Location of Proposed Federal Half-Way House Causes Controversy

Published 01/15 2014 07:29PM

Updated 01/15 2014 07:35PM

The Federal Bureau of Prisons is looking for a developer to build a transitional house in Evansville. It's intended to ease former federal inmates back into society. However, many people are concerned about the house's potential location and proximity to a school.

Thomas Griffin, the president and CEO of Florida-based The Transition House Inc., wants to build the federal government's new transition house at 1325 E. Virginia St., just south of Oak Hill cemetery. The facility would take former federal inmates originally from Vanderburgh County and ease them back into society, Griffin said.

However, the potential location is well within 1000 feet of Joshua Academy which is a violation of a city ordinance that was passed in November. Plans submitted to the Board of Zoning Appeals show the potential facility is around 700 feet away from the school's building and 500 feet away from the school's property line. There is also an EVSC bus stop in the area. While they believe in second chances, many who oppose the plan say the facility would be too close to the school.

"[The developers] are saying things like mid-level drug dealers, generally non-violent residents," said Pamela Decker, the Executive Director of Joshua Academy. "I'm saying things like 5 year olds and 6 year olds. This is where people bring their kids to play. This is where kids come on their own to play. I just think that's so out of sync."

"[The former inmates] are going to be typically all non-violent. Most of your federal charges are not violent charges," Griffin said. "Basically, they are typically white collar crimes or drug-related crimes. We currently do this very successfully... just not in Evansville. We have never had a problem with our residents."

Griffin has filed a variance with the city's Board of Zoning Appeals in hopes that the ordinance violation is waived. The transition house would accommodate 45 former federal inmates, according to Griffin. The facility would also create 30 new jobs, Griffin said.

However, Decker said isn't sold on the plan because of the potential safety risks to her students, especially the younger ones.

"Our families were very concerned about the issue and the disconnect of what we're talking here," Decker said. "This just sounds like a business proposal for somebody. It doesn't have to be done at the expense of the kids that go to Joshua Academy or live in this neighborhood."

"I think it's an advantage that it's within 1000 foot buffer," Griffin said. "Within 1000 feet of a school, you cannot have a sex offender. The greatest concern that I'm sure they have has already been statutorily eliminated."

Evansville's current half-way house located at 811 E. Franklin St. is operated by Indiana-based Volunteers of America. The organization has had a contract with the federal government for the last five years but that contract expires in February. Per standard procedure, the federal government issued a Request for Proposal which is how The Transition House became involved. Volunteers of America is also competing for the project, according to Councilwoman Stephanie Brinkerhoff-Riley (D-3rd Ward).

The Board of Zoning Appeals will make its decision Thursday at a public meeting. The meeting will begin at 4pm in Room 301 of the Civic Center.

Decker expects the room to be full of people opposing the plan. According to an email sent to Eyewitness News, Councilwoman Brinkerhoff-Riley is also opposed to the plan and expects representatives from the Mayor's Office, ECHO housing and the Urban Enterprise Zone.

"This is unacceptable, not just to me as the representative for the third ward, but also to the parents and neighbors to Joshua Academy," Councilwoman Brinkerhoff-Riley said in an email.

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