Being on parole is not freedom. Too many guys coming out of prison think that having received a parole that they have earned their freedom, that their sentence is complete. But that is not the case. While on parole you are still under the control of the MDOC. Parole is prison without the razor wire. You have a parole agent who keeps track of you, meeting regularly to monitor your compliance with the stipulations of your parole specified by the Parole Board. They have absolute control over whether you stay out or return to prison for any parole violations. On parole you must successfully complete some specified term living in the community, sometimes with severe limits on where you can go and what you can do. This varies from person to person and is based on the crime committed and other factors.
A typical parole can last up to 24 months. The stipulations of the parole generally require that the parolee maintain regular employment. You must also pay a supervision fee and any outstanding debts incurred during incarceration in addition to any unpaid court costs, fines and restitution associated with the felony conviction. Frequently programming such as AA or NA may be required for those with a history of alcohol or drug abuse. Additionally, some receive their paroles with program requirements waved while they were in prison because they were classified as “low risk” to re-offend during a psychiatric examination but must now take programming from an approved vendor as a condition of parole. Failure to successfully complete programming will result in a revocation of parole.
After the conditions of sever deprivation, loss of personal control and decision making in prison some are so focused on redressing the privations that they quickly violate the terms of their parole. For some it is satisfying the urge to indulge in their addiction for alcohol or drugs. For others it is about hustling to get the money together to resume their lifestyle. However most of these hustles are illegal. Once a person has been in prison the odds of them returning are greater that they will return to prison than the odds for a person who has never been going for the first time.
To address this problem the MDOC has tightened the conditions of parole in some instances so that it is in actuality “house arrest.” All excursions from the residence must be approved in advance. Many are paroled on GPS tether to prevent cheating. At this level of control, the parolee is practically helpless and becomes reliant on family and friends to take care of many of the tasks that they would like to do for themselves, thus continuing to experience the conditions they experienced in prison. With this level of control those without a support network are at a severe disadvantage.
Housing itself is a problem. Transitional housing is in sort supply and in many communities is non-existent. Those coming out of prison may only have a matter of weeks to find employment and permanent housing before being forced to leave the Parole halfway house. Then there is the problem of finding affordable housing for those with a felony conviction, especially sex offenders. Many apartment complexes and landlords will not rent to felons. In some places such as Oakland Co there are a few rental companies that will but not in every community and not in sufficient numbers to address the current level of demand.
Employment is not as much of a problem as it used to be given the present economic environment. However more needs to be done to train felons for jobs that pay a living wage. Many are forced to take minimum wage jobs without benefits or career potential. The MDOC has made changes to its Employment Readiness initiative over the last few years by revamping their vocational programing but much more needs to be done to ensure that people coming out of prison are employable. Movements to “Ban the Box” have gained traction in the last few years to at least give felons an opportunity to interview for a job before they are eliminated from consideration for a position in some places like the city of Detroit.
While commendable movements like this are just the tip of the iceberg. So many are coming out unprepared to hold steady employment due a lack of a basic education or even basic literacy skills. As a tutor I saw it every day first hand, the lack of interest or desire to join mainstream society. The smug satisfaction on many of my students faces knowing that they could simply wait out any requirement to earn a GED let alone make satisfactory progress toward earning one and still get a parole. No thought toward a living a life as a productive member of society.
For many who have served long prison sentences returning to society has significant challenges. Technology has changed everything: smart phones, the internet, shopping, the workplace, even cars. Nothing looks familiar to someone who last saw the free world in the 1980s or 1990s. Life is far more complex than it was, especially from the perspective of someone who has lived a very simple and highly controlled life. The ability to learn and adopt technology can have a very steep learning curve for someone who isn’t familiar with it. Then to make it more complicated parole stipulations may prevent the parolee from accessing technology. Sex offenders are prohibited from having smart phones or computers with internet access. Some convicted of financial crimes are prevented from having bank accounts. A convicted murderer on parole has fewer restrictions than many other felonies.
One thing that is certain is that no one really wants to go back to prison but for some it is easier than reintegrating back into society. What is needed are advocates and mentors; either family, friends or strangers willing to help parolees make the transition. There are faith-based organizations, church and para-church ministries and other not-for-profit organizations out there that have programs to help. The problem is that there are not enough organizations, people and resources available in all the places that they are needed. Secondly, the information available to prisoners preparing for parole is often out of date and incomplete. Inmates aren’t able to communicate with these organizations easily or effectively to make the necessary arrangements. Since many don’t have someone on the outside to make arrangements for housing or employment in advance when they are paroled it becomes an immediate crisis. The last thing a parolee needs is more stress.
Many inmates when preparing for their parole hearing make a Parole Plan in which they lay out what support is waiting for them upon release. Unfortunately for many it is ‘pie in the sky.’ What looks good on paper in order to impress the parole board may not be worth the paper it is written on. For example, the employment opportunity that I listed in my Parole Plan was voided by one of the stipulations of my parole. For some, they are forced to parole back to the county in which they were convicted rather than being allowed to choose a location with more access to resources because they don’t have family there.
Something else to note about parole is that the conditions stipulated by the parole board remain in effect for the duration of the parole. There is no easing of restrictions based on the completion of certain milestones such as completion of required programing or finding gainful employment. Parole agents may in some cases have fewer contacts with the parolee but can at anytime show up unannounced to check on you. For the most part parole is stick and no carrot, there is no reward for cooperation and good behavior. No graduated easing of restrictions to allow for a true transition back into society. In some cases, parole officers will make it even more difficult for their parolees by denying requests to approve housing, employment or other activities for reasons that seem mercurial at best. They may also actively seek to find reasons to revoke a parole or to at least scare the parole with threats of incarceration-the scared straight approach.
While there have been changes to parole in recent years to reduce the number of parole violators being sent back to prison, still more needs to be done. The MDOC needs to do a better job of preparing the 95% of their inmates that will return to society. There should be more Reentry programming that focuses on linking those soon to be paroled with agencies and organizations that will be able to provide access to services, programs, resources in the area where they will be paroling. Access to employment services including in-prison hiring interviews, pre-enrollment for Social Security, Veterans benefits, and Medicaid would go a long way to preparing parolees for success. Parole should be a transition, not more punishment. A way to help put the parolee on the right track rather than a revolving door back to prison.
A report published by the PEW Charitable Trust entitled “Policy Reforms Can Strengthen Community Supervision – A Framework to Improve Probation and Parole” was published on April 23, 2020. This report documents many of the issues that I identified in my article and some of the new ideas being incorporated by some agencies to address the problems that lead to re-incarceration. A PDF copy of the report is attached if you would like to learn more about this issue.