More than 650,000 people are released from prison each year and many of those people will end up with a parole or probation office. Based on the state and jurisdiction, these are the court agents who investigate a convicted offender's personal and criminal history prior to sentencing. They also serve as the watchdogs of convicts who've been released from prison and are finishing the remainder of their sentence out in the public.
In 2013, it was estimated that almost 4 million people were on probation or parole. That means that approximately one out of every 51 adults in America is under some type of community supervision, including a staggering number of ex-offenders with a probation or parole officer who they must report to regularly via office visits, drug tests, home and work visits, as well as monthly reports.
To many ex-cons, it feels like every aspect of their life is supervised and controlled by their PO, and in a way, it is. If an offender violates any of the conditions of his or her early release from prison, a parole officer can send them back to jail at a moment's notice. Miss a meeting with your PO because your kid's violently sick? Too bad. This person is like the arbiter of your freedom. They can say, "Do not pass go. Do not collect $200."
Dealing with a PO can be a harrowing and unnerving process that can leave many ex-prisoners frazzled. And with recidivism rates at 67.8 percent within three years of release, parole officers are working overtime (though there's a case to be made that they're part of the problem). Some ex-cons view probation or parole officers as a necessary evil of getting back their freedom, while others claim they'd rather finish their full sentence than deal with a PO for an extended period of time. The latter sentiment is understandable in light of the horror stories that sometimes circulate in the media of POs abusing their power by doing awful things like rape their probationers. And now, with the rise of privatization within the probation services provided by more than 1,000 courts across the country, more and more criminal justice experts are describing the fees that these private probation companies collect from citizens as straight up extortion.
To learn about the power struggles an offender experiences with his or her PO, VICE got in touch with four former convicts: Jessyca, a 33-year-old white Pennsylvanian who did nine years on a ten-year federal sentence for use of a firearm in a crime of violence and was on probation for three years; Julio, a 28-year-old Mexican American from Kansas who did six years on a meth case and is currently on three years of supervised release; Mikhail, a 35-year-old African American from Philadelphia who was incarcerated for five years for distributing oxycontin and has been on probation for a year and half; and Alma, a 33-year-old Mexican American from Texas who previously worked as a correctional officer before serving 10 months in prison for lying to a federal agent. They told us about what it's like to have a complete stranger hold their ticket to freedom.
VICE: For someone unfamiliar, what's it like to have a PO who's checking in on you? How would you describe their job in relation to you?
Mikhail: It's like having a cop watching over you, or another prison guard to the second power. He wants to intimidate, so he wears his vest, his undercover attire, his gun, etc. It's nerve-wracking. He can drop in at any time and he does drop in at any time. He expects you to be where he wants you to be at all times. Trying to get your life back together with one of these POs on your back is stressful.
Jessyca: To be honest, I had a good relationship with the two main females probation officers that I had. They would come over my house and obviously look through it, but I didn't feel intimidated or like they were out to get me. One was very talkative and personable. She wanted me to come and speak at one of her classes [about getting sentenced to jail]. They weren't what I was expecting and they didn't make me feel like they were corrupt. They didn't look at me as if it were only a matter of time before I was back in prison.
What was it like when you first met your PO? How would describe your first impression of him or her?
Julio: I had already heard about her because she called the prison before I got out to inform me that my brother committed suicide. I thought that was pretty cool of her. I knew a couple of people in prison who said she was a bitch, that she was the worst one to have, that she would fuck me over, that the first time I fucked up she would send me back to prison. I already had that imprinted in my mind, but I'm my own person. I make up my own mind about people. At the same time, I knew that this probation officer, this person, would be hard on me and could dictate every aspect of my life if she wanted to.
Alma: I think for me its a little bit different just because of where I come from. My probation officer is a female and from the get go she told me she didn't like me because I represented what would give her or, more importantly, give women in law enforcement a bad name. She's been extremely strict with me from the beginning, She warned me that she'd make sure my first screw up was going to send me back to prison to finish my time. She's been really tough even though my sentence wasn't that long and my charge wasn't that sever. I think she has taken advantage [of her power] above and beyond just because of who I was.
What's the relationship like with a PO? Does it stay strictly professional, or do you get close?
Alma: My PO told me at the start, "I don't like you and you don't like me. You don't like coming to probation. I don't like seeing you. I don't like dealing with you." She still tells me I'm very cocky with her and she always tries to ask me more questions for more information. She just tries to pick at it and pick at it until I talk. Often, I walk out of there crying. Sometimes I think maybe I should have just done the time because dealing with her is so aggravating.
Julio: I was very aware that probation officers have a way of being fucked up and sneaky. They will show you what you want to see and tell you what you want to hear so you begin to trust them or think of them as a friend. Then they use what you share with them against you. I've actually had that happen to myself because I was on pretrial probation and my pretrial probation officer interviewed me. She asked me everything about my drug use and told me that it was strictly confidential. The next thing I know she shows up the last day of court and puts everything I told her on blast. They work for the government. They're government agents. They're goddamn cops. I have to remember that. I can't be her friend.
Often, I walk out of my PO's office crying. Sometimes I think maybe I should have just done the time because dealing with her is so aggravating.
What are the most frustrating aspects of having a PO?
Mikhail: You can't go certain places. You can't do certain things. And it has nothing to do with anything being against the law. There's a lot of red tape and a lot of handcuffs, so to speak. I got the impression that the more I try to do with my family the less permission I got. My family reunion is coming up—my first one since I've been out of jail. My PO told me he would give me permission to go "when we crossed that bridge." I let him know that I had to get an answer because it's out of state and my family is waiting to see if I can go. He didn't answer the question for months and months. When I asked why he wouldn't give me an answer, he made excuses: "Your monthly reports aren't up to par. I missed you on a house visit." This and that and that and this. I still don't have an answer. I'm doing everything that I can do right and he still restricts me.
If there were one thing you would change about being on probation and having to deal with a PO what would it be?
Jessyca: I think they should allow you to get time off from your PO or more opportunities if you're doing good, just like they offer in federal prison. Also, your PO has to check in with your job, and this can be frustrating to some people. I didn't tell everybody at work about my background and the POs were really persistent that I share that info. When they finally forced me to call my employers, it ended up costing me my job. I know technically we are supposed to share we have a criminal past, but I didn't. I wish they helped me talk about it in a way where it didn't become this stigma.
Alma: She is able to scare me because of the power she holds. My lawyer tells me to just deal with it and do everything that she tells me to do and I have. I don't know anybody in the world who likes to come to probation to report because it messes with your schedule and your daily life. If I date somebody, I have to check to see if they have a criminal background. If they have do, I'm not allowed to date him. Having a PO conflicts with everything that I do on a daily basis.
Mikhail: I'd like to not deal with them at all. I already did jail time. What is the probation for? You're either getting sentenced to jail or probation time, but to get one stacked on top of the other? That makes no sense to me. It's like getting another jail sentence.
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