part 1 of 2
Are tattoos a problem? Maybe not for Drew Barrymore or some teenage goof scooping frozen yogurt down at the mall. But they haven't spent nine and a half years in the joint, in a sea of tattoos, like Roy has.

"It's hard not to feel funny around people on the street," says Roy, a burly, bearded ex-burglar. "You come out tatted down--that's a whole stigma in itself. People think you been in prison, they better bolt down everything they got."

His friend Steve nods in agreement. Both men asked that their last names not be used, because they don't want to queer things with future employers.

"I challenge you," Steve says. "In fact, I would challenge anybody--"
He slaps a piece of paper on the table.
"Here's a hundred bucks," he says. "Go make a life for yourself. No, don't call your friend. No, no, no, you don't get to go home. You're out on the street with the shirt on your back and a hundred-dollar bill, and that's all you get. You go find an apartment, get a job, feed yourself. Go ahead."

Steve slumps back in his chair and takes a long, satisfied drag on his cigarette. He has a lean, sunken-eyed, hollow-cheeked look, as if something has been burned out of him. He could be in his early forties, but he carries about a decade more wear than that.

"It's a lot harder than most people realize," he says, "getting out of prison. But I'm not going back. I've lost all my, what would you call them, delusions of grandeur."

Steve can't afford any more delusions, grand or otherwise. After six years inside on felony theft charges, he is, for the moment, making it. So is Roy. A few months into their paroles, they both have good jobs, a steady income and decent lodgings in a sprawling, three-story Victorian house in the heart of Capitol Hill. Their roommates are ex-junkies, rapists, thieves and all-purpose con men. All of them have gone from the Big House to Dismas House, with one humble goal in mind--never to go back.

Named for the repentant thief crucified with Christ, Dismas House is a last-chance boardinghouse for the kind of ex-con nobody wants: high-risk parolees and career felons who've reached their discharge date. Some have been in the system so long that even their families, if they're still around, consider them institutionalized.

Unlike halfway houses, Dismas receives no money from the state Department of Corrections (DOC) and has, at best, an arm's-length relationship with parole officers. Instead, the nonprofit program relies on a small staff, private and corporate donors, volunteers and the unfashionable notion that all a reformed ex-con needs is a break--in the form of cheap housing, a few basic ground rules and enough time (three to six months, typically) to get back on his feet, financially and mentally.

"To try to correct bad personal behavior in ninety days is impossible," says Bob Sylvester, the president of Dismas House and an ex-con himself. "We can't do that. All we can do is give them a supportive community. This is the real world--you pay rent, you do chores and you stay clean."

It may sound simple, but the odds against any parolee making it on the street are formidable. About half of all ex-cons return to prison within three years. Older cons, particularly those who have already served long sentences--Dismas accepts only men who've been incarcerated for five or more years--fare much worse. If drugs are involved, as they frequently are, the odds skyrocket; most drug-abusing inmates never complete their drug treatment programs, and nine out of ten of the untreated wind up back in the penitentiary.

Colorado's response to escalating crime has been to get tough, then tougher. Life sentences for habitual criminals. More prisons. Boot camps. Intensive supervision parole--known as ISP--with strict curfews, ankle monitoring devices and frequent drug testing. More "deferred" parole decisions for violent offenders.

The result has been a corrections logjam. The inmate population is soaring so rapidly that the DOC, after a frenzy of prison construction, is once again shipping prisoners out of state. According to one Texas study, ISP simply produces more technical parole violations; studies in other states suggest boot camp is no antidote, either. Meanwhile, the recidivism rate continues to hover between 40 and 60 percent, depending on whose figures you believe.

The Dismas concept, which originated in Kentucky in the Seventies and has since spread to several states, flies in the face of the lock-'em-up-and-to-hell-with-'em mentality. Ex-cons room with college students and share meals with volunteers who help them find jobs, open savings accounts and prepare to move out on their own. Although the high-risk clientele suggests Dismas should have a horrendous failure rate, the program's overall recidivism is less than 25 percent--half the national average.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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