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Messenger: Dismas House story is still lacking a key ingredient — penitence

Messenger: Dismas House story is still lacking a key ingredient — penitence

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People protest living conditions at Dismas House in St. Louis

Tim "Big Mo" Gordon-Bey speaks to a crowd of protesters while Donnell "Malik" Sims with the Organization for Black Struggle holds a sign next to him. Marie Franklin, left, takes a video with her grandson, Kaiden Trotter, 6, standing beside her outside of Dismas House, a halfway house for those coming from prison, in St. Louis on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020. Gordon-Bey lived in Dismas House for seven months. "We had no access to computers to do applications," Gordon-Bey said. "We had no job skills or resources in there." Photo by Cheyenne Boone, cboone@post-dispatch.com

There’s something missing in the latest turn in the story of Dismas House, the oldest halfway house for federal detainees in the country:

Penitence.

For more than 60 years, people leaving federal prison in the St. Louis area have passed through the historic, three-story house on Cote Brilliante Avenue in north St. Louis as they spend their final few weeks or months under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Prisons. The facility, founded in 1959 by a Jesuit priest, the Rev. Charles Clark, and a Jewish defense attorney, Morris Shenker, was named after one of the men who died on Calvary, hung on a cross next to Jesus.

Dismas was the penitent thief, the one mentioned in the Gospel of Luke as asking Jesus to remember him when he got to heaven.

When it comes to Dismas House of St. Louis, there is a remarkable lack of penitence, and not just among those who turned the halfway house into their personal piggy bank but also with the government regulators who were supposed to be paying attention.

Last week, those regulators, the Bureau of Prisons, took the federal halfway house contract away from Dismas House and awarded it to a new nonprofit, called Exodus Reentry Villages. The move was greeted with glee from those who have been raising alarm bells about Dismas. Between 2011 and 2016, two Dismas House board members, John Flatley and his sister, Vivienne Bess, had paid themselves nearly $5 million in salaries and had also transferred millions of dollars in assets from Dismas House to another nonprofit controlled by their family. That money was intended to provide reentry services to men and women exiting federal prison.

“I’m so excited,” texted Tracy Stanton, when she heard the news. “I’m crying and everything.”

She’s a lead organizer with Ex-incarcerated People Organizing, a group that held protests outside Dismas House in the past year, lamenting the financial mismanagement and conditions at the halfway house.

Gene McNary was also happy. McNary, a former St. Louis County prosecutor and county executive, is on the board of Exodus.

“It’s good news,” he told me. “I think we can make a difference.” He said he was amazed that BOP was still apparently considering Dismas for the contract until the end. “There probably should have been some people go to jail.”

Jail is something that people involved with successful reentry programs tend to know a lot about. It’s the nature of the business. Sometimes those who have experienced jail and prison have some of the best ideas on what needs to be fixed. So it is with the man who put the Exodus team together, Thomas Utterback.

In the late 1990s, Utterback, a former lawyer, was convicted of money laundering in a federal case that involved several million dollars in alleged drug money. He served his time and came out of prison intending to promote the concept of restorative justice. Far too many people go to prison who don’t belong there, he told me the first time we met. One of Utterback’s partners in Exodus, McNary tells me, is Mark Repking, a former Illinois banker who did a year in federal prison for falsifying bank documents in a case that involved the embezzlement of about $600,000.

Lately, Repking and a business partner have been pushing a development scheme on a piece of property near the Chain of Rocks Bridge where they have proposed an ill-advised marina. The two men have been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by the city of St. Louis to raise the land out of the flood plain. The property sits vacant, except for a gas station.

Both Repking and Utterback passed through Dismas House after their time in prison, which I mention not to disparage them but to say they served their time. They deserve a second chance. Utterback says he wants to provide jobs to those leaving federal prison, as well as an incentive to stay in St. Louis and contribute to the local economy. It’s a valiant goal.

But the Bureau of Prisons, which doesn’t have a good record of contract compliance, ought to be paying better attention than it did while Dismas was spending millions of taxpayer dollars on extravagant salaries and an Arkansas lake house. That’s where the penitence comes in. Federal prison officials have said nothing about the years of mismanagement at Dismas House. There have been no apparent repercussions, save for the loss of a future contract worth at least $44 million.

A new nonprofit has that contract now. McNary says it is “a really good team” that welcomes BOP scrutiny. For the sake of taxpayers, and the men and women seeking a fresh start, I hope he’s right.

So does Doug Burris, the former head of the federal probation office in St. Louis, who had been asked by Utterback’s group for advice, as well as the other bidder that didn’t get the contract, a coalition that included St. Louis University, Criminal Justice Ministry and other nonprofit reentry programs. When Burris first came to St. Louis, he was amazed at what a low bar Dismas House set compared with other halfway houses he had worked with.

Now, with a shift in contract, the future is “promising,” he says. “If they follow up, this is going to be a huge gift to the St. Louis community.”

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