Please Release Me

Colorado faces a boom in parolees--and rising evidence that parole isn't working.

Three days a week, the blue bus from Canon City pulls up at the corner of Smith Road and Peoria and discharges a stream of men dressed in cheap polyester suits. The men are parolees, and each one has a check for $100 and two bus tokens in his pocket to aid him in his long journey back to the world beyond prison walls.

Many of them don't make it very far--no farther than the Denver County Jail, half a mile down Smith Road from where they began.

Every Friday, Colorado State Parole Board hearing officer Patricia Kroll visits the jail to meet with men who have detoured, men who have violated the conditions of their parole. It is up to Kroll, an administrative-law judge, to decide whether they should go back to prison. Since Kroll handles most of the parole revocations in the state--a job the parole board used to do itself, before the crush of cases became too great--she's constantly on the move. When she's not at the Denver jail, she travels to Boulder, Golden, Englewood, Colorado Springs, Fort Collins--all over the Front Range, conducting hundreds of revocation hearings every month, more than 2,000 a year.

Charles Wilson got off the bus two months ago. He failed to report to his parole officer the next day, failed to check in at his assigned residence, and failed to avoid getting picked up by the Denver police three weeks later with a joint in his pocket. Kroll sees him on a Friday morning at the county jail.

Wilson, who has a lengthy criminal history, including an assault on an undercover police officer in 1990, explains that he has only nine months left until mandatory discharge of his sentence; he doesn't see why he has to do six of those months in an Intensive Supervision Program (ISP), with an ankle bracelet monitoring his movements.

"If you want to send me back, that's fine," says Wilson, who's been revoked from parole before. "Nine months ain't nothing. I'm almost done with my time."

Kroll sends him back, recommending that he be placed in a drug-treatment program at a prison outside Canon City.

That same morning, Kroll sees Antonio Montano, who got off the bus last May. Convicted of giving false information to a pawnbroker, Montano already has one revocation from a community corrections facility. This time around, he's tested positive for drugs repeatedly--in parole lingo, he's delivered eight "hot UAs" (urinalyses)--and washed out of an intensive cocaine-treatment program. Kroll mentions the possibility of an even more comprehensive program, but Montano doesn't want to do it, not when he's so close to "killing his number."

"I'm looking at seventeen months," Montano tells the hearing officer. "I can't see going into a two-year program."

Montano adds that he was having trouble finding work. "I was using drugs as a matter of escape, to get away from my problems," he says.

Kroll studies his file. "You are doing cocaine and you're a diabetic?" she asks.

"Yes, ma'am," Montano replies.
"That's somewhat self-defeating."
"Yes, ma'am."

Kroll suggests Montano might be sent to a halfway house, if a local community-corrections board would approve such a move; if not, he, too, could be going back to prison.

Next up is Calvin Bolding, who's had trouble in the past with crack cocaine. More recently, he's had problems keeping track of his parole appointments and the age of his companions. His parole officer, who functions as a prosecutor at the revocation hearing, tells Kroll that Bolding dropped out of sight in October; weeks later police found him and a girl sleeping in his car. The girl, a runaway, happened to be thirteen years old.

Bolding tries to explain--the girl told him she was nineteen, he insists--but quickly gets frustrated. "Go ahead and send me back," he snaps. "I don't care anymore. Go ahead and send me back and let me do my time. I demand it, as a matter of fact."

Kroll does just that. Muttering angrily to himself, the prisoner is escorted out of the hearing room. "Another satisfied customer," quips a parole officer.

And so it goes, one tale of bitter failure after another. Some men are facing new felony charges and are eager to "self-revoke," figuring that way they can complete their current sentence sooner and start serving the next one. Others plead their cause tearfully, begging not to be sent back for what they see as trivial, if chronic, offenses. A few are vouched for by their parole officers as relatively harmless, nonviolent screwups and are allowed back on the street, with even tighter supervision and a stern lecture from Kroll.

The hearings move quickly. The stories mount. Judging from the stuff Kroll hears every day--flimsy excuses, cool rationalizations, even stark confessions from men who find themselves in a truly untenable position--there is no end to the things that can go wrong once you get off the bus. Parolees have evil cousins who lead them into shady business schemes, then try to hang the blame on them. They have doper friends who feed them double-fudge brownies but neglect to tell them about the secret ingredient until the UA comes back positive for hashish.

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