Dismas House, a model prisoner re-entry program

Dismas House of Massachusetts is being held up as a model prisoner re-entry program for
communities nationwide to imitate.

Dismas was recognized as a model by the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation in Washington,
D.C. The foundation had LaFrance Associates research team in San Francisco study
Dismas and six other programs, according to Jennie Amison. Mrs. Amison is director of the
foundation’s Replications for Previously Incarcerated Persons program. She is also the
executive director of its Gemeinschaft Home in Harrisonburg, Va., a transitional therapeutic
community program for those persons being released from in-prison therapeutic community
programs in Virginia.

The Eisenhower Foundation deals with multiple solutions to community problems, including
re-entry of former prisoners into society, she said.

After LaFrance Associates did the research, Mrs. Amison visited each program, except for
one which was no longer there when she arrived, she said. The programs were all fantastic,
she said, but she felt a big connection with Dismas, because it is small like the Gemeinschaft.
“I was really impressed,” Mrs. Amison said of Dismas. She was impressed with Dismas’
structure, model, culture, data, resources, leadership and governance. “I felt like I had met
a clone of me,” she said.

Asked what it means to have Dismas get this recognition, Mrs. Amison replied, “That
means that y’all have notoriety.” On a more serious note, she said it opens doors for others
to learn from Dismas and for Dismas to get funding for its programs.
“I think it means a lot because we’ve had a lot of ups and downs through the years, and I
think this validates our program,” said Dismas House co-director Dave McMahon. “The
foundation says this is a model that should be replicated.” He said they try to keep Dismas
small to provide a family atmosphere.

While they could potentially receive funding, the most important thing is that they will be
able to help the foundation spread this model across the country, he said.
He also expressed hope that this would inspire holiday generosity – in the form of volunteers
to cook and serve meals at Dismas House “to help make these guys whole again
with the community.”

Dismas House operates three housing programs in Central Massachusetts, Mr. McMahon
said. The Almost Home program provides an intensive four-month housing and treatment
program for returning county inmates. Dismas House provides a range of services for former
prisoners. The Father Brooks House provides permanent housing for former prisoners
and their children.

On Nov. 13 the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 1593, the Second Chance Act
of 2007, to reauthorize a grant program for re-entry of offenders into the community and to
improve re-entry planning and implementation, according to the Library of Congress Web
site www.thomas.loc.gov. On Nov. 14 the bill was referred to the Senate committee, received
in the Senate, read twice and referred to the Committee on the Judiciary, it says.
President George Bush is likely to sign it, Mrs. Amison said.
“We want to be ready; we want to let people know how to use the money wisely,” she said.
“We are looking at the best practices.” The foundation will seek government funding to
replicate nationwide Dismas and the other programs, she said, adding that she will provide
technical assistance and training.

In addition to Dismas and Gemeinschaft, the programs she visited were the Fortune Society
and Center for Employment Opportunities, both in New York City, Pioneer Human
Services in Seattle, and Safer Foundation in Chicago, she said.
The foundation chose these programs for the study because they have services under one
umbrella, which makes for former prisoners’ most successful re-entry into society, Mrs.
Aimson said. Those services are community networking, education, employment/
vocational training, evaluation, health services, housing, life skills, mentoring and substance
abuse/relapse prevention, she said.

Providing people with the services they need upon release from prison helps reduce recidivism,
she said. She said that in many places the services are scattered: “You need to
go here for housing, here for employment.” That is hard for people who have been incarcerated
for a long time, she said; they do better if all the services are in one place.
In addition, Dismas and the other programs studied start working with people while they
are still in prison, she said.

“We looked a skills starting inside prison and working outward,” she said.
“You’ve got teaching and training prior to them getting out.