Dismal House

Ex-con Bob Sylvester wanted to help parolees go straight. But angry former supporters say that what happened at his shelter was pretty twisted.

The Denver house diverged from the typical Dismas program in other ways, too. Despite stated intentions to recruit college students to stay in the house ("students usually commit for at least a semester," says one early fact sheet), only a handful of students ever stayed there, usually for a few weeks, before the concept was abandoned. Nor was the program coed, like other Dismas houses; the rambling, three-story Victorian on Twelfth Avenue required extensive renovation and never offered sufficient space for a women's program.

In fact, the notion of Dismas House as some kind of community, a place where parolees could find their feet and be welcomed back into society rather than ostracized, never truly took hold in Denver. Varying work shifts and ankle-bracelet monitoring requirements made communal meals infrequent. Some parolees saw little of one another--or of the volunteers who helped with the meals and housework--except at the weekly "community meetings," during which residents were upbraided over dirty dishes, unpaid rent or other infractions of the house rules.

In the early days, the rules were few: Pay rent. Do your chores. No violence, sex or drugs on the premises. It was simple, and that was one of the key elements that separated Dismas from all the restrictions and mandatory programs required by for-profit halfway houses ("Straight Time," September 7, 1994). But as time went on, Sylvester directed his house managers to implement more and more rules.

After the house was badly burned financially by parolees skipping or being rearrested before they'd paid their rent, Sylvester began to require residents to fork over three-fourths of their first paycheck; to cough up a $100 security deposit; to pay in advance for any drug testing he might require; to deposit money in savings accounts that he would administer for them. Residents also weren't allowed to drink alcohol at all, whether on the premises or off, whether their parole plan stipulated such a ban or not. New restrictions arrived sporadically, sometimes in the form of threatening, do-this-or-else notes posted around the house.

Several of the measures were undoubtedly necessary. Most of the residents had little experience with honest work, managing their money or the responsibilities of sharing a home, and at one point the house faced foreclosure because of unpaid bills. "I didn't think it was run efficiently enough," says former resident Tony Kerndt. "Getting the rent was always a problem, and we needed more rules the more crowded it got."

To several staffers and boardmembers, it appeared that Sylvester was transforming the house into something quite different from what they'd envisioned. "It was Sylvester House," says Gil Gardner, a criminal-justice professor at Regis University who served on the board for several years. "It started to turn into a halfway house. They started getting [house managers] whose major focus was to get the rent. The guys felt that all the house cared about was their money."

Gardner had first met Sylvester when he was running a college program for inmates through Regis; Sylvester took one of his classes. For several years he lived only a few blocks from Dismas House and visited frequently, bringing classes of students to meet with residents and learn firsthand about the criminal-justice system. But he disagreed with Sylvester on several policy issues and finally left the Dismas board after Sylvester insisted that Gardner's students sign a form stating that they'd have no contact with residents outside of their classes. "The guys in the house got really upset when they saw that they were being treated like pariahs," he recalls.

Bob St. Clair, who served as house manager for several months, says the operation lacked the "spirit of reconciliation" touted in Dismas literature. "The house meetings were mostly in-your-face harangues about breaking the rules--nothing healing about it," he says. "Bob Sylvester would come in and say he wanted five minutes to talk to the guys. He would spend 45 minutes in a diatribe against them, about what a bunch of scum they are for not kissing his ass for all the favors he's done for them."

Other boardmembers who visited the house regularly also noticed Sylvester's abrupt, even disdainful way of dealing with residents. "I was horrified at the way he spoke to them and treated them," says Richards, who served as the board's recording secretary for several years. "They did not get second chances. Anything they had to say, he couldn't hear."

But his backers were willing to give Sylvester a great deal of latitude. After all, as an ex-offender, he knew exactly the kind of people he was dealing with. "Bob is a very autocratic kind of person," says St. Clair. "He plays this card--'I've been to prison; I know what I'm talking about, and you don't.' It's his way or nothing. There's no negotiating."

Sylvester has always insisted that the board of directors made all the crucial policy decisions for the house; as executive director, he had no voting authority on the board. But Richards, St. Clair and other ex-boardmembers say that the board almost always deferred to Sylvester and that many of his strongest backers--such as board chairman Reverend Tony Wojcinski, a priest based in Pueblo, and board president Fred Carter, a retired Denver police officer--were among the least involved in the day-to-day operations. Those who challenged Sylvester, they say, were either shifted to the advisory board, a chiefly honorific body that rarely met, or simply asked to resign.

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