Mar 26, 2009

Meet Your Neighborhood Parole Officer

"Ms. O," as her parolees call her, is a parole officer at the Harlem Parole Reentry Court. We interviewed her for the blog so that our readers could "meet" an actual parole officer. Many of us have heard of parole, but don't know much about who makes it happen. Here's what Ms. O had to say about being a parole officer.

Please describe your role here at the Reentry Court. What do you do and how long have you been with the Division of Parole?

Parole officers meet with their parolees once a week for the first two months that they’re out and then once every two weeks thereafter. Once they’ve been out for a year, it’s a monthly visit, in addition to the home visits we have to complete. Parole officers have the right to go into a parolee’s home and search, which is meant to be a protection to family members and the community. Before somebody gets out, his parole officer reviews a packet of information about him and then investigates his living situation to see what the layout is, where the parolee will sleep, who lives in the home, who will support the parolee, whether there are any weapons or dangerous pets in the home, whether there are other individuals in the home who are on parole or have a criminal background, etc. The most important thing is for an individual on parole to be upfront about their living situation, since Rule 5 of the conditions of parole is that you can’t lie to your parole officer.

Being a parole officer is not a 9-to-5 job: in order to be an effective parole officer, you have to get most of your work done in the early morning or late at night (making visits, confirming that parolees are abiding by the conditions of parole). During the day, I take care of the social work part, visiting programs, touching base with family members. I can only work 37.5 hours a week, so I have to structure my time appropriately and I live my life around my job.

I’ve been with the Division for 10 years – I started out in Queens, where I supervised parolees in the 103rd, 105th, and 109th precincts. Out there, I had a caseload of anywhere from 45 to 70 cases at any given time. Where I was, there were private houses and not that many buildings. Most families come from professional backgrounds – they work for the city or in the courts, for example – and their kids just fell by the wayside and ended up with me. In Harlem, it’s different: more of my parolees come from families on welfare or parents who have histories of addiction. Of my older parolees, it seems like their original problem was drugs – not that they were life-long bank robbers or something. For the younger ones, the motivating problem seems to be gang involvement or selling drugs. Fortunately, I have a lower caseload in Harlem at the Parole Reentry Court (about 40 people max). This means that I’m able to visit the parolees’ programs, get updates about their progress, and stay in closer contact with their families. For example, I went to visit the GED program that one of my parolees is supposed to attend. I spoke with the supervisor, saw his grades, and will be going to his parent-teacher conference tomorrow, since his mom can’t go. You can’t do that when you have 70 people to supervise.

What is the most challenging thing about being a parole officer?

The frustration of people not wanting to take advantage of the opportunities offered to them – it’s like mentally they don’t see more to life than the way they’re living. There are lots of smart people on parole who could do so much more for themselves, but they don’t have somebody to guide them or they just don’t believe that there are actually opportunities open to them, regardless of what their parole officer says. Perhaps it’s because their life experiences have been limited, so they don’t realize what else life could hold for them if they got a job or went to school.

What is the most rewarding thing about being a parole officer?

Seeing positive people get out and chase good things. For example, one of my parolees got a job at Applebee’s as soon as he got out and now he’s the manager there – after only six months. You can tell that he’s really motivated to change: he has a nurturing home life with his grandmother and has his own space, which he keeps very clean. When he initially got out, he worked his butt off at two different sites, working about 80 hours per week. He told me that he made a dumb mistake and that he’s ready to move on. He has a child and does not want to owe child support, so he asked about getting a court order to take care of it. He’s very focused and he knows what he wants. Sometimes parolees open up to me – they tell me about their girlfriends, their home lives, their family issues. I like to keep the lines of communication open because this gives me insight into their mindset.

What motivates you to do your job everyday?

I like working with people and I like meeting different people. Every story I hear, it’s like I’ve learned something for myself. This job never gets boring – in fact, this is the longest I’ve stayed in any job, because it’s always changing. You know, life is so wonderful. I want everyone to experience and get the most out of life. The wider your range of experiences, the more fulfilling your life is. It’s the small things: knowing the name of the guy at the corner restaurant, having a weekly conversation with the owner of the laundromat when you do your laundry. I like helping people be more independent in their lives.

What direction would you like to see our justice agencies move in to improve the process of return from prison to community?

I would say that there are three things: first, I think parole officers should have more leverage to get people to go find jobs and get engaged in programs. Right now, with the changes in violations, it’s hard to really push somebody to become employed. And we know that employment is one of the key things that keeps them out.

Second, the employment programs themselves are problematic. It’s very hard to find effective employment programs that can accurately assess what an individual’s need is. The majority of guys in my caseload find jobs for themselves, either through friends, family or talking to people in the community.

Finally, not all social service programs are equally effective, either because they have too many clients to serve or because the staff is not as professional as possible. Almost all of my parolees have good experiences with a particular counselor at HELP (Harlem East Life Plan), for example. They are always calling this woman, and get excited talking about how she helps them – and it’s because she’s a professional with a lot of experience. I think it’s good for the parolees to interact with this kind of a person – there’s certainly a place for people who have been through the system or who are ex-addicts, but you don’t have to have been in the system to help make a difference.

Is there anything else you want people to know about parole officers?

Most parole officers are people with lots of experience and dual degrees – people who enjoy the social work aspect of the job. They don’t get joy out of putting people in jail, they get joy out of seeing people be successful. The negative view of parole officers is not the only view. Recently, I called the Department of Motor Vehicles to get some information for one of my parolees and the guy on the phone was floored that I was a parole officer attempting to help my parolee. I guess his perception is that we only want to lock people up. We’re approachable – family members should reach out to us and know that we’re open to relationships with them.