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Prison Path

Dismas House–Successful Re-Entry





Dismas House
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By Ray Wm. Smith, Ed.D., D.Min.

In 1975, the Presbyterian Church voted to prepare a position paper which would set forth a Biblical theology of the nature and value of human life. In the early 1980’s, I was the pastor of the Shady Grove Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tennessee. Our adult Sunday school class studied the paper, including a section on capital punishment. We invited leaders of a local prison ministry to speak to the clients about the topic. One member of our congregation felt called to start a ministry for people who had been incarcerated but had no place to go when they were released from prison. She launched the first Dismas House in Memphis,Tennessee. Graduate students in social work from Memphis State University contributed their time to live with and mentor people leaving incarceration.

The founders looked for an appropriate name for the house. In the gospel of Luke, chapter 23:32-43, the story is told of the crucifixion of Jesus between two thieves. One of the thieves acknowledged that Jesus was innocent and asked to be remembered when Jesus came into his kingdom. The Bible does not give the name of that thief, but history records in other places his name to be Dismas.

One of the things that I liked best about Dismas House was the wrap-around services for each person leaving prison. I had the privilege to be the founding president of the Dismas House in Memphis. From the beginning, we were very glad to see that we did not have to invent anything to help service “the least of these” who had been in prison (Matthew 25:31-46).

Everybody leaving incarceration needs support for most aspects of their lives. Effective support provides the motivation and skills to former inmates to stay out of trouble and become productive members of society. Our goal was to make certain each person had someone on their team to help with their needs: medical, psychological, vocational, financial, social, educational, spiritual, food,housing, and activities of daily living.

I had a slogan for all— “when the going gets rough, the tough recruit.” At the Dismas house, we used that slogan in order to be prepared for any rough situations that challenged the resilience of the residents. We recruited doctors, nurses, counselors, bookkeepers, teachers, chaplains, headhunters, donors, and MSW candidates who were interested in helping the residents of Dismas House.

Today there are other Dismas Houses in various states helping released inmates to achieve successful re-entry, productive lives, and reduced recidivism rates.

To find out more about Dismas Charities and how you might replicate a Dismas house in your area, go to:


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