Fail Safe

Dismas Charities puts violent offenders to work at the zoo, raising questions about safety

As a volunteer in the Dismas Charities inmate work release program, Todd Duke spent his days cleaning animal cages and performing janitorial duties for the Kentucky Humane Society.

Shortly after arriving for work on the morning of April 30, Louisville Metro Police say Duke shoved a female Humane Society employee into a room and locked the door.

Once inside the locked room, Duke allegedly exposed his genitals, forcibly kissed the woman, pulled her hair in an attempt to force her into oral sex, and tried to pull her pants off. The victim was left with bruises all over her body, but managed to get free and run to safety.

Duke was arrested and charged with attempted rape and attempted sodomy.

The Kentucky Humane Society immediately terminated participation in the Dismas worker program, saying in a statement that “protecting (our) employees and volunteers is our number one priority.”

Dismas Charities is contracted by the Kentucky Department of Corrections to run halfway houses that allow prisoners to volunteer at organizations throughout the state for 63 cents a day and time off their sentence. The majority of the work is performed in Louisville at various city agencies and nonprofit organizations.

In recent years, Dismas has faced increasing public scrutiny, in large part due to a scathing state audit that revealed exorbitant expenses and executive salaries, as well as a lack of oversight. There’s also been more sordid publicity, including tales of sexual trysts, drug use and theft by Dismas workers while on the job at Louisville Metro Animal Services, and a murder at its halfway house in Old Louisville in 2008.

Duke — serving time for a meth manufacturing conviction — had volunteered without incident at the Humane Society since February, when he was transferred from a brief assignment at the Louisville Zoo, where he worked in the horticultural department. The zoo is one of several city agencies that uses the free labor of Dismas, along with Metro Animal Services, Metro Parks, Metro Police, Public Health and Wellness, and the Solid Waste Division.

And though Metro Government’s stated policy agreement with Dismas prohibits anyone with a violent criminal history from working for the city, Duke’s long rap sheet includes violent crimes, with previous convictions for assault and resisting arrest.

Both Louisville Zoo officials and a spokesman for Mayor Greg Fischer say they were unaware that Dismas allowed a volunteer with such a criminal history to work at the zoo.

But as it turns out, Duke isn’t the only Dismas worker with a violent criminal past, according to records obtained by LEO Weekly.

In recent years, the Louisville Zoo has used several Dismas workers with a history of violent crime. And despite the zoo’s additional requirement excluding workers convicted of drug trafficking, several Dismas workers have had such a conviction, including two that currently work there.

The presence of such workers at the Louisville Zoo — unbeknownst to zoo management — is compounded by the fact that there are questions as to whether the Dismas crews are being properly watched while on the job site.

Zoo employees in charge of supervising former inmates participate in annual 30-minute training sessions on how to do so. But despite a city policy requiring close monitoring at all times, zoo officials acknowledge Dismas workers in the horticultural department are often well out of the line of sight of supervisors (a fact LEO Weekly confirmed during a recent visit to the zoo).

Given the fact that just a cursory review of limited records reveals numerous violent offenders have landed at the zoo through the Dismas program, it’s likely there have been more at other city agencies, as well. It’s a revelation that raises serious questions about the safety of both paid employees and the public.

Jerry A. Moneymaker was convicted on three counts of first-degree assault and one count of first-degree burglary in 1984 and sentenced to 60 years. Through the state’s early release program, Moneymaker was allowed to serve out the remainder of a reduced sentence with Dismas Charities, which placed him at the Louisville Zoo for eight months in 2009.

When asked how Moneymaker — someone with an indisputably violent criminal history — was approved for such work, neither the zoo nor the Mayor’s Office had an answer, both claiming to be unaware of the situation.

For Metro Government — as well as state government, which has overcrowded prisons — the Dismas work-release program has been a welcome presence for decades. In theory, it’s a win-win: Felons are able to transition back into free society, while still being under strict supervision, as they help city agencies perform manual labor tasks at no cost.

