Homes Of Transition For Former Prisoners
The mission of Dismas of Vermont, Inc. is to reconcile former prisoners with society and society with former prisoners.
Community is fundamentally about relationship and it is precisely the relationship between the person who has committed a crime and their community that is broken, first by the real harm done by the crime committed and subsequently by the alienation that results from incarceration. In reconciliation, wholeness is restored to the former prisoner and to society.
If we hold people accountable for their actions as a matter of justice, then reconciliation is a completion of that justice. For a former prisoner to be reconciled to their community that person needs to overcome the sense of alienation – that sense of being an outsider and unwanted, they must become participating members of their community, and they must be returned to full citizenship with all its responsibilities and rights.
The first Dismas House was founded in 1974 in Nashville, TN, by Fr. Jack Hickey, OP a Chaplain at Vanderbilt University together with student members involved in the Vanderbilt University Prison Project. Having worked as volunteers inside the prison, they recognized the great need for a supportive community when prisoners transition from prison to the outside world. They realized that many prisoners had no place to live and little support once released. Because of this, they created Dismas House and invited former prisoners to live with them. This integrated model has proven effective for former prisoners, students and the community.
It is significant that Dismas House was not born of a social scientist’s theories. It was not a sociologist who conducted research and based on that research developed a new treatment methodology that led to the creation of Dismas House. It took some ordinary people, with hearts open enough to enter into relationships of caring with society’s unwanted, that has made Dismas House a reality.
Dismas of Vermont presently has four residential programs. Buell Street Dismas (BSD), in Burlington, was established in 1986 and Rutland Dismas House opened in 1990. In May 2008, we opened East Allen Dismas (EAD) in Winooski. The fourth Dismas House, in Hartford (HDH) opened in March, 2014.
While Dismas House takes its name from the “Good Thief” who died on the cross next to Jesus and has always enjoyed the support of many different religious communities, it is not a religious organization.
What We Do
Dismas House is a supportive community for former prisoners transitioning from incarceration. Dismas recruits university/college students, as well as other volunteers, to live in the House as in the original Dismas model. Living in community accomplishes the Dismas mission of reconciliation.
Dismas House can be described as “family-like” communities as that phrase aptly describes the daily rhythm in our transitional homes. Students, other volunteers, and former prisoners live together in community, where there is also the active involvement of volunteer cooks from the broader community. There is a spirit of open and participative decision-making by all members of the Dismas community where consensus decision making is practiced. The volunteers who live at the Houses are Volunteers for Peace (VFP). They are part of an international work camp, coming for 3-6 months to live in community and give support to the house by working with staff. Many countries have been represented: France, Germany, Spain, Japan, Russia, England, Belgium, and many others. It is a great learning experience for both residents and the VFP!
Life at Dismas House follows the natural rhythms of family life. During the day, Dismas residents go to work and/or to school. In the evening, all come together to share the evening meal and afterward they might be attending 12 step meetings, studying, helping with chores, preparing for the next day, re-connecting with their families, relaxing, or socializing. The evening meal is the centerpiece of the day where community building takes place. One of the chief ingredients is the presence of our volunteer cooks. As they come month after month they become an important part of the Dismas community. If the residential community and staff can be likened to the nuclear family, the volunteer cooks are the extended family: like cousins, aunts, uncles, etc.
Creating community at Dismas House is central to our mission. The presence of the students, the Volunteers for Peace, and all the volunteers communicates a critical message to our former prisoner residents, it says: “I care enough about you that I will spend some part of my life in relationship with you.” It is a message of acceptance as opposed to rejection, and of inclusion as opposed to separation.
Each Dismas House has a small staff responsible for interviewing and accepting residents, working with residents and volunteers to create community, and to provide: individual support to residents, guidance, and a connection to social services when needed.