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Students, criminals roommates in Dismas

Kaitlynn Riely | Wednesday, February 8, 2006

When Keith Romine was released from prison after nearly 25 years of incarceration, his biggest adjustment to normal life was to the advance in communication technology. Romine – who began his imprisonment before the age of mass cell phone usage and personalized ringtones – said he still mistakes the cell phone rings of his college student housemates for the radio.

Romine is currently a resident of the Michiana Dismas House, a halfway house in South Bend that serves as a prisoner rehabilitation program. In Dismas Houses across the country, college students live side by side with former offenders.

The Dismas program – which takes its name from the thief who asked for forgiveness while being crucified beside Jesus – was started in 1974 when Father Jack Hickey, then a Catholic chaplain at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, said he believed recent prisoners and college students could mutually benefit one another.

Hickey based the program on the idea that both groups are going through major transitions in their lives. While one is preparing to enter society for the first time, the other is preparing to re-enter society.

Maria Kaczmarek, the executive director of Dismas of Michiana, described the halfway house as a prisoner re-entry program that serves as a form of crime prevention.

According to the program’s brochure, the mission of Dismas House is “to reconcile former offenders to society and society to former offenders.”

Dismas is not a government agency and gets no funding from the state. Rather, funding comes from program fees (room and board paid by all residents), fundraising and grants. Since South Bend’s Dismas opened in 1986, it has housed over 500 former prisoners and college students.

Offenders released from prison are at a high risk of resuming criminal acts once they return to society. Dismas combats this trend by giving former prisoners a transition time to get back on their feet and find a steady job and a place to live.

Nationally, the rate of former convicts who fall back into their old ways once released from prison is 64 to 75 percent, Kaczmarek said. The rate for people who lived at Dismas is only 35 percent.

“Some of the hardest things for former offenders is to find housing, to find counseling for drug or substance abuse … to find medical health care or mental health care and to find employment,” Kaczmarek said. “Former offenders are at a very high risk to re-offend, but if they have support, they can make it.”

The Dismas staff designs a re-entry program specific to each former offender to focus on problems such as substance abuse or mental health issues.

Residents must commit to a 90-day stay at Dismas. While living at the house, they are required to find a job and start saving money. Each resident should save $1,500 to $2,000 dollars before he or she leaves to be able to live a stable life on his own, Kaczmarek said.

College students assist with the re-entry process for the former offenders by volunteering to cook meals, perform chores around the house and even live in the house for a semester or year.

Romine said he especially enjoys the student interaction he has had since arriving at Dismas in early January. He said he is the last one to leave the dinner table, and uses this time to converse with students about politics, international world events and national events. While in prison, Romine kept up with current issues and used his time to study so he could come out of prison prepared to re-enter society as efficiently as possible.

“I coined a phrase many, many years ago that, ‘I’m in prison, but the prison’s never been in me,'” said Romine, who found a job with Medallion Plastics, Inc. just eight days after his arrival in South Bend. “You know, I kept my head screwed on right, I’ve done positive things. You know the jobs that I took when I was in prison were going to be jobs that were gonna benefit me when I got out.”

Notre Dame senior Emily Pike, who has lived at Dismas since May 2005 and is transitioning back onto campus for the end of her senior year, also said she enjoyed the interaction between students and recently-released prisoners.

“Living at Dismas was one of the best decisions I’ve made as an undergraduate student,” Pike said. “It’s really easy, I think, when we live at Notre Dame, to think that South Bend is Notre Dame and Notre Dame is South Bend and it’s really not. It’s a very different place and it’s unfortunate that a lot of students don’t get to experience that.”

Pike said she agrees with the founding concept of Dismas – that a close correlation between stages of life exists between students and former offenders.

“When they’ve been down for a while, it really helps for them to see other people who aren’t sure what they’re going to do either,” she said.

With Pike moving back to campus, Kaczmarek is looking for more volunteers. Dismas needs mentors for the residents as well as tutors and drivers. The staff is also looking for students who will live in the house.

Kaczmarek said students who have volunteered at Dismas previously have had positive experiences with the program.

“I think that from every student I’ve worked with, they’ve always said they got more out it than they gave,” Kaczmarek said.