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TONY'S TAKE

Messenger: Shooting at Dismas House spurs more criticism of federal halfway house

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Dismas House of St. Louis

An exterior view of Dismas House of St. Louis, 5025 Cote Brilliante Avenue, on Wednesday, May 15, 2019. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com.

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Sylvester Ivory was finishing out his federal sentence for being a felon in possession of a firearm at Dismas House of St. Louis, the oldest halfway house for federal inmates in the country.

Located on Cote Brilliante Avenue, across the street from Sherman Park, the federally contracted facility is the first stop for men leaving custody of the Bureau of Prisons before re-integrating into various communities in the St. Louis region.

It is supposed to be a place that helps people get jobs after doing time in prison, and offers guidance on training, housing and other services available to ease the difficult transition. Not a lot of that goes on at Dismas House, according to the men I’ve talked with over the past couple of years as I’ve reported on the financial shenanigans engaged in by the board members of the nonprofit. The board is controlled by the family of former St. Louis County and city parks director Gary Bess. His wife, Vivienne, was paid more than $300,000 a year as the secretary of the board of a related nonprofit the family created to transfer assets from Dismas House, most coming from the lucrative $43 million federal contract to house former Bureau of Prisons inmates. Her brother, John Flatley, made even more — between $500,000 and $645,000 annually in recent years — as president of the board.

All of that money flowing to one family meant that men like Ivory don’t get much in the way of services to help them as they reenter society. On Nov. 2, Ivory was doing what he says he often did during his time at Dismas.

“The guys were smoking K-2,” Ivory says of the synthetic marijuana-like drug prevalent on the streets.

An argument broke out. Somebody got a gun and shot another resident of the halfway house.

“He almost shot me because I tried to stop the situation,” Ivory said.

Police were called. One resident of Dismas was taken into custody. Another was treated and released at a local hospital. No arrests have been made, but the investigation continues, according to St. Louis police.

How did a gun get into a federal halfway house?

“I don’t know,” says Randy Howard, the executive director of the facility. He was paid more than $150,000 through the Dismas-related nonprofit in 2018, a pittance compared to his fellow board members. “He probably threw it over the fence.”

Ivory and other residents at Dismas tell me that’s not likely the case. There is often a door at the facility propped open, they say, through which residents sneak in drugs and other forms of contraband. “We have every type of drug you can get on the street in this building,” he says.

On Thursday, a group of activists are hoping to bring attention to that situation. At noon, members of a group called Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing-St. Louis, or EXPO-STL, plan a rally outside the north St. Louis facility to bring attention to what organizers call unsafe conditions and unethical behavior by those who run the facility and are profiting from it.

Earlier this year, the Bureau of Prisons put the contract for halfway house services in St. Louis out to bid. At least two outside bidders — including a conglomeration of experienced nonprofits led by St. Louis University, Criminal Justice Ministry and the Center for Women in Transition — have submitted bids and are in conversations with the bureau about possibly taking it over.

Howard says Dismas also submitted a bid to keep providing services. He assumes his organization is in the running.

Those who plan to show up at Dismas on Thursday hope that’s not the case.

“It’s important that the Dismas House contract is not renewed because they have displayed years of negligence and abysmal conditions in an unsafe environment,” says Latrell Stanton, one of the lead organizers of EXPO-STL. “Behind those federal funds are people who are trying to reclaim their lives.”

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