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Arkansas to open halfway housing near prison

From the inside, the buildings seem like any other halfway house: a place where paroled offenders can transition back to society.
PINE BLUFF, Ark. (AP) - From the inside, the buildings seem like any other halfway house: a place where paroled offenders can transition back to society.

Small beds are pushed up against cinderblock walls. An iron is perched on a shelf above a few plastic hangers. An alarm clock displays the time in bold, red numbers.

Outside, chain-link fences serve as reminders that these homes are closer to prison than halfway. They're in the middle of a correctional facility in Pine Bluff where hundreds of women are sentenced in lieu of prison.

The Department of Community Correction is converting a handful of buildings where employees used to stay during training into what the department says is the first state-run transitional living facility in Arkansas. Officials hope the housing will trim the list of more than 200 inmates who have made parole but are still in prison because they have no place else to go.

Still, some question whether the red-brick buildings here fit the label of halfway houses.

"Maybe it's only a quarter way," said Ted Wachtel, president of the International Institute for Restorative Practices in Bethlehem, Pa.

The houses, which will hold about 30 parolees once they're open this spring, will offer residents a taste of freedom – certainly more than they've seen behind prison walls. The men who will live here will have a separate entrance that leads to the fenced-in compound. A van will shuttle them to buy groceries, to interview for jobs, and to and from work if they need transportation. The residents will cook their own meals and do their own laundry.

"It's really no different than a house that has a slatted fence around its yard," David Eberhard, the director of the community correction department, said. "They're not going to have razor wire or anything like that."

But they do have fences and security cameras that officials hope will keep the recently released prisoners from socializing with the female offenders at the correction center.

"It doesn't matter if it is adjacent to a prison," said Benjamin Perkins, who founded Chance Sobriety Ministries Inc., a halfway house in North Little Rock.

What's important at a halfway house is that the people who live there are able to work and be responsible, he said.

"Because there is such a need for housing, I wouldn't necessarily think it would be a bad thing," said Lindsay Phillips, a psychology professor at Albright College in Reading, Pa.

A number of halfway houses don't accept sex offenders, who make up more than half of the 216 inmates in Arkansas who have been granted parole and have no place to go, community correction spokeswoman Rhonda Sharp said.

“There are a number of barriers to anyone who has a felony conviction," she said. "A lot of times family and friends help them out. We're looking a population that does not have family and friends to help."

Community correction officials are still working out some of the logistics, such as how they'll pick the people who will live here, how long of a grace period they'll have before they start paying rent and how much they'll pay.

"We have never operated a transitional living facility, so this is a work in progress," Sharp said.

Eberhard says inmates might pay about $100 per week, but that's not set in stone. Either way, he said, there's no question that the residents will pay rent.

"Real life isn't free housing," Eberhard said.

The money that residents pay could be used to offset costs, including the expense of putting employees who come here for training up in motels, Sharp said. Plus, it's money saved by housing someone in prison, Eberhard said.

"As a society, we benefit if ... we're not paying $60 a day to house that person in a prison because they're going to be living in a place where they're paying rent and they're actually working and paying taxes," he said.

The community correction department hopes to have the houses ready by April.

By then, another group of offenders will have finished weaving slats in the fences to solidify the barrier between two alternatives to prison. The privacy fences will obscure the parolees' view of the chapel, the women's softball field and the scoreboard where faded letters read, "Do the right thing and the rest will follow."

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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