Just off Ind. 10 in Roselawn, in the small Timber Ridge subdivision, about 20 residents on a recent afternoon gathered in a cul-de-sac to discuss an unwanted neighbor. 

The GEO Group, a multinational operator of prisons and detention facilities, is proposing to build an 800-bed facility in Newton County, 66 miles from Chicago.

The location in Newton County was not listed in GEO's response to a request for information from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in October 2017, seeking detention sites that could serve the city of Chicago. 

But the residents of this leafy enclave about a mile west of Interstate 65 believe that detention facility is earmarked for about 45 acres of vacant land that sits just beyond many of their backyards. 

The Newton County Commissioners rezoned the property in March as a Public Government District, whose uses include government-related facilities such as a prison. The commissioners' vote came after a public hearing in February in which the county's plan commission passed an unfavorable recommendation to the commissioners to rezone the property for that classification. 

County commissioners declined to comment for the story and referred questions to Newton County attorney Patrick Ryan, who said it is premature to comment on speculation or rumors regarding a detention center.

But many of the residents gathered at the cul-de-sac attended the hearing and are concerned nevertheless. 

"This is something that could affect all of our lives and our livelihoods and home values," said Walt Wojtas, who has been organizing neighbors in opposition to a detention center. "Everybody I've talked to — I have not heard one person say they want this in this community."

Theresa Kinach is concerned the detention center will be built about 120 feet from her backyard. She said some people have had a "wait and see approach" to the matter.

"I don't want to wait and see," she said. "I want this shut down now. I want it stopped before it goes any further."

Conley Smith said his family moved to the neighborhood from a big city environment 24 years ago. Living next to any kind of jail, prison or detention center was not in their plans.

"This is a quiet, peaceful community and something like that is going to destroy everything we came down here for," he said.

Another resident, Kyle Hartwit, said sometimes he sleeps with the door unlocked. 

"I don't know if I'll be doing that anymore if this gets put through," he said.

Larry Pritchard wonders why the county or GEO would want to put such a facility next to a community that is home to families, children and elderly residents.

"There are plenty of properties where no one is living in a 100-mile radius of the Chicago ICE office," he said.

Failed attempts in Gary and Hobart

The GEO Group failed in its attempts to build an immigrant processing facility in Gary two years ago.

In 2016, GEO wanted to construct the 800-bed facility on land across from the Gary/Chicago International Airport. Following strong local opposition, the Gary City Council denied a request for variances on the property that was to be used for the detention center. 

Strong opposition also deterred a similar facility being built in Hobart, where GEO owns property.

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Opposition members in Gary and Hobart said they are willing to help Newton County residents battle against a detention center in their neighborhood.

In Gary, those leading local opposition were the Interfaith Federation, Black Lives Matters NWI/Gary and 219MIGHT, in addition to smaller groups. In Hobart, the opposition included the Concerned Citizens of Hobart. 

NWI Resist came into existence after the failed attempts to build detention centers in Hobart and Gary. It's composed of many people from those other groups, as well as some new faces. Samuel Love, a community organizer based in Gary and a founder of 219MIGHT, was at the meeting and said advice was offered to the Newton County contingent.

No. 1, Love said, is to be organized.

"Talk to neighbors, build a coalition, do the research and communicate clearly and promptly," he said. "Raise hell, was one way we put it."

No formal proposal

Ryan Farrar, a Democratic candidate for District 6 of the Indiana State Senate, said the petition to rezone the property was brought by Eldardo LLC, which expressed a need for the property to be shovel-ready.

"The timing of this happening just after ICE announced they were looking for locations for new facilities has left the community to fear for the worst," Farrar said. "Because this zoning exists, the threat of this happening without allowing for public due process is genuine."

Farrar was one of those who met with NWI Resist. The rezoned site is not only in the district Farrar hopes to represent, it's near his backyard. 

"From looking into GEO's previous ventures in the for-profit prison industry, there is little good reason to support the notion of them coming into this community," Farrar said. "It is also my perception that my neighbors here in Roselawn agree with this assessment."

Farrar said while many may consider the area to be rural, it is really residential.

"The most populous area in Newton County — this site borders more than 4,000 residents, two churches, and Lincoln Elementary School is minutes away," he said.

After meeting with NWI Resist, Farrar said the next step is to see if the commissioners are open to reversing their decision on the PGD zoning, "which doing so would effectively end this matter before it becomes anything more."

"If they are unwilling — we will move forward with enhanced protest and awareness campaigns," he said.

Newton County attorney Ryan said at this point there has been no formal proposal submitted to allow GEO to build, and nothing has been approved by the county.

"A lot of the discussion that is going on is speculation," he said.

Ryan said the purpose of the rezoning, which is on private property at the request of the landowner, is to attract development or investment in the community.

At their recent meeting, commissioners Kyle Conrad, Tim Drenth and Mickey Read repeated there was nothing to say on the matter. 

Efforts to reach the property owner, Eldardo LLC, were unsuccessful. The GEO Group did not return calls or emails seeking comment.

However, after the Gary City Council denied a request for variances on property that was to be used for the detention center there, Pablo Paez, vice president for corporate relations for The GEO Group, said their proposed facility would have been an $80 million investment in Gary, created hundreds of construction and full-time jobs, generated $1 million in new tax revenue without having to raise local property or business taxes, and created local contracting opportunities worth more than $1 million.

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Lake County reporter

Rob covers urban affairs and other matters in Crown Point, St. John, Winfield and beyond. Previously he covered Valparaiso, Hammond, Gary and East Chicago. He's also written for various magazines and pens a culture blog for The Times.