Though this blog is was originally intended as a resource for offenders in Massachusetts, much of what I write about is applicable to sex offenders in every other state and many countries around the world, especially in Western Europe. Even other non-sex offenders trying to navigate prison, probation and parole, or employment and education opportunities can glean relevant information from this blog and apply it to help overcome their own struggles.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Why would you want to cultivate a positive relationship with your probation officer?

Readers note:  I am writing this from the perspective of being on probation, not parole which is a more supervised form of release than probation.  I've given pseudonyms to those being discussed.  

If you've done time in county jail, state prison, or federal penitentiary then you know the general attitude adopted by prisoners toward guards (CO's) and administration.  Every prisoners' experience is different but is influenced by numerous factors: who you are, why you are incarcerated, where you served time, the institutions policies, and guards you're exposed to, etc... You quickly realize the difficult and uneasy dynamic between prisoner and guard.    When you have a system where other people regulate every aspect of your life, tension, resentment, and violence are easily directed toward guards and other inmates- who also tend to be convenient vessels at which prisoners can displace pent up and unrealized emotions.  CO's are like any other group: you'll find a wide range of people within the group who all approach their job (and you) with personal experiences and individual differences which affect how they interact with prisoners.  In the end though, the inequitable relationship is adversarial and the power structure is perpetuated by a system that incentivize compliance and punishes those who choose otherwise.  There are days when you would love to punch a hated CO in the mouth as I am sure there are days when a CO would love to swing a baton at a hated inmates head.  Somehow, for the most part, guys do their time without attacking every CO that pisses them off.

Every week or so there was some guy coming back in on a probation/parole violation - guys who vowed never to return to prison and whom I though would successfully be on supervised release.  These guys had less than positive things to say about being on probation and their PO:  "Your probation officer is just like a cop or a prison guard: he's not one your side and is part of a system that sets you up to fail so you end up back in prison," was the sentiment I heard many times of those stumbling back through the proverbial revolving door.  Guards don't like inmates.  Inmates don't like guards.  Probation officers aren't too different from guards. This made perfect sense.  Though I was excited and disciplined coming up on my release date, there was a little corner of my mind that said ”these guys came back on  a probation violation after a few months. How am I going to make it 10 years on probation”?  

Being out of prison and on probation can be an easy transition in many ways (it's nice not being incarcerated, right?), but there are some attitudes and resentments that one cannot leave behind since they served you well in prison.  These feelings, including hatreds, aren't easily switched off once you get to the other side of the wall.  With your new PO in charge of many aspects of your life and behavior, he naturally becomes a person to loathe and resent - the most obvious thing standing in the way of having the freedom and liberty to live your life the way you want.

Probation and parole are in many ways the same: you're doing your sentence outside and you need to follow many conditions, all of which have an effect on every domain of your life to some degree. Parole is more stringent, especially if you violate your terms somehow, your parole officer immediately lugs you back to prison to continue your sentence. Probation has a layer of “protection” for the probationer where a judge ultimately decides at a violation hearing whether you violated your terms and if you should return to prison, stay out, be given more time on probation, add more conditions etc.. (In Massachusetts you can be sentenced to back to prison to your entire probation sentence, even if you have 1 day left!) . The PO lays out the facts to the judge and gives you (or your attorney) the same opportunity. Depending on the circumstances of the violation, the hearing can turn into a mini trial with witnesses and evidence presented which can continue on for weeks. However, make no mistake about it, the PO has the judges ear more than you do. Remember, in the courts eyes you are a convicted criminal who is fortunate as hell to be out on the street (never mind the publics' attitude). So if you're thinking of going up to refute the reputation of the PO or the validity of his violating you, you are already losing. If you are found to be in violation, the PO's recommendation to the judge as to your punishment carrys considerable weight.

Having said that, what if I tell you that your PO can be an asset and an ally in some ways to you that you haven't thought about or experienced and might one day save you from going back to prison?  Let me tell you my story about how my PO, by simply doing his job, helped prevent a false accusation from becoming a quick ticket back into prison for me.

It was late summer - a Thursday - heading to my weekly court ordered group treatment program when I stopped at the local donut shop in town. I went inside and placed my order and turned around to see 3 guys in their late teens standing near the door. I had no clue who they were but I was not shocked to think that someone in town would want to start some trouble with me.  As a sex offender, you know this is not an unusual mindset to have.  Unbeknown to me, my victim was among the three but I couldn't tell if it was him or not. I knew he still lived in town but I had no idea what he looked like after 7+ years (the last time I saw him was when he was about to turn 12). I exited the store and started my car. Apparently these guys were at the drive-thru and saw me go in. I was getting "mean mugged" by them now. After I backed my car out, they decided to follow me and only now was the thought creeping into my head that one of the guys was my victim. They aggressively tailed me, at time pulling along side of me for the next mile.

