By Randy Bell
Over the objections of nearby business owners, the City of Clinton is allowing a local church to bring in a dozen former Hinds County Penal Farm inmates to live on church property as they prepare to reenter the free world. Mayor Phil Fisher broke a tie vote among the aldermen May 2 to approve a conditional use permit for DaySpring Community Church to operate the “sober living facility” in the Clinton Business Park. But the decision is being appealed.
Senior Pastor Dr. Matt Friedeman says by not accepting State money, the church will be able to hand pick the men who come to the halfway house. He says they work with inmates while they’re still incarcerated to build relationships, and this will be the next step in helping those men become productive citizens.
“Relationships are huge in recovery, we know that, whether it’s from addiction or crime or anything else,” Friedeman says. “What happens is we develop really good relationships with them out there [at the penal farm], but then there comes a time when they’ve got to go back into culture and they’ve got no place to go. So, they frequently go to bad places. And, by the Mississippi statistics, there’s a seventy-seven per cent chance they’ll go right back into the system.”
Friedeman says the public winds up paying twice for that revolving door – as victims of the former inmates’ new crimes and as taxpayers footing the bill for their room and board when they’re locked up again. And he believes the church can help to break that cycle.
“We’re going to have regular breathalyzer and drug testing as part of the program,” said Friedman. “We’re going to have Bible studies and involve them in church activities and recovery programs. And one of the huge things is, we want to help find them work.”
Friedeman says the halfway house will be an “anti-crime initiative.” But not everyone is convinced.
Melinda Owens runs an insurance agency located near the proposed site on Biedenharn Cove. She’s one of several business owners who voiced opposition to the church’s request.
“I have two main concerns. One is the safety of the neighborhood by bringing in a halfway house. History has shown it brings about crime, it brings about drug use,” said Owens. “My other concern is the halfway house does not meet the compatibility of the surrounding businesses.”
Owens says she applauds what the church is trying to do.
“I think it’s honorable,” she said. “I think it’s good for the community. However, the right location is not in a business and industrial park. We can’t attract other technology businesses, professional businesses knowing that there’s criminals living next door to us.”
With no indication that the Board would reconsider the vote, Owens filed an appeal on behalf of her company in Hinds County Circuit Court on May 12 arguing that the City’s decision was “arbitrary and capricious and unsupported by clear and convincing substantial evidence.”
Glen Davis runs Data Systems Management, a software company, in the business park.
“We have employees who are worried about safety,” said Davis. “These people [at the halfway house] are there for a reason – because they have a problem.” Davis wonders how closely the men will be watched.
But, like Owens, he’s also concerned about the impact on the business environment.
“The biggest thing is, I spent my money for my company to put it there because we thought Clinton would be a good place, that a technical community would develop around us,” said Davis. But he believes allowing a halfway house to move in will discourage other software companies locating there.
Mayor Fisher says people sentenced to prison who’ve served their time “need a chance.” He says that’s why he broke the tie to approve the conditional use permit.
“This is a chance for them to get that opportunity, so they can get back straightened out again,” said Fisher. “Plus, this church has a twenty-five-year record of solving these issues and working with these people with success stories. I feel comfortable with it.”
Friedeman says the church expects to proceed with the project “within the year.”