Dinner with Dismas

Recently, I was commissioned to write a piece on Dismas House of Vermont — a home for recently furloughed prisoners — for The Quechee Times.  It’s a worthy organization and for those who won’t find themselves in the Upper Valley anytime soon, the text follows.

“This is the only place I feel safe.”  During a recent Thursday night dinner at the Rutland Dismas House, this sentiment was echoed time and again by its residents, furloughed prisoners.

Since 1986 Dismas House of Vermont has been working “to reconcile prisoners with society and society with prisoners.”  To date, more than 1,000 former prisoners have resided at one of Dismas House’s three Vermont locations in Burlington, Rutland, and Winooski.   A fourth house in Hartford is currently in development.

Dinnertime is the centerpiece of the Dismas program, whose name comes from that given to the repentant “good thief” who was crucified at Jesus’s side in the biblical story. While residents have household chores, employment expectations, and accountability to the Department of Corrections, it’s around the dinner table that the community takes shape.

After lighting candles, a resident offers to get the meal started by giving thanks and many follow  with expressions of gratitude from the day: forgiveness, serendipitous transportation, contact with long-unseen children.

It’s an idyllic domestic scene that’s played out in fewer American households than we’d perhaps like to acknowledge.  Generally for these residents, if they weren’t at DIsmas House they wouldn’t be inclined or conditioned to gather at a set time, recount their gratitudes from the day, and eat a square meal.

One resident tells a story of a previous furlough.  Though provided with accommodation, he had no funds for dinner, toothpaste or bus fare.  Without a standing dinner reservation with an established network of support, desperate necessity breeds invention.  The reality for many who find themselves at Dismas House is that they have to create entirely new lives for themselves.  Support systems the rest of us might take for granted — like family — are not
available, supportive, or healthy.

Along with the accountability residents have to each other, community volunteers provide backpacks upon arrival, complete with necessities like toothpaste and soap, as well as preparing nightly meals.  A house director is available for stability and guidance.  For the planned Hartford House, Sharon Corrigan of Quechee is organizing quilters to provide a touch of home: handmade quilts for each bed.

Nevertheless, residents say Dismas House has a jailhouse reputation for being hard.  This is not the place to come if you’re looking to reconnect with old networks or indulge old lifestyles.  It’s hard to get into, too.  Residents must complete a series of three interviews in which they’re asked to articulate their understanding of community as well as their own criminal history.

The organization expects residents to make a three month commitment.  Many stay for six to eight months.  Some who leave earlier do so because they’ve found work farther afield or are reunited with families.  Some do, indeed, relapse, though their placement at Dismas House ensures a swift return to a more structured environment.

Founder and retired executive director of Dismas of Vermont, Rita McCaffrey, has long offered her life and home in support of society’s marginalized.  In 1975, during her own family’s dinnertime brainstorm regarding where to house a recent Philadelphia high school drop-out, her young son offered the extra bed in his room.  Sharing of one’s abundance was not foreign to the McCaffrey household.

“As the youngest of my children started school, I began to discern what my life’s work might be,”  McCaffrey says from her home on the grounds of the Weston Priory about how she originally got involved in Dismas House.

Teaching decisional skills to prisoners turned out to be the general thrust of her life’s work.  Through a series of one-on-one tutoring, coordinating volunteers, and a failed grant application, the first Dismas House in Vermont eventually opened in Burlington in 1986.  The house director of that very first house is still with the organization today.

When Dismas opened a second house in Rutland, McCaffrey served as house director for four years before joining the national Dismas House organization as regional coordinator.  Even today, in her emeritus status, she offers leadership to the proposed Hartford Dismas House which includes attending a variety of monthly planning meetings.  Meetings which have been happening since 2009.

Such a long history with the organization, makes it possible for her to walk into the Burlington house recently and recognize the volunteer preparing dinner with his wife and child as a former resident.

“Dismas was the good thief who asked forgiveness,” McCaffrey says about what she’d want people to know about the organization.  “Dismas House provides that opportunity.  It creates a community for volunteers to come in and learn more about the humanity of men and women who break the law and an opportunity for men and women out of prison to feel accepted again.”

It’s easy to stereotype a criminal who has been incarcerated.  Nevertheless, as one volunteer pointed out at dinner around the Rutland House table, we’re all just a few bad choices away from needing a place like Dismas House.

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