Editorial: Successful Returns; Guiding Released Prisoners

Over the years, we’ve come to think that what American lives lack are not second acts, but second chances, particularly for people who have made a mistake that landed them in prison. For them, jobs, housing and social acceptance can be hard to find, much more so than in an earlier era when paying one’s debt to society was thought sufficient to secure a fresh start.

The Upper Valley now has an opportunity to strike a small blow for second chances by robustly supporting the new Dismas House planned for Hartford, which will house and support former prison inmates as they return to the community.

The mission of Dismas House is succinctly stated: to reconcile prisoners with society and society with prisoners. This is important work, both for the individuals whose lives can be reclaimed and for a society that cannot afford to forgo the contributions and waste the talents of people who have made a mistake.

Dismas of Vermont, a nonprofit that already runs three residential programs in the state, is now planning to renovate a 3,800-square-foot Victorian at 1673 Maple St. in Hartford Village into a home that will house between eight and 11 furloughed inmates and two live-in volunteers in a family-style arrangement. Residents have to go to work or school, share communal evening meals and attend weekly house meetings that revolve around consensus decision-making.

Dismas of Vermont has already raised more than $600,000 toward the renovation, including substantial support from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and the state Department of Corrections. Now Dismas is beginning a campaign aimed at attracting $325,000 in private gifts. As staff writer Ben Conarck reported yesterday, the organization held a kickoff event over the weekend. It hopes to begin the renovation in the spring and open the house in the fall.

This timetable represents a delay from the original plan, attributable to an appeal by neighbors of the approvals Dismas received from Hartford’s Planning Commission and Zoning Board. Those approvals were upheld by a Vermont Environmental Court judge in September, clearing the way for Dismas to proceed.

We well know that there are a multitude of worthy demands made each year on the considerable generosity of the Upper Valley community. But we think there are good reasons, both practical and philosophic, why this particular venture makes an important claim this year.

One is that the need is strong. As more than one observer has pointed out, virtually all inmates return to the community eventually, and it is in society’s interest to reintegrate them as smoothly as possible. When it costs $58,000 a year to keep an inmate in prison in Vermont, and $18,000 to house a former inmate at Dismas House, the math pretty clearly favors providing the support furloughed inmates need so that they don’t end up back in prison.

The moral claim is equally compelling. Among those at the fundraising kickoff event was a former inmate and Dismas resident whose testimony made clear just what is at stake in terms of individual lives. “It’s a miracle I’m here today,” said Patrick Higgins, 34. “Criminals who get locked up and spend an extended period of time ... the only thing they learn is to become better criminals. I can vouch for that. And with what Dismas offers, I’m living proof that people can change.”

Yes, they can. If given the chance.