigger is being out there with nothing to eat, in the cold, with no shelter,” Johnson says. “And then I got here and I thought these people were here to help me, and I’ve received zero help from the halfway house.”
Johnson is not alone. In the last few weeks, Boulder Weekly has spoken to more than half a dozen current and former residents who have similar experiences at the Boulder facility, operated by the local nonprofit Intervention Community Corrections Services (ICCS). Many residents at the Boulder facility are frustrated with ICCS’ policies regarding employment, finances and day-to-day life that they say impinge on their progress. Rules are inconsistently enforced, most say, and the case management process is convoluted and delays their transition out of the program. Others are discouraged by what they call staff’s frequent disparaging comments. These concerns, and more, were expressed in a change.org petition started in January by a former resident after another resident died by suicide. It has since garnered 900 signatures. Many residents BW spoke with have previous experience at halfway houses operated by different providers or in other locations around the state. Several of them went so far as to suggest that life was better in prison.
“Everything here is frustrating,” says current resident Elisabeth Sagapolu. “A lot of us are just trying to get out of here. A lot of us are feeling like we should have just stayed in prison, and we shouldn’t have to feel like that.”
With a capacity of 60, the Boulder facility houses diversion clients — those the courts deem eligible of going to the halfway house instead of prison — or transition clients — those who spend part of their sentence in the Department of Corrections (DOC) then are released to a halfway house to complete it. There are also a few beds available for work release clients or indigent parolees, those like Johnson who would otherwise be homeless.
ICCS began operating the Boulder facility in mid-January, after being awarded a five-year contract in October 2019 with Boulder County and replacing the previous provider, CoreCivic, a for-profit prison contractor which operates private prisons, detention centers and halfway houses around the country. At the same time, CoreCivic’s contract with the County to operate the Longmont Community Treatment Center (LCTC) was renewed.
“It’s not that we’re not satisfied with [CoreCivic’s] work,” Monica Rotner, division manager of the Boulder County Community Justice Services, which oversees community corrections, says. “It was really an effort to expand our knowledge base around what we can provide in terms of community corrections, as we look into the future that we have for Boulder County.”
The change in providers came at a time of widespread community outcry about the use of private prison contractors and shortly after the City of Denver chose not to renew $10.6 million in contracts with both CoreCivic and The GEO Group, which together operated six halfway homes. Just the year before, in 2018, Boulder County voters also approved an alternative sentencing facility at the Boulder County Jail, with the intention of bringing all community correction services in-house.
“It was a combination of community input and really wanting to make the most of both facilities in terms of what can we borrow and reproduce for best practices as we move into implementing our own facility,” Rotner says.
In Colorado, community corrections is a specific piece of the criminal justice system, funded and regulated by the Office of Community Corrections, under the Colorado Department of Public Safety. The state then contracts with all 22 judicial districts, which in turn either manage their own community corrections program or subcontract to other providers. Once the alternative sentencing facility is completed, Boulder County will end its contracts with both ICCS and CoreCivic and will join Larimer, Mesa and Garfield counties in providing their own community corrections programs.
Specific accreditation isn’t required by the state, as local building and zoning code requirements differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, according to Katie Ruske, Colorado’s Office of Community Corrections manager. But facilities and service providers do have to follow 92 state standards, updated in 2017, that outline regulations for safety and security as well as the case management, programming and required training and qualifications of program staff. While some facilities also obtain accreditation from the American Correctional Association, most do not, including those in Boulder County.
Once someone enters a community corrections facility, they go through an assessment process with a case manager that looks at treatment needs in a variety of areas including substance abuse and mental health. The resident and case manager then use this information to form a case plan. Historical assessments and information from the courts or DOC is also utilized in this process, Rukse says, including certain requirements specifically for domestic violence and sex offenders.
“The case plan is to be tailored to the individual based on their risk level and their needs,” she says. “Ideally in the criminal justice system, and really what’s best practice, is that it is a partnership to work on that. You want the person to also be invested and it could be changes that they also want to make. We always hope that is what’s happening and occurring.”
But at ICCS-Boulder, several residents say their specific needs and concerns aren’t being addressed in their case management plans. Some say they have been referred to programs or treatments that aren’t in line with their charges, resulting in weeks of classes that won’t count toward their progress in the program. Many residents tell BW they’ve taken it on their own initiative to get the help they need, and even then they aren’t allowed to attend outside treatment or therapy groups, like AA meetings. Others describe feeling stifled in the job search when they first arrived, with case managers limiting options and not approving passes to attend interviews. Both Johnson and Sagapolu say enrolling in school or vocational programs has been all but impossible. Many describe increasing tension with their case managers that often result in raised voices and public arguments.
“I liked it better when it was CoreCivic,” says one resident, who wishes to remain anonymous. “They treated us better. The facility itself was better.”
Several people who have been at the facility since before ICCS took over say that under CoreCivic’s operation, residents were afforded more autonomy when it came to daily life. They were previously allowed to grocery shop and cook for themselves in their units. Now, all the meals are provided by the program, and dietary restrictions or preferences are not prioritized. Plus, outside food and drink aren’t permitted.
They were also allowed more control of their personal finances before, whereas now every paycheck goes to ICCS and they have to make requests to pay bills or spend money. Several people say ICCS has made payments to the wrong program or agency, causing more delays and frustration.
Several people also spoke about inconsistent enforcement of rules, which causes confusion, and most have been subject to what they call frivolous write-ups for policy violations, forced to miss work or other appointments to attend appeal hearings. These infractions also inhibit progression through the facility’s level system, which ultimately determines when they are eligible for release.
