Dismal House

The way he tells it, Robert Francis Sylvester became an instrument of God one day in the spring of 1988. He was sitting in a jail cell in Arapahoe County at the time, serving a sentence for check fraud and reading a brochure about a place in Vermont called Dismas House.

A salesman possessed of a certain blustery charm, Sylvester had been on a downward spiral for some time--a bad divorce, heavy drinking, then a series of fraud and traffic charges that had landed him in jail again and again and would soon send him to prison. In an effort to rekindle his lapsed Catholicism, he'd been hounding a local chaplain to bring him communion and reading material, anything to keep his mind "busy and focused" while waiting for the move to Canon City. That was how he learned about Dismas, a kind of ex-con boardinghouse, where parolees share meals and living space with college students and have a chance to build a stake in the community rather than shuffle aimlessly from prison to the street.

By the time Sylvester heard about it, there were several Dismas Houses operating around the country. The concept, which originated in Tennessee in the 1970s, is a sharp contrast to the hard-ass approach of most halfway houses; it claims a higher success rate in keeping men from going back to prison, too. Although technically not religious in nature, the nonprofit organization is named after a repentant thief crucified with Christ and has strong ties to Catholic and other Christian prison ministries. But there was nothing like it in Colorado. From that moment, Sylvester says, he had a "burning desire" to devote his post-prison existence to establishing such a house.

"I believe I became the instrument for God to see this project through," he wrote four years later in the Dismas of Colorado newsletter. "I believe Dismas of Colorado is God's work."

Whether it's God's work or not, the Dismas organization that sprang up in Denver has Sylvester's fingerprints all over it. From the time of his own transfer to a Denver halfway house in 1990, he's busied his mind with little else.

In 1993 Sylvester opened the state's first and only Dismas House on Capitol Hill, transforming a former crack house into a last-chance way station for the kind of parolee nobody wants, the career criminals and longtime convicts who are most likely to return to prison. Serving as the house's executive director--for many years an unpaid position--he put together a well-connected network of boardmembers and advisors, including respected clergy and academics, ex-cops, state legislators, even a former governor. He coaxed prison reformers to fundraisers (including one last year featuring Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking), collected accolades from community activists (the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless Program of the Year award) and preached a gospel of tough love and redemption through hard work to the hundreds of thieves, dopers, rapists and scammers who arrived on his doorstep, looking for a break.

Along the way, Sylvester became a major player in the debate over Colorado's booming prison industry, a vocal critic of the parole system and of for-profit halfway houses. He testified before the state legislature, doled out interviews to reporters, pushed for funding to open more Dismas Houses around the state. Last year the Department of Corrections entered into a $72,000 contract with Colorado Dismas, acknowledging the vital role that the Denver house has assumed in placing hardcore offenders.

But in recent weeks, Sylvester's handiwork has begun to unravel. The legislature didn't renew funding for the DOC contract this year, electing to spend its frugal allotment for parolee services elsewhere. Last month DOC officials abruptly removed all of its parolees from Dismas House, citing concerns over an ongoing investigation of Sylvester and his organization by the Denver District Attorney's Office. That investigation, which is being conducted by the economic-crimes unit, comes on the heels of an eight-month probe of Colorado Dismas by the DOC itself.

The DOC's own investigation apparently produced no actionable evidence of wrongdoing, and no charges have been filed by Denver prosecutors, who expect their inquiry to take several more weeks. But in the meantime, shorn of its rent-paying parolees as well as its state stipend, Dismas House is struggling to survive. Sylvester says he's in the dark about the nature of the probes and what relationship, if any, they might have to each other.

"No one has told us anything," he says. "In any case, we haven't done anything."

But former Dismas boardmembers and ex-staffers, several of whom have parted acrimoniously with Sylvester during the past year, have raised a raft of allegations about the group's executive director, many of which appear to be at the core of the recent round of investigations. They claim that Sylvester forged residents' signatures on paychecks; mistreated volunteers, residents and even boardmembers; and misled donors about the organization's tax status. Sylvester, they claim, created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation in which gay volunteers--and, allegedly, Sylvester himself--cruised for sexual favors from beleaguered parolees.