It’s Time to Overhaul America’s Broken Probation and Parole Systems
By Topeka K. Sam
I was released from prison two years and two months ago. Since then, I have been working to improve the lives of formerly incarcerated women and men.
I’ve received fellowships from Beyond the Bars and the Open Society Foundations, and was named a Justice in Education Scholar at Columbia University. I founded the Ladies of Hope Ministries, which helps women and girls transition from prison back into society through education, entrepreneurship, and advocacy. I am establishing Hope House, a re-entry housing development for women and girls. As a founding member and national organizer of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, I have crisscrossed the country organizing council chapters and creating symposiums at law schools nationwide.
Yet those who monitor my activities as part of my sentence still view me with suspicion and disdain. “Your constant travel is reminiscent of a drug dealer, Ms. Sam,” my probation officer’s supervisor said to me recently. I looked her in the eye and tried to resist feeling devalued, shamed, stigmatized, angry, and triggered. Despite the work I’ve done—work which has changed my life and helped me change the lives of others—the comment cut me to the core.
At that moment, I was reminded that probation is just another form of incarceration.
July 16 marks the beginning of the American Probation & Parole Association’s Pretrial, Probation, and Parole Supervision Week, which is intended to “celebrate the success of the community corrections/supervision professionals who make our country safer,” in the words of the association’s website. “These individuals help change lives of men/women and boys/girls, as well as enhance the quality of life in our communities.”
I am one of the 4.7 million people who live under the daily control of a probation supervisor or a parole officer. And I will not be celebrating next week. I spent three years in federal prison, six months in federal community custody at a halfway house, and the last two years and counting under federal supervised release. I know what it is to be policed and surveilled. I know what it’s like to have your parents questioned about your whereabouts, to have their home invaded, all while your probation officer knows you are at work.
In theory, probation (supervised time in lieu of incarceration) and parole (early release from incarceration under supervision) are important elements in the drive for decarceration. However, the system has also created an additional layer of law enforcement control, intrusion, and surveillance—especially in communities of color, which are heavily policed already.
The system needs an overhaul. People who are monitored must be treated with human dignity. Our rights are often denied because of policies, procedures, and rules that are seldom explained and often administered arbitrarily. When we have been treated unfairly, there is no clear process to register grievances or appeal decisions that affect every aspect of our lives, including our very freedom.
Parole and probation officers could constructively help to, as the association put it, “enhance the quality of life” in my community of Harlem. To do this, the Bureau of Prisons, as well as city, county, and state probation and parole agencies, must increase accountability by fully training the people who serve in these powerful positions and by creating mechanisms to hold them responsible for their decisions. Those of us in the system must be able to exercise our rights without fear of reprisal and increased surveillance.
One counterproductive and punitive condition of release prohibits people under probation, parole, or supervised release from interacting with anyone who has a felony conviction without first securing approval. In practical terms, this means somebody leaving prison cannot reunite with their spouse, relatives, or other loved ones if any of those people had a felony conviction in their past—even if it happened years ago. This tears families apart, cutting people off from love and support, and makes the challenges of coming home even more difficult.
When supervisors and administrators stop using policies like this as a tool of control and begin explaining the policies and rules of probation and parole to the women and men whose lives they monitor, I’ll join the celebration of Pretrial, Parole, and Supervision Week. Until then, I will continue working with the formerly incarcerated women who are my mentors and the millions of my sisters and brothers who live under state control so we can build better lives and better communities.
Topeka K. Sam is founder of the Ladies of Hope Ministries, a founding member of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, and a 2017 Soros Justice Fellow.