But agencies like the zoo — as well as the city’s Human Resources Department — do not conduct additional background checks on workers sent from Dismas, as they assume Dismas only accepts nonviolent offenders.

“(Dismas’) stated policy is that the program itself does not accept workers with a violent criminal background,” says mayoral spokesman Phil Miller. “So we expect them to follow that policy, and that was an important policy for us, in terms of allowing this to go forward.”

An inventory of Dismas workers who volunteered at the zoo (obtained by open records request) reveals that in the last two years the zoo has employed at least four workers convicted of first-degree burglary — that’s in addition to Duke and Moneymaker, both with violent criminal pasts. Burglary is deemed first-degree in Kentucky when the violator uses or threatens to use a deadly weapon, or assaults an inhabitant during the crime. Another zoo worker was sentenced to 10 years for arson.

LEO also obtained a copy of the Louisville Zoo’s worker requirements, which prohibits the use of inmates with a drug trafficking conviction. Despite the rule, the zoo has used at least five Dismas workers with such a conviction over the last two years, including two that currently work there, according to records.

Though LEO obtained a worker inventory from the zoo, the records do not explain why most Dismas volunteers stopped working there. Louisville Zoo spokeswoman Kyle Shepherd says Dismas Charities — not the zoo — possesses any records of complaints or disciplinary actions for the workers.

A spokesman for Dismas Charities initially told LEO that if the Kentucky Department of Corrections deems prisoners worthy of entering their halfway houses, they have no problem sending them to city agencies to volunteer.

“If they’re qualified for ‘community custody’ and they meet all the requirements that we set down, yeah, they go,” said Bob Yates, vice president of public relations for Dismas.

In a follow-up call from LEO seeking disciplinary records for workers, as well as clarification on the difference of opinion with the city on worker eligibility, Yates refused comment. Specifically, Yates said he would not make any comment because of this publication’s past coverage of Dismas, calling LEO a “piece of crap.”

Refusal to answer questions and provide information is nothing new for Dismas Charities: In a scathing review of Dismas in 2010, state Auditor Crit Luallen cited the organization’s failure to cooperate and provide sufficient records for her investigation.

Todd Henson, public information director at the Kentucky Department of Correction’s Contract Management Branch, says Dismas is contractually obligated to accept any prisoner into their halfway house whom the department classifies as “community custody,” thus deemed as not posing a great risk to the public if supervised properly.

But this definition of “community custody” is perhaps where the communication breakdown lies between Dismas and the city.

Though the zoo’s spokeswoman tells LEO that inmates classified as “community custody” are welcome to volunteer, Henson notes that the Department of Corrections sometimes classifies violent offenders and drug traffickers into this category near the end of their sentences, as was presumably the case with Duke, Moneymaker and others.

But while Dismas is obligated to take such inmates into their halfway houses, Henson says city agencies are under no such obligation to use them and can set up any parameters or requirements that they wish.

Despite the fact that Dismas worker Todd Duke stands accused of attempted rape — along with the revelation that other Dismas workers have violent histories — neither the Mayor’s Office nor the Louisville Zoo plans to cut ties with the organization.

“Even though we’re concerned over these two instances (Duke and Moneymaker), the big picture is that it has been a remarkably incident-free and trouble-free program, as far as city government is concerned,” Miller says.

In 2010, however, Dismas garnered much media attention — including a story in LEO — due to multiple instances of inmates engaging in drug use, sexual intercourse and misappropriation of city property while working at Metro Animal Services.

The negative publicity did not deter the city from continuing to work with Dismas.

That said, the lure of free labor in times of budgetary restraint cannot be overlooked.

“They’re not paid and are doing this as part of their community service commitment,” Miller says. “And they really provide a lot of good services that in some cases we might otherwise have to pay for.”

