Woodruff Place residents want park to replace nearby prison

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The last time anybody asked the residents on Indianapolis’ east side their thoughts about locating a prison in their neighborhood, Ulysses S. Grant was president.

Since 1873, the 15 acres at New York and Randolph streets have been home to a state prison. It has housed female offenders and more recently male inmates who were being transitioned back into society after serving their sentences.

The Indiana Department of Correction announced last week it will close the Re-Entry Educational Facility at the end of the July, whetting the imaginations of city officials, the sheriff and neighbors as to what could become of the former prison.

“It’s been over a hundred years since the neighborhood has been asked about what they want to see on this site,” said Will Pritchard, a member of the Woodruff Place Neighborhood Association.  “We just feel like we’re overdue for the neighborhood participating in the discussion and having a powerful influence on what ought to be on this site that is complimentary to all the things already happening in the neighborhood.”

Independent of his board, Pritchard and a handful of residents have developed a plan to build a park at the location.

“Within a mile of this site, there are many many schools that don’t have outdoor playing fields so we see this as a potential place for playing fields for schools, public recreational space for neighborhood residents,” said Pritchard who counts 2000 children in the immediate area who need access to recreational and parks facilities. “We’ve pitched an idea for a boys and girls club on one corner. There isn’t a boys and girls club on the near east side.”

Pritchard claims Willard Park could be relocated to the former prison site as a safe alternative to the underused green space currently at East Washington and State streets a few blocks south.

“Willard Park is still very difficult to access on the south side,” he said. “It’s unsafe to access on the north side because you have kids crossing Washington Street, so it just doesn’t make sense for a park.”

Pritchard said the nine-acre site could then be reutilized for multi-unit housing and retail along the busy Washington Street strip east of the Angie’s List complex, which brought revitalization to its near downtown neighborhood.

Marion County Sheriff John Layton toured the IDOC property last week and speculated it could hold excess inmates who have overcrowded the current county jail system and are now housed, at a cost of more than $1 million a year, in jails as far away as Elkhart County.

Mayor Joe Hogsett has proposed spending $9.5 million to build an assessment center for offenders experiencing addiction, mental illness or homelessness at his planned $565 million community justice center complex to be constructed on the former Citizens Energy Coke Plant site on East Prospect Street.

A criminal justice reform task force suggested off-ramping such offenders into treatment and referral services as opposed to incarceration as an alternative to adding expensive excess capacity in a new jail.

The former women’s prison, with its secure central location, 420 beds, mostly in a dorm setting, classrooms, food services, library and gymnasium might fulfill Hogsett’s needs for a jail alternative for chronic non-violent offenders.

Pritchard said a new park would complement the advancements made to the near east side since the area was designated a Super Bowl Legacy community in advanced of the 2012 NFL Championship Game in Indianapolis which led to spurred investment, new housing construction and rehabilitation and commercial development.

“This could be a further trigger to help jumpstart that process.”