STRAIGHT TIME

part 2 of 2
It's the noon hour at a nearby restaurant, and Bob Sylvester is trying to nab a bite or two of his chicken sandwich while offering an ex-con's appraisal of Bruce Benson's crime plan. The sandwich can't compete; it sits there, cold and forlorn, while Sylvester expounds on the politics of prisons and parole.

Benson, the Republican candidate for governor, has had it up to his steely eyeballs with the way Colorado coddles its felons. He wants to build "no-frills prisons" and replace weight rooms with rock piles (which ought to do wonders for the biceps). Most of all, he wants to "take away their color TVs." In commercial after commercial, the color TV has become a symbol of all that needs fixing in the criminal justice system.

Sylvester doesn't see it that way. "That color TV takes the place of three guards," he says. "When you take the TVs away, you take away the best babysitter they have.

"Now Romer is saying no parole for violent offenders, and so is Benson. That sounds great, but how do you pay for that? And don't tell me the $325 million we're spending on prison construction isn't coming out of education. This is idiotic. We're spending $25,000 a year to lock up somebody who doesn't have a GED."

Sylvester's frustration is understandable. Although Dismas House can accommodate up to 15 people and has, at any given time, about 45 candidates for parole approved for residency, the house has never operated at its full capacity. Parole is discretionary in most cases, and Dismas candidates often have a tough time meeting the parole board's cri-teria, even though one of the most crucial requirements is that the prisoners have a place to go and a sponsor within the community--in this case, Dismas.

"Right now there are somewhere between 2,300 and 3,300 people sitting in prison beyond their parole eligibility date," Sylvester fumes. "If you paroled half of them, you wouldn't have to send anybody out of state. But Romer's scared to death somebody will do something. You watch--after the election, they're going to bust loose a bunch of guys, and we're not going to be able to take them all."

DOC figures indicate only a slight drop in the number of prisoners paroled in fiscal 1994 compared to last year, and Colorado Parole Board chairman Larry Trujillo says the numbers have declined year by year. He attributes the decline not to politics but to "the quality of people we have in the penitentiary," he says. "We're not apt to parole career criminals and pedophiles on their first hearing."

Trujillo insists that the five-member board, which is appointed by the governor and has the ultimate responsibility for determining, in almost all cases, whether a prisoner will be paroled, operates independently of election-year hysteria about crime.

Sylvester, however, argues that corrections has become a runaway bureaucracy in which decisions about parole are driven primarily by politics and bed space rather than concerns about public safety and adequate "reintegration" programs. The get-tough rhetoric ignores one simple fact, he says: Whether we like it or not, whether it's now or later, most of the cons are getting out.

"Eighty percent of the people in there are coming out sometime," he says. "And when they do, what's here for them?"

In Sylvester's case, what was here was not much. His descent into the system came a few years ago, when he was in his late forties--a disastrous divorce, heavy drinking and then a fraud-by-check conviction. Prison. Halfway house. Back on the street with nothing. Now 55, he tells the story with candor, without excuses; he doesn't approve of cons who hide their records from employers or otherwise evade owning up to their crimes.

"We've allowed our mental-health people to transfer responsibility to everyone but ourselves," he says. "I didn't go to prison because of my mother and father. I did it. I made the poor judgment."

His own contact with the system persuaded Sylvester that a sufficiently motivated con could avoid the revolving door that leads back to prison. But first he needed somewhere else to go--some haven, however modest, to take the place of the support system lost through years of "poor judgments." Three years ago he launched a pilot program at Denver's Samaritan House shelter, taking in homeless parolees and finding them jobs. That, in turn, led to Dismas.

Initially assisted by Catholic charities, Denver's Dismas House has since assembled an impressive board of directors (including a retired police lieutenant, a former prison chaplain and several other corrections veterans), and Sylvester is now fundraising full-time. The dilapidated house on East 12th Avenue has been visited by legislators and criminology professors and has received surprisingly little static from the neighbors--probably because its current residents represent an improvement over the previous tenants.

"When they first bought it, it had trash on the floor three feet deep," recalls one Dismas alumnus. "It used to be a crack house. People just came in through the windows."

Although it was supposed to be virtually self-supporting, with rent payments covering the mortgage and other household expenses, Dismas House ran deep in the red its first few months. Several residents went weeks, even months, without paying rent. Directors found better jobs. Sylvester says the house was subsidized more than $10,000 in its first year of operation and was facing foreclosure before staffers began cracking down.

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