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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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;

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...

I'd just like to say that this is amazing. I had to find a current event about probation & parole officers for my law and public safety class and this article just really stuck to me because it's a true real life account. Topeka if you read this I'd just like you to know that you are awesome! Don't let the world get you down. If someone says you can't do something do it just to prove them wrong! ~ Stay Strong

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere ‼️

Sister I commend you and I'm on the same page. I too have and still do encounter the stigmas of exoffender and still have to have doors closed even after 18 years.Very much like double jeopardy. When is enough :enough??And why does society have a system of rehabilitation that they obviously don't believe in. It sucks.. it's discouaraging and could very well send a weak person over the edge. I want to be involved its time to stop talking and take action if not for me at least for those that are coming after.Be Blessed

My full respect to this woman. The system must be up-dated.

My bff was arrested for failure to pay child support in Michigan, which is a felony. She showed the judge over $60,000 in receipts. The judge rejected those receipts because her ex-husband, a pastor, said she did nothing for the children. The FRiend of Court lawyer even told the judge they would accept the receipts. The judge still denied them. The ex husband is the cousin of a judge that was recently suspended from the bench. Her probation officer is treating her like crap because she has a felony child neglect, on her record. My friend finally got a job and is on a 1 year probation. This probation officer is threatening that employment by making her show up during work hours. Now how do you fight that kind of treatment, when your only mistake was, who you married?

The true wrath of the American capitalist justice system is reserved for the poor and working class.The right to a jury trial has been replaced with the right to a plea bargain innocent or guilty. The purpose of the system is to punish those without by demanding responsibility and absolve those who have of any sort of responsibility.

I'm a Pastor, helping people in need, the homeless and hungry, with emphasis on homeless Veterans because I was a homeless Veteran for ten years due to a military injury I had while serving aboard the USA Florikan (ASR-9) AUXILIARY SUBMARINE RESCUE, I fought for social security disability for 15 years and I'm still fighting for my military connected disability since 1977.
I've heard many testimonials from former prison mates and from others on parole that all tell the same abusive scenarios by parole officers. I need help now with two people now. As a Pastor prison officials should allow me to work with them but they refuse to even tell me if the person I name that wrote me to help them, but they will not tell me they're incarcerated even when I can prove it because that's a way of securing their jobs if they remain in prison. Another is a woman who's parole officer would not due a search to prove that she took something else that would show dirty urine even though she didt do any drugs just so the parole officer could violate her keeping her from her child. Now her abusive husband is holding this over her head if she don't do as he wishes. I think a way to improve this system would be to allow Pastors and other volunteers to attend meetings with parolees and their parole officers to be witnesses for both sides and sign in and out in a log proving they all were in attendance like a notary witnesses a signature. I have many other ideas that would help this corrupt system. Prisons and parole offices would never work to put a hault or lessen their job security by reducing their population, but will do all to increase their population creating their own job security. All take an oath to preserve and defend the constitution and Bill of rights but most don't know them and many never even read them. Hiw can you defend something if you you know nothing about it? Theres not supposed to be a debtors prison, but miss a payment for either parole or a court fine and you're locked up! Many can't get a job due to the economy. It's not their fault.

It sounds like you’re making a great new life for yourself. I think that’s wonderful. I do have some questions. You wrote about the felony convictions and not being able to be with people with felonies. But, it does say that you are able to secure that first with the probation or parole officer. So, in essence, you would be able to be with your spouse. All you have to do is let them know the circumstances. Am I wrong in that? I would also like a list of all the other things you feel the parole stop you from doing or the probation. I’m interested in this topic-but, if you’re able to let your parole officer know that your spouse or family member has a felony and get permission-why is that a problem?

Treating people with dignity is certainly a large part of rehabilitation. Some probation officers just love to revoke people and send them to prison. This did not happen while I was Judge in the court where I presided as a public servant not as a dictator.

Ms. Sam, I'm dealing with my son and probation in Vermont that seems to work against him moving forward. He is to plead not guilty to a dui (cops took him off our couch) and instead take a lesser charge of gross negligent operation but he has to lie and come up with a reason for that. Example, he has to say he was texting while driving even though he didn't have a phone at the time. We are too broke to pay for an attorney. Do you have contacts in Vermont who might feel as you do? The system seems really flawed, instead of helping people move forward it seems the system traps misdemeanor offender's in a never ending cycle of probation. I'm learning that once you are in the system it is tough to get out unless you can pay for a lawyer. I appreciate your voice and how you stand for the misrepresented. Kindly, Beth

Did 36 years in prison, first 20 in max, been out 5 years now, going to college at age 68. If I can make it on the street anyone can.

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