Southwest Philly residents rally at rush hour against proposed prisoner reentry facility

The group protesting a proposed prisoner-reentry facility and day-reporting center on Grays Avenue hears from Barbara A. Capozzi, City Council candidate in the Second District.
The group protesting a proposed prisoner-reentry facility and day-reporting center on Grays Avenue hears from Barbara A. Capozzi, City Council candidate in the Second District.
Posted: February 03, 2011

The city's vision for handling its nonviolent offenders on Wednesday ran smack into Southwest Philadelphia residents who don't want prisoners in their backyard.

Neighbors of the vacant M.A.B. paint factory at 5213 Grays Ave. shut down both Grays and Lindbergh Boulevard for an hour during rush hour as a protest against a proposed prisoner-reentry facility.

For the last year, the Zoning Board of Adjustment has been considering a variance that would permit a father-and-son development team, Ronald and David Watts, to build the Vision-Nary Community Reentry Center (VCRC). Neighbors regard it as a prison.

"Southwest say no, it's got to go!" about 50 protesters chanted.

As presented by the developers to the ZBA last year, the Wattses want to provide 102 units of transitional housing for ex-offenders as they leave the system. They would also offer 400 units for individuals awaiting bail, sentencing, or transfer to a state prison on nonviolent crimes, or serving sentences of eight months or less for those minor crimes. The third concept for the building they offered - which is first on the city's priority list - is a "day-reporting center."

Day reporting, used extensively by some states, including New Jersey, allows individuals who would otherwise be incarcerated for parole and probation violations and nonviolent crimes to instead report each day to a specific site for vocational training, literacy classes, and counseling.

"We don't want a prison here, or a halfway house, or day-reporting center. . . . We're trying to build up Southwest," said Gregory Moses, a local ward chair and community leader.

"It's the only place the kids go to play. It just doesn't fit the neighborhood," said Darryl Byrd, 29, who lives on the 5300 block of Grays.

The developers responded to the city's call for proposals in 2009 to build 10 day-reporting centers in neighborhoods with the highest concentration of returning offenders. Everett Gillison, the city's deputy mayor for public safety, said he hoped to fund at least three proposals in 2011-12 and eventually 10.

Ronald Watts, a former Cheyney University professor, said in an interview Wednesday, "We are not a prison. We are a reentry center. We have tried to say that over and over again, but it doesn't seem to take."

The city has made dramatic strides in reducing the city's prison population, from 9,800 in January 2009 to 7,747 on Tuesday. Gillison wants to deploy day reporting to further drop that number. He said any attempt to house prisoners would only follow a successful pilot day-reporting program.

"The best way to handle people is in-community, and we can do it safely," Gillison said Wednesday. "What we're trying to do can stand the examination of the neighbors - and everyone else."

On Dec. 22, the ZBA gave VCRC the green light, but rescinded its approval last month at the Wattses' request because the approval was only guaranteed for five years and no bank will finance the project without a 20-year approval, to guarantee payback of the loan. The ZBA is taking comment until Feb. 14.


Contact staff writer Jeff Shields at 215-854-4565 or jshields@phillynews.com.

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