As one resident puts it: “They don’t really have any regard for who we are as people. The situation at that halfway house is not conducive to positive reentry at all.”
Every provider around the state uses some sort of level system to determine completion of a program, Ruske says, although some are moving away from the specific progression matrix system, developed by the state in 2012, that ICCS still uses.
“We still stand behind having a level system that’s based on research and evidence and shows progression, and allows someone to move through the system and is individualized and tailored to their needs,” Ruske says. “The progression matrix provided a format to do that. … Where the implementation of it missed the mark a little bit, is that because it provides this framework and a guide some organizations and case managers just sort of stick to … it’s not quite as individualized sometimes as we would like it.”
All of the residents BW spoke with also complained about poor living conditions, including mold in some of the units. For its part, ICCS did bring up these issues with Boulder County in the contract process, seeing as the County owns the building and the nonprofit is its tenant.
“We’re definitely not ignoring it,” says David McLeod, deputy director of Boulder County Public Works, which is overseeing a remodel of the facility. In early October, the County began renovating each floor one at a time, replacing carpets, light switches, kitchen cabinets, countertops and bathroom fixtures, as well as repainting. While there have been some instances of mold, McLeod says, “everything is small enough to where we can abate it at the source, and I don’t think it’s anything that’s systemic within the building.”
But the renovations are also putting a fair bit of strain on the residents, as they are shuffling between rooms and floors to accommodate the construction. Plus, it can be difficult to find any sort of privacy — Johnson says he often had to walk to the park across the street to participate both in individual and group therapy virtually on his phone.
In large part, ICCS Executive Director Brian Hulse declined to respond to specific complaints residents shared with BW, claiming the nonprofit handles issues within its own internal grievance process. He did say that ICCS, which operates several community corrections programs across the state, follows state statutes when making referrals to treatment programs, only referring clients to treatment licensed by the Office of Behavioral Health or approved by the Domestic Violence Offender Management Board or Sex Offender Management Board. Additionally, the daily 3,000-calorie meal plan ICCS provides is approved bi-annually by a registered dietician, and residents have access to vending machines and other food products that can be purchased through the program’s incentives system. When it comes to finances, Hulse says, clients develop a monthly budget plan in partnership with ICCS and can receive disbursements weekly through in-person meetings with their case managers.
Hulse does say that the majority of grievances ICCS receives are “low-level” complaints like asking to change rooms when someone doesn’t like their roommate or complaints about the food. Anecdotally, Hulse says he can’t recall any larger complaints in recent history that escalated to calling in Boulder County or the state Office of Community Corrections.
“The program has our internal procedure to deal with complaints, but certainly if somebody is not satisfied with the response or the way something was handled, they can absolutely escalate that to [Boulder County] Community Justice Services and the state,” Hulse says.
When presented with the complaints from ICCS-Boulder residents, Ruske says from what her office can determine, most of the concerns are not related to the 92 Community Corrections standards that the state audits.
At the state level, facilities are audited once every five years, while a contract compliance officer with the County also monitors the facilities for Boulder County quarterly, and each company is also responsible for internal self-auditing.
“The local jurisdiction holding the direct contract has the responsibility to look into and address concerns from clients and the communities,” Ruske says. “We are here to support and help in investigating and addressing any concerns as necessary.”
Because ICCS took over the facility this year, the state hasn’t conducted an audit of its programing, but a cursory review of the latest audits of other ICCS facilities throughout the state show the nonprofit is generally compliant, with few exceptions. When CoreCivic was operating the Boulder facility, it was found compliant in categories across the board, except for job search accountability.
Both the state and county say COVID-specific complaints have certainly increased this year, but general complaints are otherwise rare. Monika Neal, operations and community corrections manager for Boulder County, says complaints from either ICCS-Boulder or the Longmont facility are sporadic and often handled internally at each facility according to the grievance process laid out by each operator.
“What we have found is sending the clients back to the facility makes the most sense,” Neal says. “Only if there seems to be a complaint of an ethical nature, would we step in right away.”
“We do take complaints seriously,” Rotner adds. “In corrections work the challenge is to balance working with offenders towards best outcomes, knowing that they will likely return to the community and because we know best practices increase quality of life and community safety. Simultaneously, the criminal justice system plays the role of protecting victims and public safety when supervising clients in the community. This can create rules and requirements that clients may struggle with and the complaint process is designed to determine the path to both, best in service for the offender/client, while maintaining a high degree of safety for victims and the community. ”
When asked specifically to address the suicide that occurred at the facility earlier this year, the County declined to comment. Rotner did say, however, that, “When we looked into all of the debriefing and the critical incident response processes and what led up to that event, ICCS followed policy.”
Working with his parole officer, Johnson was released from ICCS-Boulder on Friday, Oct. 16, without as much as a “good job” from anyone at ICCS, he says. But Sagapolu still has at least a few weeks left to complete the program, facing setbacks for not starting certain required treatment until recently. Like Johnson, she too specifically chose the program in Boulder, excited to start over, away from her troubles in her hometown of Colorado Springs. While at Denver Women’s Correctional Facility she finished cosmetology classes, planning to get her license as soon as she was released. But now, she says coming to Boulder was the biggest mistake she made.
“The thing here is the consistent inconsistency,” she says. “It’s not fair to us who want to do good and want to be better and change the things that we’ve done.”