Earlier this month, Johnson and over 50 other concerned Brookside neighbors gathered to learn more about the proposal that they say threatens their property values, their safety and the safety of the children who play at the Spades Park playground less than a block from the site of the new facility.
Overcrowding in the prison system has forced the county to turn to work release programs to relieve jails that are full to capacity. These programs allow mostly non-violent offenders to live and work, under controlled conditions, in the outside community. Although they have used outside vendors in the past, Marion County Community Corrections, citing problems with contract cancellation and costs, plans to develop its own 350-bed work-release facility on the 1700 block of Massachusetts Avenue.
This issue brought together the Organization for the New Eastside and the Near Eastside Community Organization — formerly contentious rivals — to form a solid front against what they see as a dangerous invasion. The Brookside Neighborhood Association, alerted to the proposal by a contact within NESCO, met with nearby Windsor Park in August to discuss the possible risks and benefits of the work center. Although no official vote was taken, the consensus was no.
Bill Callahan, president of the Brookside Neighborhood Association, says that the biggest problem with the new center is that the Massachusetts Avenue location poses an unnecessary threat to residents — a threat that could have been mitigated if area residents had been given the chance to work alongside the county. The current location is too close to the community, Callahan said, and will put inmates and regular citizens in constant, and unwelcome, contact. “They can’t prove that they’re not going to be a threat,” Callahan said. “The recidivism rate is high — these people will commit offenses. We have to think the nature of the center puts the community at risk.” Callahan cites county statistics that show 10 percent of criminals commit new crimes after being released. He points out that this facility will initially hold 350 inmates, which means 35 will continue committing crimes, statistically speaking.
Johnson, who has lived in the neighborhood for 40 years and who most know as “Grandma Pearl,” also fears an increase in local crime. “I know people need a place to be rehabilitated, but I don’t think this is the place,” Johnson said. “See all the doors and windows open in here? I can’t do that anymore. This will be a prison to me. I’m 75 years old. I should be able to enjoy my later years. They’re not going to be prisoners. I’m going to be a prisoner.”
Another major issue with the proposed location is how offenders will find transportation to and from their new jobs. Because those under work release can’t drive, they would be forced to rely on rides or take a local bus. Callahan points out that the narrow surrounding streets are incapable of supporting the increased traffic. Of greater concern, however, is that the nearest bus stop — located only a few feet from a busy playground — is also where many local students catch the bus to school in the morning. The county’s proposal claims that a bus route runs directly in front of the building; in reality, offenders will have to walk into or even through the neighborhood to catch a bus.
NESCO and ONE plan to continue the fight to keep the center out of the area by inviting concerned citizens to attend the Oct. 6 hearing with the development commission. Brookside Neighborhood Association will sponsor buses to take interested residents from Spades Park to the meeting. Callahan hopes to “pack the meeting so tight no one else can get in there.”
“We’ll either win or lose,” Callahan said. “If we lose, people lose money, security and the perception of security in this community — which is probably the greatest loss.”
“I leave it in the good Lord’s hands,” Johnson said. “But I’m gonna fight it ’til the end.”