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.
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.
"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.
Now he has a good job, a car, the best girlfriend he's ever had. If not for the ankle bracelet, he's practically a regular citizen, a guy with something to look forward to--and something to lose. "I've got no reason to go back," he says, "and all kinds of reasons to make it."
Sylvester likes to tell the story of an ex-con named Edgar who used to weave back and forth between Samaritan House and the shelter across the street. A chronic, total loser, but one day he talked his way into a makeshift nursing program. He came out with a certificate of some kind--and a shred of his long-lost dignity. The next time Sylvester caught up with Edgar, he was working as a nurse, off the street for good.
Sylvester can't explain it. "I asked him what made him do it," he says. "All he said was, `Bob, I woke up one morning and decided I didn't want to live this way anymore.'"
end of part 2
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.