The press of overcrowding in the District's prison facilities clashed head-on yesterday with a neighborhood's desire to change for the better, as Shaw residents turned out at a hearing to try to block the proposed opening of the District's first new halfway house for convicted felons since 1977.
The planned halfway house for prisoners awaiting parole would be located at 414 R St. NW, in a neighborhood that residents said already has its hands full with an ongoing battle against drugs and crime.
But the city, with court-imposed caps on the number of prisoners that can be sent to the D.C. Jail and Lorton Reformatory, desperately needs to add to its existing seven halfway houses. Largely because of neighborhood opposition, the District has been unable to open a new halfway house for the past eight years.
These two imperatives -- the bulging jails and the future of a neighborhood -- clashed yesterday before the D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment, which must approve various exceptions and variances for the halfway house to be established.
"We have a fragile situation in the neighborhood," Carol Raschick, a neighborhood resident, said while awaiting her turn to testify. "We have a lot of drugs, we have alcoholics. What we keep hearing is, 'Don't you have a heart? Don't you care for these people?' Yes, but not if it means destroying our property."
"I oppose any prisoners coming near me and my wife," Daniel Presley, of 1653 New Jersey Ave. NW, a 65-year-old longtime resident of the neighborhood, testified at the hearing. "We are retired and we try to keep the community livable."
"A lot of black young professionals are moving into the neighborhood," said William Corley, 27, of 1722 New Jersey Ave. " The neighborhood has drug problems, we already have a lot of rehabilitation homes. We don't need another."
But Harry Walsh, head of the city's community-based correctional facilities, cited "bulging institutions" as the reason the house is needed.
"We do not have enough capacity to handle those who are eligible for a halfway house," he said. "For the first time in a couple of years we are trying to expand that capacity now."
The proposal, which the zoning board will rule on next month, calls for 30 felons to occupy the building. The proposed operator of the house, Larry McCloud, who heads Human Development Systems Inc., said at the hearing that the felons would find employment and remain under strict supervision during their time at the facility, which could be as much as six months each.
McCloud asked the zoning board to allow exceptions from the zoning regulations that would permit him to operate the halfway house within 500 feet of a home for the mentally retarded, located at 306 Florida Ave. NW. In addition, McCloud's request to house 30 felons would require a variance to zoning regulations that limit the number for such facilities to 15.
McCloud said he had extensive experience as a consultant in the field of mental health and corrections. He conceded, however, on questioning from the board and neighborhood residents, that this would be his first experience managing a halfway house. The proposal has the approval of the city's planning department.
McCloud said this is his third try at opening a halfway house. He said he received a contract from the city a year ago to open such a facility, but had been unable to win permission from the zoning board to do so.
"We may be faced with mandatory release of prisoners without strict supervision," McCloud told the board, alluding to the possibility that the city would have to empty its corrections facilities without enough halfway houses to handle the exodus. The crisis in the prison system follows a court ruling last summer placing strict limits on the D.C. Jail population.
Testimony before the board centered in part on whether McCloud could guarantee sufficient security at the halfway house. Under questioning from Advisory Neighborhood Commission Chairman Florence Pendleton, McCloud said that the residents of the halfway house would have some free time.
"Where will they be going?" Pendleton asked.
"Basically anywhere they want to go," McCloud responded.
"That's the part we are worried about," said Pendleton.
McCloud emphasized that the halfway house residents, all nearing parole, would not be likely to violate the law and jeopardize their freedom.
"These are guys who will walk a straight line," he said. "They will walk a straighter line than many of the people in that community now."