WELLSTON — John Bowman was doing double duty.
It was July 15, and the president of the St. Louis County branch of the NAACP was speaking to a couple dozen folks at Wellston City Hall, talking about community re-entry for people who have come out of federal prison.
“We cannot just throw people away,” Bowman said.
The message was similar earlier in the day when he spoke at a news conference in Clayton at which he called for an investigation into a jail captain’s use of a stun gun to subdue Black inmates. The alleged abuse followed several deaths at the St. Louis County Jail during the administrations of former County Executive Steve Stenger and current County Executive Sam Page.
Bowman’s lament is far too common in St. Louis. Whether it’s the conditions at the city’s workhouse, the deaths at the county jail, allegations of torture in the jail in St. Francois County, or the abandonment of folks by the profiteers at Dismas House of St. Louis — the troubled halfway house for federal prisoners — the treatment of people who have been incarcerated too often lacks dignity and a higher purpose.
That’s why the folks were gathered in Wellston that day by Thomas Utterback, himself a former federal detainee. Utterback leads one of at least two groups that have submitted a bid to the Bureau of Prisons to take over federal re-entry services from Dismas House. For several years, Dismas House has been paying its board members, most of them connected to the family of former city and county parks director Gary Bess, millions of dollars in profits from the contract, while often failing to provide promised services.
The other group was put together by St. Louis University and some of the region’s top experts on prison re-entry, including the Center for Women in Transition and Criminal Justice Ministries.
“It’s a disgrace,” what’s been happening at Dismas House, says Thomas Mangogna, the president and CEO of the Magdala Foundation, one of the partners in the SLU team. The group formed after my series of columns in 2019 about the flow of federal cash from Dismas House, the first halfway house in America when it was founded by a Jesuit priest, to the family members who sit on the organization’s board. Meanwhile, the former federal prisoners living there weren’t getting help with jobs and were living in crowded and unsafe conditions at the facility in north St. Louis. Even when they did get a job, Dismas House was taking a cut.
“There is no way the Bureau of Prisons is going to withstand that kind of embarrassment … and sit back and do nothing if they have an option,” Mangogna said.
This year, for the first time in decades, the bureau has options. Both the all-star team SLU has put together and the Utterback team, known as Exodus, tell me they have been informed they are finalists for the next contract. Dismas House executive director Randy Howard said his organization bid but hasn’t heard if it made the cut.
The SLU team, which has a clear advantage in terms of experienced nonprofit heft, plans to turn the old First Western Inn on East Grand and North Broadway — currently being used to provide shelter to homeless people amid the coronavirus pandemic — into a halfway house. But the real goal is to move the former federal detainees as quickly as possible into their own living arrangements, with jobs and a pathway to success in the community.
That’s what Criminal Justice Ministry has been doing for men coming out of state prison for decades. Same with the Center for Women in Transition. Both own buildings in different parts of the city where former state detainees rent apartments, or stay while receiving occupational or other services. Now the two experienced re-entry nonprofits hope to apply what they’ve learned to the federal contract.
“Our goal is to get people through our system quickly and get them into the community,” says Anthony D’Agostino, the former executive director at Criminal Justice Ministry, who now leads St. Patrick Center.
For Utterback, who hopes to house his re-entry center in the old Central Elementary School in Wellston, a big part of his goal is to help convince the Bureau of Prisons that a lot of the people coming into the halfway house shouldn’t be behind bars. Exodus hopes to help increase Wellston’s population by helping former federal prisoners become homeowners in the north St. Louis County community.
“We are most impacted by high incarceration rates,” says the Rev. Rod Burton, who is supporting Exodus, as is former St. Louis County Executive Gene McNary. “So we should be part of the solution.”
The clock is ticking on the original Dismas House, the place that started a national re-entry movement and then strayed from the cause. For the men and women coming home to St. Louis after a stay in federal prison, a better future awaits.