A public meeting is planned for Monday to discuss the Arkansas Department of Community Corrections’ plans to open a halfway house for parolees on the complex of their facility on the west side of Pine Bluff.
That meeting will be conducted at St. Andrew AME Church, 701 Franklin St., at 6:30 p.m. Monday.
The halfway house complex would be located on department property that also houses the Southeast Arkansas Community Corrections Center, 7301 W. 13th Ave.
Ora and Earl Mays have been circulating petitions opposing the plan, and Ora Mays said earlier this week that more than 200 people had signed the petition.
“We’re going to try to get the state to reverse their decision,” Ora Mays said. “We have enough crime in Pine Bluff, enough people on probation, we don’t need any more. It’s like a pile of trash that somebody is burning. If you keep adding to it and adding to it, it’s going to get out of hand.”
Community Corrections spokeswoman Rhonda Sharp said last week the facility would house between 30 and 32 prison inmates who had been granted parole but were still being held in prison because they had no place to go. The parolees could include violent or sex offenders, although the department had not yet decided how inmates would be selected for the program, or how long they would be allowed to stay in the facility.
Sharp said the department was converting four duplexes into transitional living facilities for inmates, who would be expected to work to pay rent, buy their own groceries, and cook their own meals.
The facility would be located near the Southeast Arkansas Community Corrections Center, which currently houses up to 265 women convicted of nonviolent crimes, and up to 35 convicted of violating their parole.
It will be separated from that facility by two sets of 10-foot fences, with one of those slated to make it difficult for people on one side to see the other side, as well as security cameras, and increased lighting. A new road is being constructed that will provide access to the halfway houses.
Ora Mays said that if there were four buildings being converted now, there is a possibility that there could be more, and also complained that community corrections officials did not talk to area residents before going ahead with their plans.
“They did not meet the community so no one knew what they were going to do,” Ora Mays said. “We may not have $200,000 homes out here but we have families, children, elderly people, and we’re saying, don’t bring it in. We’re a low income area but we’re people like everybody else.”
On Wednesday, Ora Mays said she had received word that officials from community corrections and from the governor’s office would attend the public meeting Monday night.
“We’re going to let our voices he heard,” she said.
The Pine Bluff City Council has also gotten involved in the fray.
On March 5, Alderman Thelma Walker attempted to introduce a resolution “expressing concern” about the DCC’s plan, but Mayor Carl A. Redus Jr. asked that it go through committee and come back for the council meeting later in the month.
Walker said “time is of the essence.”
“They will be allowed to mingle into the community at will because … they will be looking for jobs because they will be expected to pay rent and to provide for themselves,” Walker said.
Alderman George Stepps, one of the aldermen who represent Ward Four where the facility will be located, said he had received numerous calls about it, and contacted the city attorney’s office to see if community corrections would need to go through the planning commission to get approval.
“We’ve had this problem once before. If you allow these people in here, out here in the community, and they’re running free and we’ve been contacted and we don’t make no effort concerning it, then I think it’s going to cause some problems, not just for the city council, but it’s going to cause some problems for the city and the community,” Stepps said. “And I think it’s something that we need to address pretty quickly.”
Redus suggested that they handle it from a planning and zoning perspective, ask the state to come present their idea before the Planning Commission or Zoning Board.
Walker said it needs to be done ASAP because the department tentatively plans to open the facility in April, and Sharp said last week that construction on the road and facility will depend on the weather.
Redus said he will make sure that the Inspection and Zoning Department and state officials talk about it, and would also contact state legislators to make them aware of the situation.
Alderman Wayne Easterly said as far as he has heard, they (people housed at the facility) will come and go as they please and there won’t be anyone checking to make sure they come home at night, or if they might be missing and send out an alert or anything.
“That’s not a good way to run that type of an operation,” Easterly said.
Sharp said that department staff will not be in the facility 24 hours per day, but there will be an office for a parole officer who will assist the newly released inmates in trying to find jobs. Personnel assigned to the women’s facility will also provide security.
“I think the Arkansas Department of (Community) Corrections should come and answer to what’s being done, so we’ll get to work on that,” Redus said.