×

Jim Kenyon: Big Night For Dismas

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Tuesday, April 17, 2018

It’s hard — no, make that nearly impossible — to bring up reducing Vermont’s prison population without mentioning Hartford Dismas House. The renovated 19th-century home with a wrap-around porch in Hartford Village is a model for how the state can save taxpayer money while giving offenders a real shot at success on the outside.

Hartford Dismas House, which opened four years ago, provides men and women just out of prison with an affordable, supportive place to live. Currently, all 11 of Dismas’ beds are filled. A half dozen offenders are on a waiting list.

“It’s not just an easy way for people to get out of jail,” said Renee DePalo, Dismas’ house director. “These are people who are deserving. They have fulfilled their (minimum sentencing) requirements and they have nowhere else to go.”

On April 29, Hartford Dismas will hold its annual fundraising dinner at the Fireside Inn in West Lebanon, starting at 5 p.m. Like many nonprofits on shoestring budgets, Hartford Dismas depends on private donations to help pay the mortgage and keep the lights on.

The dinner is its biggest fundraiser. And this year’s event came with even higher than usual expectations. Dismas pulled off something of a coup when Sister Helen Prejean, of Dead Man Walking fame, agreed to be the dinner’s keynote speaker.

Prejean’s best-selling book about a death row inmate she befriended in her home state of Louisiana became an Oscar-nominated film.

But Prejean, who turns 79 on Saturday, had to cancel her Upper Valley visit after being hospitalized with pneumonia. Doctors have instructed her not to travel.

Fortunately, Marty Boldin, who New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu hired as his policy adviser on prevention, treatment and recovery last year, agreed to pinch-hit.

Boldin has quite a story to tell. As a young adult, he battled drug and alcohol addiction. When he was in his 20s, Boldin entered a treatment program that started his long-term recovery in 1987. “Before then, I did every substance known to man,” Boldin told me over the phone.

Boldin, 55, has spent much of his career on the front lines as an alcohol and drug counselor at prisons across the country. It’s made him a big believer in programs such as Hartford Dismas.

Too often “people leave prison and enter back into society, but don’t have the skills they need to develop positive relationships,” Boldin said.

That’s where transitional housing, as it’s called, comes in. “People can go out into the world and experience what it means not to be locked in a little bit at a time,” he said.

At Dismas, residents stay for free the first couple of weeks, which is the amount of time Dismas gives them to find a job. Even in this economy where workers are in demand, it’s not always easy.

As a condition of being released from prison before they “max out,” offenders can’t leave Vermont. That means no working in New Hampshire. Residents take whatever jobs they can find as store clerks, dishwashers or chambermaids.

The pay usually isn’t much — $10 an hour or so — but it’s enough to keep a roof over their heads at Dismas, where room and board runs $80 a week. Dismas also requires them to sit down for dinner with community volunteers several times a week, which gives them a chance to meet new people and work on social skills.

To get around, they walk, bike or take the bus. Along with holding down jobs, they participate in support group meetings and attend counseling sessions at the state’s probation and parole office. Of the current residents, which includes four women, all but one has a history of substance misuse, DePalo told me. They range in age from 21 to 65.

Hartford Dismas residents usually stay four to eight months — long enough to save a few bucks to put toward an apartment of their own.

It’s among four transitional homes that Dismas of Vermont operates in the state. Rita McCaffrey, of Rutland, with help from her husband, Frank, now a retired state judge, started the nonprofit more than 30 years ago.

Dismas doesn’t accept sex offenders, which is both unfortunate and understandable. Getting communities to allow former inmates who haven’t been convicted of a sex crime to live in their residential neighborhoods is challenging enough.

But the reality is Vermont needs a lot more transitional housing. The state has more people incarcerated than its six prisons can handle. When I checked with the Department of Corrections on Tuesday, the state had 1,350 men and 153 women behind bars. That’s not counting the 229 Vermont inmates being warehoused at a Pennsylvania prison, where conditions are so bad the state DOC faces mounting political and public pressure to move them sooner rather than later. It costs Vermont taxpayers roughly $60,000 a year to keep an inmate locked up instate. Dismas provides its services for about one-third that amount.

It’s such a good investment, the DOC is a longtime financial supporter of Dismas of Vermont. The Hartford house alone receives $150,000 a year from the DOC. Still, that covers only about half of its annual operating costs.

Thus, the importance of private fundraising. Tickets for the April 29 dinner are $75 each and must be purchased in advance (http://dismasofvt.org/hartford-dismas/hartford-annual-event/).

I’m told plenty of tickets are still available. Sister Helen Prejean might not be there, but it sounds like Marty Boldin will have some interesting insights to share.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.