Longform

Dismal House

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From the outset, though, the house that Bob built was different from other Dismas Houses. After some initial meetings with officials from National Dismas, the Nashville-based nonprofit that operates eleven houses around the country, the Denver group decided not to affiliate with the national organization. Severing the relationship removed the extensive oversight National Dismas exerts over its local chapters, including monthly financial reports and weekly staff reports.

"They voted to disaffiliate before they had the house," notes Terry Horgan, the executive director of National Dismas. "We want to make it clear that there is no linkage between our organization and theirs. That's their baby."

Former boardmember Bob St. Clair says the group was eager to make its own way and didn't want its property to be held in common with the other Dismas operations. "It's possible that I and the other boardmembers were on an ego trip," he says. "We wanted to have our own show."

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.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast