Prison transition program angers, worries OTR residents

By Kimberly Holmes – bio | email 

CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19)  - A plan for a prison re-entry program in Over the Rhine angers folks living in the community.

The federal Bureau of Prisons says a number of federal offenders will soon be released into the Tri-State. The Bureau said most of the offenders will be from Cincinnati so the agency wants someone to open a re-entry center in Cincinnati. Authorities say the center doesn't necessarily have to be in Over the Rhine.

The Pennsylvania company Firetree, ltd. has offered a bid using an abandoned building at 1507 Elm Street as an option.

Long-time Over the Rhine business owners James Lewis and his wife Geneva disagree.

Their shop "Sweet Pea's House of Style" has operated at the corner of Elm Street and 15th Street for about 49 years. On a chilly Thursday night, the conversation of future developments possibly popping up right next door is heating up.

"I don't think it's going to benefit the community or the neighborhood at all," said Geneva Lewis.

Firetree spokesman Scott Snyder says the company wants to open a transitional home for people just released from prison; mostly convicted on drug-related offenses. Bureau of Prisons spokesman Edmond Ross says the residential program will be for 46 men and two women. Ross said the program will replace the transitional program "Talbot House."

The proposed site for the re-entry center in Over the Rhine is a few blocks away from the new building for the School of Creative and Performing Arts. SCPA sits at the corner of Elm Street and 12th Street. That's just one of many concerns that residents, local advocates and councilmembers say they have about this council membersl program.

"This is not that far away from the performing arts school," said James Lewis. "We don't know what type of characters are going to come over here."

"Don't get me wrong," said Geneva Lewis. "I want to help everybody, but I still say I don't want to bring anybody down in here that's going to raise problems for children or people that live here in Over the Rhine."

Firetree operates several transitional programs throughout the country. Most are located in Pennsylvania. The programs offer a range of services, including: teaching ex-offenders life skills, helping them find a job, classes on parenting, money management, and counseling for alcohol and drug abuse, as well as mental health issues.

Over the Rhine Council President Walter Reinhaus says he understands the need for the program, but isn't sure this community is the best place for it.

"In addition to the successes, we've had a lot of failures," said Reinhaus. "And we're still a neighborhood that is very much struggling with the level of our quality of life. Issues of safety."

Cincinnati Councilmember Chris Bortz agreed. He says the community is already home to dozens of service agencies.

"Cincinnati, for too long, for decades, has been the dumping ground for service agencies," Bortz said. "And that's really impacted our ability to maintain a happy, healthy, competitive community."

Snyder said he sees the wealth of service agencies as a positive. He also said he understands the community's concerns, but adds that the Elm Street location best fits Firetree's needs.

"We don't target any specific area," Synder told FOX19 over the phone. "We look for certain things. Naturally, size of property, the zoning, and it's proximity to social service agencies and employment opportunities and those kinds of things so we don't go into a community and target someone."

The deadline for the re-entry center bid was December 7th. Bortz said a second company entered a bid for a transitional center the West End. Bortz didn't have the name of the company at the time.

Right now, the Bureau of Prisons is looking for input from local law enforcement, council members and the public. Bortz says the Bureau will review the input before any site is approved.

A public meeting will be held at the Over the Rhine Community Center on December 16th at 5:30 p.m.

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