Wilmington residents and local elected officials, who last month successfully blocked a state proposal to move two parole offices to the community, this week vowed to do the same to a new plan to build a halfway house in east Wilmington for federal prisoners.
Behavioral Systems Southwest Inc., a Pomona-based company that operates halfway houses for the federal Bureau of Prisons in Hollywood and Lafayette Park, wants to build a privately run treatment center at 1203 E. Anaheim St., according to Barry Rubin, the company's regional vice president.
Rubin disclosed plans for the facility last week when he met with deputies to Los Angeles Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, who represents Wilmington. Rubin said he had hoped to gain Flores' support for the project, but the councilwoman said in an interview this week that she is "absolutely opposed" to it.
"It seems to us that we are constantly having to go to the community for support to oppose negative things," Flores said. "We feel it would be very divisive at this time to introduce into the community another negative. You open the doors, and it seems like they are floodgates."
Claire Sizgorich, principal of Wilmington Park Elementary School, which is about half a mile from the proposed site, said parents are "absolutely up in arms" about the facility.
"It is the very same block where we have one of our crossing guards," Sizgorich said. "Parents are calling and coming in and they want to know who are these criminals and why are they sending them to us. I had a first-grader ask me if they are going to put the robbers down here. 'What about the killers, are they coming, too?' she asked."
Rep. Glenn Anderson (D-Long Beach) said in a prepared statement on Wednesday that "it was with a sense of outrage" that he learned of the proposed halfway house, and he vowed to fight it at both the federal and local levels.
"When will government agencies realize that Wilmington does not want facilities that have as its occupants convicted criminals?" Anderson asked. "Perhaps these facilities are needed and could be located in other areas, but why Wilmington?"
The proposed Wilmington facility would house from 25 to 35 federal prisoners who have less than 180 days left in prison, officials said. They would be under 24-hour supervision, and would be required to take six random drug tests per month, Rubin said. The prisoners would be allowed to work in the community during the day, but would be required to return to the facility at night, he said.
Ernie Bartolo, a community programs specialist for the Bureau of Prisons, said most prisoners sent to federal halfway houses have committed so-called white-collar crimes, such as income-tax evasion, embezzlement and fraud, and other nonviolent crimes, including unarmed bank robbery.
"These are not child abusers or sexual offenders," Rubin said. "They haven't raped or murdered people. They are people who have paid their debts, and they are coming out and taking their place in society."
Gordon Pitman, Los Angeles community programs manager for the Bureau of Prisons, said the Wilmington halfway house would replace the Beach Haven Lodge halfway house on Pacific Avenue in Long Beach, which is owned and operated by the Salvation Army.
The Salvation Army has operated the 28-person Long Beach facility for 12 years, and its director, Barbara Taft, said the Salvation Army wanted to renew its contract with the bureau this year. Pitman, however, said the contract, which is open to public bids every three years, was awarded to Behavioral Systems Southwest instead.
Taft and a spokesman for the bureau said the Salvation Army is drafting a new proposal that would allow the Beach Haven Lodge to remain open even though it has lost its contract, which covers prisoners from the South Bay and Long Beach areas.
Bartolo said the Bureau of Prisons has contracts for about 315 privately run halfway houses nationwide, including nine in the Los Angeles area. The halfway houses are designed as transitional homes for soon-to-be-released prisoners where counseling and assistance in finding jobs are provided. They also help alleviate prison overcrowding, he said.
Rubin, of Behavioral Systems Southwest, said the facilities provide an essential service for prisoners trying to readjust to life outside prison. He decried opposition to the Wilmington facility as "an easy, cheap shot" against constituents who cannot vote.
"People are worried about their community, but crime is part of the community and these problems have to be dealt with," he said. "We are trying to make the community safer rather than less safe."
Community 'Under Siege'
But Assemblyman Dave Elder (D-Long Beach), who last month helped persuade state officials to drop plans to move two parole offices from Lakewood to Figueroa Street in Wilmington, said Wilmington is under siege by government and other agencies looking for sites for facilities that no community wants.