My next decision pretty much saved my ass.  Not really knowing what to do or who to call (I didn't feel it was a matter to call 911 for), I dialed my PO John and told him what was happening.  He suggested I drive to the police station to file a police report and have my account on record, proactively addressing the situation that happened . I did not believe that a) the cops would take my statement b) this would help.  With some hesitation and nervousness I made my way down to the police station and gave a statement to an officer on duty as to what happened.  I though whatever, that's done, I'm never going back to that donut shop again lest I run into these guys for a second time.

The next Monday I received a call from John. He says my victim Tom filed a complaint against me on Saturday, two days after our encounter, and explained by departmental policy he has to schedule a violation hearing. Apparently, in Tom's complaint he said I was acting aggressively towards him, gnashing my teeth and snarling at him (think Tolkien uruk hai), also threatening to kill him.  Even though I knew the truth of the matter, my heart sank and my stomach knotted because I knew how serious this was going to be, especially when the tangible doom of a violation hearing notice came in the mail. I didn't want to worry anyone in my family so I kept this to myself.

I explained the situation to my lawyer, who kind of gasped but explained the absolutely best thing I did was to call my PO and take his advice to file a police report.  Doing so completely changes how the accusation is viewed.  I was very relieved.  Just think how bad it would look if I never called my PO or filed a police report and John gets a call from the local cops saying my victim came in upset because I harassed and threatened to kill him.  First, it looks like I was trying to hide the incident from my PO.  Second, my PO would wonder why I would try and hide the incident.  Third, I would have been completely on the defensive with my PO and the court.  Fourth, a re-victimized victim is always more believable and sympathetic than a convicted sex offender.  Fifth, I possibly would have made my PO look bad in the eye of his superiors (any time there is an incident with probationers, rightly or wrongly the PO can get scrutinized).  His opinion of me tanks etc...  I could go on. but you get the idea: I would have been more or less screwed!

My attorney Mike hired a private investigator (PI) to get statements from witnesses and security camera footage.  Mike explained the PI was able to find 3 witnesses who just happened to be the girls behind the counter at the donut shop and that they would be able to corroborate my story. In my mind this was incredible since I really believed at some level they knew who I was, what my crime was, and would love to see me back in prison. Yes, I was just a little paranoid back then. Two of them even knew my victim Tom from school.

But the girls, all teenagers, wouldn't entertain that paranoia.  At the first hearing in the very courthouse I was sentenced some seven years earlier they one by one took their oaths, sat in the witness stand, and backed up my version of events explaining I did absolutely nothing I was accused of and had no idea what Tom was talking about.  I was relieved but still very anxious. My PI also went back to the donut shop owner to retrieve security camera footage -  which would have bolstered my claims - but the donut shop owner explained the footage was already written over by the time my PI requested it. We didn't buy that explanation (I believe the owner didn't want to get involved at the very least) but Mike said the witnesses were more important than the tape would have been.  And now that I think of it, by calling my PO, I turned John into a de facto witness for me, even though PO's remain strictly neutral at violation hearings.

That next court day happened in front of a new judge and courthouse. Needless to say I've been stressing for weeks.  I lost weight, didn't enjoy eating much, and at that time didn't have any real friends I could talk with or bring into court with me for support.   Having read the testimony from the police reports and witnesses as well as conferring with my PO, the judge was skeptical of my victims claims which was apparent in her questioning of him.  To my surprise, the judge pressed my victim on how his version of the incident could have happened at all, which caught my victim off guard.  The judge proceeded to remind Tom that lying under oath was a crime and he could be put in jail for doing so.  The courtroom turned very tense as the judge continued to press Tom on how my three witnesses could be so wrong, or conspiring, with their version of the events.   I could tell by how he was answering (he kept repeating the same thing with ever increasing hesitation in his voice) that Tom was scared as hell and didn't know what to do.   The judge, however, decided to give him an out by compelling Tom in open court to look at me and apologize on record.  To my surprise, I didn't want that after what I had been through; I just wanted this over.  Tom was warned if he were to do anything like that again the court will come down hard on him. I've never seen or had a problem with Tom since. 

Later on I chatted with my PO about the incident.  John said he always knew the charges were bullshit and made clear the accusations were not consistent with the person he had been supervising. It didn't make sense for someone who was in compliance and building his life to do something stupid like what I was accused of, he explained, and that the only reason this had to in front of the judge was the probation departments policy regarding the nature of the accusation and who was making it.  Judges rely on a PO's knowledge and experience with a probationer to help give them a sense of who is standing in front of them.  The judge deferred to John more than anyone else in that courtroom and he conveyed to her the type of person I had been on probation as well as his skepticism of Tom's claims.   

So from my experience, even though your PO may be disagreeable, neurotic, a hard ass, or worse, keep in mind they always have a running narrative of you every time you see them or your name comes across  their desk.  I'm not suggesting you suck up to your PO or tell him your life story, but it might be a good idea for you to rethink their role in your life and how they could become a valuable asset, especially if your under supervision for multiple years or life.