A large crowd that turned out Monday evening to question plans by the Arkansas Department of Community Correction to open additional transitional housing here for state prison parolees was told misinformation has been circulated about of the facility on the west side of Pine Bluff.
David Eberhard, department director, and Benny Magness, chairman of the Board of Corrections, repeatedly told those assembled at St. Andrew AME Church that no decision has made by the board or department to only house violent offenders and convicted sex offenders in four duplex housing units on department property at the Southeast Arkansas Community Corrections Center, 7301 W. 13th Ave.
Eberhard said the facility would house 32 prison inmates who had been granted parole but are still in custody because they have no place to go, adding the “clients” may include some violent or sex offenders and individuals convicted of burglary and check forgers. He emphasized the department had not yet decided how inmates would be selected for the transitional program or how long they could stay in the facility.
Ora Mays, who along with her husband, Earl, have been circulating petitions opposing the plan, said 522 individuals have signed the petition.
“We just wanted some answers,” she told the crowd, adding that 68 convicted sex offenders are currently paroled here, but only 48 in Little Rock.
“We are not here about being angry … but to feel safe,” she said, adding that Community Correction officials should have done a better job of explaining their plans to residents of the Fourth Ward.
Eberhard said Pine Bluff was selected for the site because the state owns the four duplex residential units and it was a decision simply based on economics.
The Rev. H.O. Gray asked if the department had any contact with residents of the neighborhood about the plans before the decision was made.
“No, sir, there was not,” Eberhard said. He explained that the department is mandated by state law to develop programs to reduce prison populations.
Inmates who serve their sentences can live anywhere in the state without supervision, but those on parole are under supervision, Eberhard said.
Two weeks ago state prisons held 540 inmates, including 194 sex offenders, who had no place to go, said Magness.
State Rep. Efrem Elliott, who served as a moderator and circulated a microphone among the crowd who indicated they wanted to speak, including three Pine Bluff aldermen, George Stepps, Thelma Walker and Irene Holcomb.
Stepps asked why no one from the department had contacted municipal government, and Magness accepted the blame and apologized for any miscommunication. The alderman said he hopes the state officials were listening because the city may take legal action in an attempt to block the plans to open the facility in late April or early May.
Magness said officials assumed the facility would be welcomed after the state recently closed the Department of Correction diagnostic center, not a “hot bed issue.”
Others opposed to the transition or halfway houses cited Pine Bluff’s “image problem” and the concentration of correctional facilities in the area.
Inmates who reside in a halfway house are expected to work to pay rent, buy their own groceries, and cook their own meals.
Eberhard said there are 48 transitional units scattered around the state, with 20-25 housing a significant number of parolees.
Rev. Tyronne Broomfield, a member of the board of corrections, suggested some individuals were “suffering from a lack of knowledge. … We need to change and show them a little love (and) do what is best for humankind.”