By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
"They really didn't want anything to do with me," Jerry says. "They decided I was one of the failures, one of the guys that had absolutely no chance to make it."
Dismas took him in June 1993. The transition was easier than he expected it to be, he says. He worked like a demon. These days he puts in 85 to 115 hours a week at two full-time jobs while doing volunteer work on the side. For now, and maybe for good, he's the program's model graduate, its "success story"--even though he doesn't want his last name used because his employers don't know about his past.
"If I go back, I go back for the rest of my life," he says. "But that's not going to happen. I enjoy my freedom too much. If I continue at my present salary, I'll be making over $62,000 this year. I drive a brand-new truck. Next month I'm moving into a $700-a-month apartment. I sleep about four hours a night. It hasn't been easy, but that's the standard I set for myself."
Jerry concedes that not every Dismas graduate has his hunger to succeed. "I'm the chairman of the alumni committee, and it's kind of embarrassing," he says. "There are only a few alumni to talk about. A lot of these guys don't want to be found, because they left owing money."
Everyone at Dismas knows someone who would rather be in prison than outside. In some cases, it comes down to whether it's better to kill your number--do your full time--and be discharged outright rather than hassle with ankle bracelets, drug tests and the other controls parole can place on you. But it's also a question of habits and patterns of behavior that have become automatic, almost like a reflex.
"Prison's a completely different society," says Steve. "I've asked my friends, if they catch me telling stories about the penitentiary, please interrupt me, let me know I'm doing that."
For Terrance Spaulding--ex-druggie, ex-halfway-house regressor--it comes down to a saving moment of clarity. "One morning a guy did a pot of coffee, and I came down and poured the rest of it in my thermos," he recalls. "Now, out of respect, I was making another pot. But he came in, and he was mad--`What the fuck you always taking all the damn coffee for, man?'
"I said, `Fuck you, it ain't your coffee.' And he pinned me in the corner--he's a bigger guy, okay--and he took off his glasses. I said, `Back off, man, back off.'"
He smiles. "And he came to, I guess. We both came to. But, hey, like that, it can happen. In the penitentiary, there wouldn't have been any way out. The only way I could stop is by telling myself I'm on parole; I can't do this, or I'm going back."
Spaulding talks about keeping cool in traffic, not blowing up at some slob who cuts in line at the bus stop.
"I see a lot of guys, they're just out for a vacation," he says. "They don't want to work, they don't want the responsibility of everyday living. It's so much easier inside.
"They know they're going back. It's just a matter of time."
Bob Sylvester would like to abolish the parole board. He would like to take the politics and guesswork out of parole and give felons determinate sentences, with a minimum of "good time," then make them earn their way out--by completing a reintegration program designed to prepare them for life on the street. Only highly motivated cons would make it through the program, he suggests. The rest would be doomed to hard time.
Sylvester wants to open a Dismas House for women in Denver and another facility in Colorado Springs. But right now, he's still tracking the progress of the ex-prisoners of Twelfth Avenue.
Joe Rice says Dismas House has worked hard to build a good relationship with its neighbors, "but one incident could change things." A lot depends, it seems, on whether Steve and Spanky and Roy and the rest of the cons make it or not.
Roy isn't worried. "The house is going great now. We've weeded out the bad guys," he says. "They weeded themselves out."
Roy is one of several Dismas residents who, by the usual logic, shouldn't even be out. When he went to the pen in 1985, it was supposed to be for life. He was a boozer with a string of not-too-successful robberies, culminating in a habitual-offender sentence.
Self-improvement wasn't a big priority. In maximum security he learned how to make his own booze--"jack"--so he could stay blitzed. But gradually his defenses crumbled. He lost both his parents. A younger brother was killed in a drunken brawl. Eddie, his best friend in prison--"the only one who'd seen something in me, who wanted to help me"--got sick and died.
Roy made the switch. He swore off the jack, scouring it out of his system like the memory of a lover who broke his heart. He attacked the law library; eventually, he got one of his convictions overturned and kissed his habitual-offender rap goodbye. He gave up smoking so he could save his pay, $11.50 a month, trying to build a stake.