Longform

Dismal House

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"If the guys in the house didn't do things, he'd abuse them," says former chaplain intern Owens. "He would throw dishes, put up signs, harass them. Ultimately, I think Bob just wanted them to leave."

Gardner recalls that Sylvester told him once, "These guys are nice at first, but after two weeks they all become assholes." The comment distressed Gardner; he'd come to know many of the residents himself, and he'd seen some succeed against tall odds. But as the house became more crowded with parolees, it also became more like a halfway house--with Sylvester as the chief enforcer.

Owens recalls the lavish presentations of "gorgeous" food that would appear in the house at every fundraiser. But after the guests were gone, she says, the residents would be stuck with mystery meats and stale bread, damaged or distressed goods bought from discounters. "The stuff was almost garbage," she says. "Things had mold on them. They were told just to cut it off."

For Owens, the contrast seemed to capture what Denver's Dismas House was all about: It made a good first impression, but there was something malodorous and possibly rotten at the core. Sylvester boasted that the house had a success rate of around 75 percent, comparable to that of National Dismas, but he often neglected to mention that the rate excluded those residents who stayed in the house less than thirty days; many of those who absconded, reoffended or were sent back to prison on a parole violation did so within the first month. By contrast, the national organization's figures took into account all participants who lasted more than a week.

"It's not as successful as Bob Sylvester says it is," says St. Clair. "I wouldn't be surprised if the actual rate [of recidivism] is down within the range of a halfway house."

"If you stood up to Bob," says Owens, "you knew he was going to find a way to send you back."

Strictly speaking, Sylvester didn't have the power to send anyone back to prison. That authority rested with state parole officials, who also decided which parolees would be sent to Dismas House in the first place. But the relationship between Sylvester and parole and corrections officials is one of the strangest aspects of the rise and fall of his mission.

From the start, the DOC had evidence of possible problems at Dismas House, the kind of problems that could drive the average halfway house out of business. Yet the agency proceeded to make considerable use of Sylvester's services before deciding last month--five years and thousands of public dollars later--to pull the plug.

In March 1993, just weeks before Dismas House was scheduled to open, Bob Sylvester was summoned to a meeting with Tom Maddock, head of the Denver parole office of the state DOC. Uncertain what Maddock wanted to talk about, Sylvester asked his friend Sandi Izor to go with him. That proved to be a mistake.

Izor, a Dismas boardmember and prisoner-rights activist, believed passionately in the Dismas concept. But the meeting in Maddock's office was, by her account, the rudest of awakenings.

"It made me sick to my stomach," she says now. "I have never felt so betrayed."

While Izor listened, Maddock asked Sylvester a series of pointed questions about whether he'd ever sent gifts or made any promises to inmates who were coming up for parole--if, for example, he'd assured anyone he could get them into Dismas House. Sylvester denied it. Maddock then produced photocopies of letters, money orders and receipts from Sylvester's correspondence with an inmate. The inmate had made a complaint against Sylvester, claiming that he was being promised a favorable parole situation in exchange for possible sexual favors.

According to Izor, Maddock told Sylvester that he was "through" with the DOC. He would not be allowed to set foot in any state prison again to interview any applicants for Dismas House; indeed, Izor was under the impression that the house might not open at all, since Maddock was loath to send any parolees there, pending an investigation of the inmate's charges.

After the meeting, Izor and Sylvester went to a coffee shop and began to argue. "He was saying, 'They're setting me up; this isn't true,'" Izor recalls. But she had seen and heard enough. "I was screaming at him that he'd lied to me, that he'd sandbagged me and lied to all of us. I walked out and resigned from the board that day."

Over the years, Sylvester has given different versions of what happened in Maddock's office that day. Key elements of Izor's account have been confirmed by DOC sources, though, and Bob St. Clair recalls seeing "a letter from Tom Maddock forbidding Bob to go back into the prisons. It's a mystery to me why Maddock ever reconciled with that."

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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