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Site matters
Did development pressure block the best choice for the state's next training school?
BY IAN DONNIS


IN TERMS OF location, the Carcieri administrationís choice for the stateís next juvenile correctional facility has more than a few knocks going against it. Although it will be built to hold a larger number of detainees, the new complex is being targeted for a site that is about half the size of the badly outdated Rhode Island Training School. The location, across Route 37 in Cranston from most of the existing facility, encompasses an overgrown cemetery for indigents with more than 1000 graves, and it borders wetlands and a sewage pipe from the nearby Adult Correctional Institutions that sometimes overflows with raw refuse.

Considering it all this, it might not be surprising that separate in-house steering and planning committees at the training school recommended placing the new juvenile detention facility on the grounds of the existing institution. Even Jay G. Lindgren Jr., director of the state Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF), whose department has authority over the training school, acknowledges to the Phoenix that the stateís preferred location ó the approximately eight-acre site south of Route 37 ó was not his initial first choice.

Now, though, after Governor Donald L. Carcieri chose the parcel south of Route 37 from among three options, Lindgren says he fully supports the decision and that it will result in a safer and healthier environment for the youth and staff at training school. "I would certainly prefer more useable acres, but that is not to be," Lindgren writes in an e-mail following an interview last week. "Making this limited space as suitable as possible requires action by several state departments. I will do all I can to ensure that those actions occur. Furthermore, I have been assured that we have the full support of the administration to see that those actions occur."

To some people, particularly Cranston Mayor Stephen P. Laffey, it makes perfect sense that Carcieri rejected the possibility of placing the new training school on the grounds of the existing facility. Although the site might have once made sense for a state institution, itís now seen as a prime location ó close to Garden City and practically on top of ongoing improvements ó for further commercial development in the cash-strapped city. "We need that development to help lower property taxes," says the increasingly high-profile Laffey, who in April threatened to lie down in front of a bulldozer if the state tried to build a new training school on the current site. During a subsequent meeting with Carcieri and Robert Higgins, the governorís director of administration, Laffey says he told them, "Itís not going to happen. The citizens of Cranston will not stand for it."

Itís this kind of less-than-subtle advocacy that leads some observers to question whether the governor backed a dubious site for the new training school for the wrong reasons. Carcieri spokesman Jeff Neal says the governor "is always sensitive to the concerns of the leadership of local communities when making these types of decisions. You certainly canít move forward without a process where local officials are consulted. But at the end of the day, the governor has to make a decision based on the totality of information available. The governorís decision was formulated to ensure that the best site was chosen, based on that information."

Not everyoneís so sanguine. For some staffers at the training school, the situation represents another instance in which the concerns of poor minorities, who constitute most of the population at the facility, will likely get short shrift because of more powerful interests. And while it may make sense to make the current training school site available for economic development, they say, that shouldnít compel the location of the new facility on the problematic site south of Route 37. "We were assured politics was going to stay out of this," says one staffer, who requested anonymity. "My worst nightmare came true."

More than a few members of the General Assembly have taken an interest in whatís happening. As the Phoenix was going to press, the House Finance Committee was scheduled to hold a hearing on Wednesday, October 1, to review planning for the next training school. As noted by committee chairman Paul V. Sherlock (D-Warwick), a variety of influences and exigencies unrelated to the core issue of serving DCYFís population ó "everything, from NIMBYism, to developers, to the [Cranston] administrationís desire for property taxes" ó are in motion. Itís the committeeís responsibility, he says, to try ensure an appropriate process.

Meanwhile, the state has yet to resolve a 1979 federal consent decree concerning the training school. Mohamedu Jones, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Unionís National Prison Project in Washington, DC, says he has told state officials that unless construction of a new facility begins within the next year, the ACLU will find it necessary to seek contempt of court findings against state officials. Part of the grievance has to do with how the training school, which is rated for 180 occupants, commonly has more than 230.

Senate President William V. Irons (D-East Providence), who last week toured the site south of Route 37, has questions about the suitability of the administrationís choice. "They seem to be trying to squeeze this facility onto a piece of land that has a number of problems," he says. "I donít know what my final decision will be, but it surely involves more than signing a letter." Irons notes that there have been times in the past when state projects have been moved forward just to get them done and taxpayers have been left on the hook to deal with the problems. Now, two years after the legislature allocated $60 million for a new training school, "the final [site] decision comes out of nowhere." If things arenít done correctly, Irons says, the state "could be back in the same mess weíre in now."

 

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Issue Date: October 3 - 9, 2003
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