According to Dismas, their workers performed 360,000 hours of work throughout Kentucky (approximately 309,000 done in Louisville) last year. When computed at the minimum wage rate, that resulted in a savings of roughly $2.5 million for those organizations.

However cheap Dismas labor is, Wesley Stover — the president of AFSCME Local 2629, which represents more than 100 workers at the Louisville Zoo — warns that it doesn’t come without a price.

Stover says that free Dismas labor at the zoo is cutting into potential hours and positions for employees, which violates city policy. But he also argues that the program — especially in light of the Duke incident — jeopardizes the safety of workers and the public.

“We’ve had our members come to us and voice concerns about Dismas inmate workers being rude, being argumentative, stepping into their personal space,” Stover says. “They want our AFSCME members to watch over and give direction to these inmates, and obviously they’re not properly trained for that.

“They’re concerned for their safety, and they have reason to be concerned.”

Stover also notes that Dismas workers — who wear uniforms and photo ID badges like city employees — are indistinguishable from regular staff at the zoo.

“They’re not wearing an orange jumpsuit that says ‘inmate.’ It doesn’t say ‘convicted felon,’” Stover says. “So John Smith’s family is out there walking their kids around, and what you think is just another worker is a convicted criminal.”

There’s also the troubling fact that signs posted throughout the zoo instruct lost children to “go to any uniformed zoo employee” if separated.

And despite city policy indicating Dismas workers must be supervised at all times, this is not always the case.

Dismas participants take TARC into work on their own, allowing them brief access to the parking lot before and after work, and they are unmonitored for short periods when they get lunch. Stover says several employees have told him that Dismas workers have been dismissed for breaking into cars and theft, but without records provided by the zoo or Dismas, this could not be verified.

Horticultural workers are especially capable of eluding supervisors while on the job, as they cut the lawns that wind around the 135-acre zoo. However, zoo spokeswoman Kyle Shepherd says that when they mow the lawn, “We know where they are and check in on them periodically.”

Last week, LEO observed a Dismas worker cutting grass for nearly an hour at the far corner of the zoo, next to the non-fenced backyard of a subdivision and a parking lot with school buses full of children. There was no other zoo employee in the area.

Despite these concerns, the Mayor’s Office says the recent revelations should not overshadow the many Dismas volunteers who have done their job properly throughout the years without incident.

“Two apparent violations of their own policy over three or four years in the hundreds of volunteers that we’ve gotten doesn’t appear to be a huge trend of violating their own policy,” spokesman Phil Miller says. “But we’ll certainly be looking into that and reinforcing that this is the stated policy and we expect them to live up to it.”

The Mayor’s Office has not been in contact with Dismas Charities since the arrest of Todd Duke at the Kentucky Human Society, which is not a city agency.

“The Dismas program is overseen by our HR department, not by the Mayor’s Office,” Miller says. “But nevertheless, we’ve not had a specific conversation with them, to my knowledge, about the policy since the Duke situation.”

Asked if the zoo was concerned about being sent criminals with a violent record by Dismas, Louisville Zoo spokeswoman Shepherd initially told LEO that the zoo has “had a successful partnership with Dismas since 1989 based on the management and selection of the volunteers by Dismas,” adding, “Our agreement with Dismas is that we do not accept violent offenders.”

A week later, Louisville Zoo Director John Walczak followed up with a much stronger statement.

“We are extremely disappointed with Dismas for not following our agreed upon policy for volunteer selection and will require Dismas to tighten up its practices to ensure this will not happen again,” Walczak explained via email.

Walczak re-emphasized that the zoo has no disciplinary records of Dismas workers, but added, “We haven’t had any notable incidents with Dismas volunteers.”

As for the zoo’s supervision of Dismas workers, Walczak says that they will now re-examine the supervisor training, which he says is conducted by the Kentucky Department of Corrections. “The zoo has initiated a review to determine if the extent of this training meets our high standards for ensuring a safe environment for our guests.”