STRAIGHT TIME

One reason for the change is Joe Rice, who was hired last October as the house's third director. An Army veteran, National Guard reservist and Glendale city councilman, Rice begins a conversation with a reporter by declaring, "I am not a bleeding-heart liberal."

Rice says the cons turned things around themselves. "It used to be that if you paid rent, you were weird," he says. "Now they resent it if someone doesn't pay rent. They'll get on his case."

The Dismasites have to get past the "convict code," Rice says. They have to realize that it's not snitching to report someone who's not doing his chores. It's not a sign of manly respect to ignore everybody else and retreat to your room. And, sounding a little like a young Ward Cleaver, Rice frets over lights and TVs that aren't switched off, chores that are done sloppily or not at all. In prison, no one has to do anything for himself.

"Sometimes I feel like I have kids," he sighs.
Chris Carr, the 24-year-old assistant director who lives on the premises, believes the house will function better once it has a full complement of students and volunteers. Central to the Dismas idea is the notion of shared meals and community support, but so many current residents work the night shift or have other commitments that the "group meals" may have only three or four participants.

"Dismas is a powerful concept," Carr says, "but we're still hashing out what a community is for these guys."

Early last month there were ten parolees living at Dismas House. A week later, two were gone. One moved out on his own, having successfully completed the minimum ninety-day stay. The other was on his way back to the joint.

The state system for drug testing being what it is, it took Joe Rice a few days to learn that Fabio (not his real name) had turned in a hot UA. Fabio had been working one job while training for a better one and keeping a diary charting his progress--but he also liked to smoke crack. In the end, the crack won. Rice confronted him and ordered him to pack up his things.

Even though he was in disgrace, Fabio was offered a chance to move into the Samaritan House shelter; if he kept clean, he might be able to come back to Dismas. But he ran instead, returning only long enough to help himself to all the food in one of the refrigerators. Now his parole officer is looking for him.

Rice was philosophical about the matter. He'd been burned before, and Fabio was just one more disappointment. "Sometimes you bend over backwards for someone," he says, "and then you feel like you bent the other way."

Rice and Carr do most of the screening of applicants to Dismas House. Neither one has a background in corrections, but they insist the process is a thorough one. Each con is interviewed at least twice while still in prison, and his record is carefully reviewed before a decision is made.

What they're looking for, Rice says, is "someone who works and plays well with others.

"No offense automatically excludes somebody from consideration," he says. "But if a guy's been in prison twelve years and still hasn't got his GED, that's probably a clue he's not motivated."

Carr "trusts his gut" in screening prisoners more than he used to, he says. But hunches go sour, too. "There's no way to know for sure," he adds. "We had one guy--very religious, very emotional. He sold me. We knew he was a manipulator, but my gut didn't tell me that. He wasn't in the house a day and he took off for Florida."

Fabio was Spanky's roommate. He left owing Spanky money. He also took Spanky's prize possession, a $600 Raleigh bicycle. Spanky blames the whole mess on the screening process--too many cons, he says, know how to manipulate well-intentioned people like Rice.

"Bob Sylvester won't like hearing this, but he should be doing the interviews," Spanky says. "I don't think Joe knows a con. I know Chris don't. Hell, I been conned myself."

Sylvester disagrees. "I've been conned, too," he says. "Cons get conned. When you're doing those interviews, they'll tell you whatever you want to hear, because you are their last resort.

"Some guys have to go back three or four times before they get it. Some are going to spend the rest of their lives there."

Some cons, it seems, want to go back. Prison is what they know. It all comes back to that switch, the one that turns a con into something else.

"Everyone's biggest problem is to leave the prison mentality behind," says Jerry. "It just depends on how bad you want your freedom."

Jerry spent a lot of time in prison working on his biceps. There wasn't much else to do, particularly during the three and a half years of solitary confinement. Then he got wise and started working on getting out. Mental-health programs, AA, drug rehab--the whole smorgasbord.

Five times the parole board told him he wasn't ready. On the sixth round the board gave him the thumbs-up. Even then, he killed another eighteen months as a guest of the state because no halfway house would take him. Too violent, they said. Too long inside. Eighteen years on assault and sexual-assault charges wasn't much of a recommendation.

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