It’s Time to Overhaul America’s Broken Probation and Parole Systems

It’s Time to Overhaul America’s Broken Probation and Parole Systems

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.

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23 Comments

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My husband was incarcerated for 17 years of his life . I have often felt I built my own jail at home . It was extremely hard keeping life going without him. The kids suffer also , I'm not sure if jail really rehabilitate. We are the same age but I often feel he's 17 years younger due to lack of exposure............

Thank you bringing this practice to light. The layer of surveillance and scrutiny is evident not only for those who are returning from prison, but for those who receive probation as part of a plea deal. The consequences of criminal conviction such as the impact of increased surveillance on family reunification, employment, education and housing opportunities should be fully interrograted as part of any criminal justice reform efforts.

This is the spoken true!!!!! We will not celebrate any form of control. Thank you for this powerful article.

As a formerly incarcerated woman who has been out for 14 years it is important that voices like Topeka's be elevated and that she be treated with dignity for her efforts post-prison. Her accomplishments are astounding and to be degraded, when it is obvious where she is, what she is doing and the good she is spreading in this world, speaks to the fact that the system, and those who hold jobs within it, does not believe in rehabilitation. They should be giving her awards, bringing her in to speak to others on probation and ending her supervision for her stellar accomplishments and behavior but instead they degrade and demean her. She served her time, she is clearly rehabilitated. The problem isn't Topeka, clearly. The problem is a system of mass incarceration that actually doesn't want Topeka to excel. Where would the money for their checks come from then? How would they line their pockets? It's time to end mass incarceration and it's time to recognize women like Topeka whose light shines so bright that a dark system cannot seem to handle it.

Truth Well Spoken...Ecstatically Proud of all you've done and continually does for those that are currently incarcerated and those who were formerly also.

I believe that you should only be on parole, probation for only 2 years if you are doing all the things that you are required that proves you are settled into your reentry into sociaty and not going to return to your old life.

This says succinctly what millions of people ensnared in the criminal (in) justice system feel. The possibilities for real help and guidance are over ruled in favor of continuing punitive action at a moment when people need the most help and a helping hand towards reentry. Loved the article!

I have long been concerned about the long term prisoners who have been past the age of being an active threat to society but still are held under heavy security by the state.
These improvements in parole oversight are an improvement to foster healthy readmission to society for those given parole - another issue!

For 9 years i had the PO sculptured from hell.Yes, PO's are half social worker and half cop. But in the end they will become cops and tell cops to put one in jail for a laim violation. IDK if they can be reform or a light class-traitor akin to cops. But they are another form of probation, since a probationeer might have to wear a bracelet and/or home restrictions.I am writing a book on my experiences in jail, prison, and probation. Being around other Convict Criminologists has given me great peer and mentor-ship to study PO's.

This is so true.

Continue the good work we all stories and we all are on a mission to become productive, prove oneself and to let the world know that we are human beings that fell short. Getting another chance to prove to society that we are fighters and we are not going give up, we are here to stay and to bring people up with us. God bless all.

Probation is the cop's best friend. Cop friendly judges sentence cops to probation rather than the dreaded years in a jail cell.

Ditto to everything that was stated here....I COULDNT HAVE SAID IT BETTER!!!!!!

I want to bring this to California how can I help I have a nephew incarcerated and other relatives I want to make a difference I'm working in the prison system as a medical doctor I am a palled at what I've seen I want to help write a book this whole system is bad then Destry a prison complex please get in touch with me Mylene_Rucker @[email protected] please let's start one in California There's a place called Allensworth that was a black historic town and there's land there that the man is going to let us develop a recovery please please contact me

This is the next frontier of work to be done on the back-end of the criminal justice system. This is a very necessary ingredient in the movement to decarcerate. In New York State the vast majority of people recidivating (returning to prison) are doing so due to technical parole violations.

Teacher and principal preparation programs need to require that teachers and principals spend some of the professional internship period working with school youth in the county detention centers.

Topeka since we crossed paths you have always voiced your opinion. At first i didnt want to be around you . Since that day i have more respect for you than most. This is the beginning to our fight. Iw your voice gives me a whole new perspective on hiw im hoing yo voice my indifferences against our fight. Keep it up sis. We will prevail.

Thank you for all that you are doing. I was previously incarcerated for 5 years in a federal prison, released to a half-way house then on house arrest with a leg monitor and an additional 2 years of probation. I have been home now for 23 years and the stigma that society and untrained employers subject us to is shameful. I have since then gotten two master degrees and yet I am still in their eyes a number.

There's this unforgiving attitude of those who never been incarcerated. They vote for these laws and the rulers of each state sanction committee people to ride roughshod pretending to protect society. Keep the FAITH. The God of justice is not BLIND. Peace

In my opinion, prison, probation etc etc is an industry. Many people would rather it not be ´fixed´´.... Millions would loose their jobs, and hundered would loose the millions they make from the ´prison/parole etc´industry.

An organization called Equal Justice Under Law has done some great work attacking predatory private probation companies, winning a settlement on behalf of 30,000 people in Tennessee and forcing the closure of an abusive probation company that was basically charging people so much money for their services that they couldn't pay off the court debts that led to longterm probation. More info here; http://equaljusticeunderlaw.org/wp/current-cases/private-probation/

I was a State Parole Officer in Newark, NJ in 1965, then founding a drug treatment program in NJ called Integrity House (Retired in 2012.) In my opinion we need a formal mechanism of structured feedback and interaction with parolees and former inmates. This group, while not acting off it, has wisdom and creative ideas. Why not bring them in to our discussions about prison, parole and supervision. We might be surprised at some of their ideas for rational change to the criminal justice system.
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Great work Topeka, I really felt this.

As someone who's been on probation/parole, I can tell you the constant invasion and presence of a law enforcement officer in your life is daunting. These officers, who's mission it is to help you re-enter society successfully, usually just seem more interested in helping you re-enter prison.

Anyway, hopefully with reforms and new programs things will change...

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