Denver halfway house for women opens as city continues to struggle with waitlists

Women arriving at the Project: Elevate halfway house get to choose their first meal in the facility.

Some choose Red Lobster or a steak. A surprising number want Taco Bell. It might seem like a minor decision, but for women arriving from jail or prison, the ability to choose what they want to eat is one of the first steps to regaining control over their lives as they re-enter society.

Project: Elevate is the new halfway house for women and transgender people operated jointly by the city and The Empowerment Program, a Denver nonprofit dedicated to serving vulnerable women. The facility, which opened in August, is the first halfway house in Denver run jointly by a community nonprofit and city government, which public safety leaders hope will serve as a model for future programs.

The facility is the product of the Denver City Council’s 2019 decision to end the city’s contracts with the two private prison companies that had been operating Denver’s halfway houses because they also operated immigration jails. The vote cut the city’s community corrections capacity by half and severely limited the city’s ability to place women in halfway houses. The 55-bed facility helps fill a shortage of beds caused by that decision and city leaders hope it will serve as a model for future programs.

“It’s been a struggle in Denver the last few years but we’re on the verge of something special here,” said Greg Mauro, director of Denver’s Division of Community Corrections.

In Colorado, people go to halfway houses as they transition from prison or if they are sentenced to a halfway house by a judge in lieu of prison. Project: Elevate is more expensive than the contract the city had with GEO Group to run the previous halfway house for women, Mauro said. The city expects to pay $694,000 to operate Project: Elevate in 2023 in addition to the $1.4 million contributed by the state.

The women who run Project: Elevate hope to create a space that caters specifically to the needs of women who have been part of the criminal justice system. The overall goal is to help the women in their program find stability and reunite with their families so that they can live healthy lives and do not return to jail.

“Part of it is helping women who never in their lives have had a community experience of safety,” said Stephanie Robertson, director of operations at Project: Elevate. “Giving them an environment where they feel safe, where they know that people aren’t using drugs, where they know they aren’t going to get hurt, where they know there will be food in their belly and a roof over their head. Some of what we do is just giving people a safe place to figure out who they are and what they want and giving them an opportunity to have dreams.”

That’s exactly what Déjà Moss said she needed after moving from prison to Project: Elevate. She moved into the facility on Sept. 28 and this month got a job nearby.

“I feel like I could breathe,” Moss said. “You feel less stagnant. You feel like you’re progressing.”

No longer set up for failure

The walls inside of the facility formerly known as Tooley Hall are painted in lavenders and soft greens. The bathroom looks like any other — none of the stainless steel mirrors used in many correctional facilities. Each of the women’s sleeping areas is decorated differently, many with sheets from home. One woman’s sleeping area was covered in Victoria’s Secret decor. In another, a pair of tiny toddler sandals sat on the wall delineating her space from others’.

The goal is to make the building feel less like a corrections facility and create a more welcoming space that fosters healing, Robertson said. Staff members hope to build raised garden beds in the backyard space, which the women have access to any time during the day.

“For folks who have been incarcerated, coming out and seeing the sky can be really grounding,” she said.

Creating a safe and warm space is an important step in helping women succeed in a community corrections facility, said Barbara Bloom, co-director of the Center for Gender and Justice and a professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice Studies at Sonoma State University. Prisons, jails and other carceral settings were designed for men, she said. The criminal justice system has been slow to adjust even as the number of incarcerated women has skyrocketed over the last decades, she said.

Many women in the legal system have been victims of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, she said. It is critical for programs to address the underlying traumas female participants carry so that they can find stability and avoid reoffending when they are released. The use of restraints, pat searches and isolation as punishment can sometimes worsen someone’s trauma.

“We don’t want to see these community correctional facilities recreate what we see in carceral settings,” she said. “We want them to provide safe environments where they take trauma into account.”

Project: Elevate still has rules, however. Women need pre-approval to leave the facility. They’re allowed to have their cell phones, though recent arrivals have to turn over their phones in the evenings. Participants still complete drug testing and can be searched on their return to the facility.

Rules are important in any group living setting and as a way to create structure, Robertson said, but they try to create as few as possible.

“Some of it is us just getting out of their way so they can do amazing things,” she said.

The lack of small rules stood out to Moss, who said the previous halfway house she lived at had so many it was hard to keep track. People were disciplined for having too many cups or too many snacks.

“In the past, I felt like I was set up for failure,” she said.

The women at Project: Elevate spend their days participating in classes and treatment. The facility provides training on finances and parenting as well as mental health and substance use treatment and support. Some residents, like Moss, have jobs they go to. One woman who had a child just before coming to the facility spends most of her day with the baby but comes back to the halfway house in the evenings. While children can’t stay overnight, they are allowed to visit and mothers are allowed to leave to meet their children elsewhere.

For Bre McDowell, the ability to simply wear her own clothes makes her feel more in control of her life. She was sentenced directly to the halfway house by a judge and has lived there since Aug. 25.

“I wasn’t expecting all the help I’ve gotten here,” McDowell said.

Not enough beds

Despite the opening of Project: Elevate, Denver’s community corrections system still has about half the capacity it did prior to 2019. The cancelation of the private prison contracts cut the number of beds from about 750 to 350, Mauro said. He hopes to eventually expand up to 550 beds but doesn’t think the city will ever return to 750.

“We are definitely experiencing the pain of not having enough beds,” he said.

As of Nov. 7, the waitlist for a bed in a Denver halfway house had 227 names: 199 for a male bed and 28 for Project: Elevate, the only general community corrections program available to women in the city. The waitlisted people sit in jail or prison until a bed becomes available.

Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, who led the vote to cancel the private prison contracts, said she’s happy to see efforts to deinstitutionalize and rethink community corrections. Councilmembers hoped canceling the contracts would make way for the services to be provided by local groups, but the ensuing contract bidding process showed there was no organization that could meet all of the city’s requirements.

“I don’t ever think we’re doing enough, but I do think we’ve started a lot of conversations that were not being had before,” she said.

Mauro hopes that the city can develop a similar facility for men that is also run jointly by the city and a community group.

Cass Harris, director of services at Project: Elevate, said it’s important to give the fledging program a chance to thrive, even though it’s a “huge shift” from the industry norm.

“Everything isn’t going to be perfect,” she said. “But the heart is at the table. The minds are at the table. If we’re given the space and support to grow this could be transformative for more people than we can comprehend right now.”

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