ST. LOUIS – The St. Louis Justice Center isn’t the only institution with recent shocking violence. A transitional living center for federal prisoners had a shooting inside this past November. It’s a place where a very well-known convict may soon go.
It doesn’t matter who you are and how much influence you have. If you committed a financial crime or a violent one, you’ll stop through the Dismas House before you are free. It’s the likely next stop for one current federal prisoner – former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger.
Upon arrival, federal prisoners start out in a room that looks like a military barracks with metal bunks. Personal belongings, like televisions are stored on the beds, while smaller valuables go in lockers. The people who stay here are close to freedom. They’re no longer called prisoners during their 3 to 6-month stay. Instead, they’re clients who are working on finding jobs, homes, and reuniting with their families.
One of the clients talked to FOX 2 after our tour, independently, via Zoom. He talked about his struggle to find not only freedom, but also safety.
“I have truly been shaken up by things that has occurred,” he said. “Like, I truly hit almost rock bottom.”
He said he’s watched someone die on the floor near him from what appeared to be a drug overdose.
“I’m supposed to be on the path of being able to go back into society and be this refreshed person and yet I have all of this weight and all this stuff on my shoulders,” he said. “My whole purpose of this is not to down the Dismas House or anything like that. It is so that the next person who comes in can have it better than what I had.”
He said he was also in the same hallway of a shooting inside this past November. St. Louis Police are still investigating. Program Director John House III was also nearby.
“To actually have an incident of a magnitude of that nature, it’s surprising to all of us. We work very, very hard to keep our staff and our clients safe,” he said.
House was recently promoted to his current position. He once worked the front security area. Unlike a prison, there’s no large metal detector or steel prison door. Clients leave for work during the day, checking in at a security desk where they’re checked with a detection wand.
Chief Operations Officer Anthony Arington explains the reason: “When men are in prison, you can expect them to be inmates but we want to change their thinking all together. We want them to understand that they are close to being released from prison. This is an opportunity for them to get themselves prepared to be out in the community.”
Former Missouri State Senator Jeff Smith wrote about Dismas House in his 2017 book, “Mr. Smith Goes to Prison: What My Year Behind Bars Taught Me About America’s Prison Crisis.” After serving time for lying to the FBI about a campaign violation, Smith spent three weeks here. He called it, “the polar opposite of prison.”
One of his examples – the staff.
“Some seemingly aligned more closely with residents than with management,” he said. “One employee in particular looked the other way when residents scaled the fence to get drunk, high, and laid, and again when they hopped back over in time for evening counts.”
That was 10 years ago. Barbed wire now tops that wall and House says he will only tolerate what helps clients.
“Every day we see someone back in their home, being a father to their children,” he said. “That is just an awesome feeling.”
House says their challenges inside mirror ours on the outside. He looks at his job as way to impact both.
“There’s a need in the community and often times people want to talk about that need but no one really wants to roll their sleeves up and get in to help,” he said. “I look at this a great opportunity to help those in my community.”