Please Release Me
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"If you want to send me back, that's fine," says Wilson, who's been revoked from parole before.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."
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.
They miss appointments because of sick relatives, mental illness or an inability to fathom bus schedules or manage their time. Or they show up drunk at the parole office because they've been diagnosed with cancer and don't give a damn anymore. Or they do something incredibly stupid--shoplift, get high, drop out of the ubiquitous mental-health and drug-treatment programs--fully expecting to be arrested for it, because life on parole has come to seem pointless and burdensome and downright impossible, not at all the sweet journey to freedom they expected it to be.
"I've been in prison four times," says Ed Wieder, who served more than eighteen months on parole from a burglary charge before he was revoked last month. "This is the first time I've been doing something for myself. But for all my efforts, I can't get one foot in front of the other without taking three steps back. The system is designed to fail. There are all these people who are just giving up; that's why the jails are so crowded."
Parole officials say their top priority is public safety; consequently, they don't have much sympathy for those parolees who fail to capitalize on the opportunity they've been offered. Although more than half the parolees released in Colorado wind up back in prison, parole board chairman Larry Trujillo insists the system isn't broken.
"When you consider," Trujillo says, "that all we have are violent offenders and multi-felony offenders in prison--the rest are on probation or in community corrections--and that 45 to 50 percent of them stay out, at least for the period of time they're on parole, I think that's great."
Actually, half the inmates in prison are classified as nonviolent. It's unclear how many had their cases plea-bargained down from more serious charges, but even many of the "multi-felony offenders" are serving time on nonviolent traffic, drug or property crimes. The fact is that the system's least-hardened prisoners are the ones most likely to get parole--but they, too, are failing to make it on the street.
Of course, some parolees are bound to fail. But the number of felons on parole is growing, and the number who are being revoked--particularly those being revoked for technical violations, rather than for committing new crimes--is growing even faster. And thanks to a controversial 1993 law, one that reinforces the state prison system's increasing reliance on parole to solve its most intractable problems, the situation is only going to get worse. The hundreds of offenders that Patricia Kroll sees now are a mere trickle compared to the flood of parole violators the state is expected to be facing five years from now.
Most of them will be going back to prison within a few months, if not weeks, after they get off the bus.
These are the boom years for the Colorado Department of Corrections. The inmate population has tripled in the past decade. The department's annual operating budget has soared to nearly $300 million, five times what it was in 1986. Yet the adult parole population actually declined in the late 1980s and has remained at around 2,000 new releases a year until fairly recently, when the sheer size of the inmate pool started to drive it up again.
Even today, Colorado has one of the lowest parole rates in the country. Ever since the legislature restored the Colorado State Parole Board's discretionary authority in the 1980s (under a previous statute, prisoners had to be released after they'd served a certain amount of their sentence, whether the board thought they deserved it or not) the state has acquired a reputation for being extremely tough-minded about releasing prisoners before their full sentence is done. Nonviolent inmates become eligible for parole after serving half their sentences, minus up to ten days a month "earned time" for good behavior; but that doesn't mean the board grants parole on the first try or even the fifth. In 1979 the board granted parole to three out of every four inmates who were eligible for it; last year it granted less than one out of four.
Such stinginess may well have saved the citizenry from countless crime sprees by hardcore felons. It may also have wasted millions of tax dollars on the cost of incarcerating low-level offenders who pose little risk to anyone. No one knows which scenario is more likely; in parole matters, it's easy to point to the cases where letting someone out was a mistake but almost impossible to prove that the board did the wrong thing by saying no.
The one truly quantifiable effect of the board's hard-line stance has been its impact on the prison system itself. Currently, more than 3,000 state prisoners--more than a quarter of the entire prison population--have reached or passed their parole eligibility date but have been refused parole, leading to system-wide overcrowding and spurring demands for new prison construction.
Two months ago Colorado Department of Corrections director Ari Zavaras announced plans to seek $167 million from the legislature this year for 1,300 new prison beds and other improvements. The state already houses 600 inmates in county jails and 1,000 in private pokeys in Minnesota and Texas (with plans to export 500 more) because of a lack of room at home. The staggering request for more beds--triple the DOC's current capital construction budget and more than the state plans to spend for all its construction needs--has sparked fresh debate about runaway prison growth and sentencing reform.
Largely missing from the discussion, though, has been any examination of how parole policies have contributed to the crisis. In many ways, the tail is now wagging the dog. Among the more sobering details:
* The seven-member parole board now hears an average of 1,200 cases a month. That's double the number of only two years ago, notes board chairman Trujillo, who expects the monthly load to rise to 1,500 by summer. In many cases, parole applicants meet with only one boardmember, whose decision is then reviewed by a second member; only violent offenders meet with the full board.
The workload has become so overwhelming that Trujillo is now seeking authority to add the equivalent of two extra boardmembers, in the form of part-time personnel stationed around the state. "The Parole Board cannot continue to expand in the future without some changes," Trujillo wrote in a letter to Governor Roy Romer last fall.
* The number of people on parole will triple in the next six years, according to the Colorado Legislative Council. Several factors play into the trend, but the chief reason for the surge is a 1993 law that requires all newly incarcerated felons to serve a mandatory period of parole. That law was designed to stop prisoners from waiving parole and completing their sentence in prison so that they could emerge under no supervision; now all prisoners have to complete up to five years of parole, whether they serve their full prison term or not.
Trujillo says the 1993 law is one reason the number of board hearings has risen so dramatically. "A lot of people were discharging their sentences before," he says. "Now they want to meet with the board because they know they have a parole to do, and they want to get it started as soon as possible."
* The mandatory parole law is also expected to result in a 150 percent increase in parole violations. Many of the violations will doubtless involve crimes that would have occurred whether or not the offender was under supervision; but since the parole period itself is lengthened, the opportunity for technical violations also increases. So does the amount of time violators can expect to spend back in prison. In fact, under the 1993 law, felons can actually end up spending more time in prison than their original sentence allowed.
Parole officials are only beginning to see the effects of the 1993 law, as low-level felons sentenced in the past three years begin to be released from prison. And what they're seeing is a sizable jump in revocations for technical violations--from 580 in 1993 to 786 in 1995 to a projected 1,136 this year. At least part of the increase, they say, can be traced directly to the law.
"A lot of revocations are people on mandatory parole," reports boardmember Y.E. Scott. "Inmates feel they shouldn't have to serve a sentence and then a mandatory parole period as well. Some of them don't even show up for their first parole [appointment], so they're charged with absconding."
But more may be involved than parolees' bad attitudes. The parole process itself, once considered the surest way to bring criminals back into society, now seems to be functioning largely as a conduit back to prison. Last year the parole board released 2,662 inmates; but it also revoked more than 1,000 parolees, almost as many as successfully completed parole.
"If you're sending a thousand back every year, how are you going to catch up?" asks Bob Sylvester, president of Dismas House, a nonprofit home in Denver for parolees who can't find other placement. "They're sending them out unprepared and then sending them back. Well, I don't care how many cells you build. You can't build them fast enough to catch up with the backlog."
An ex-offender himself, Sylvester likens the Colorado prison system to a multi-geared machine with parts that simply don't mesh very well. Nonviolent types end up doing prison time for traffic crimes, bad checks and other offenses because of overzealous legislation and because diversion programs are full or nonexistent. The drug, vocation, pre-release and other programs offered in prison that are supposed to help felons make the transition back to society are oversubscribed or perfunctory. Halfway houses won't accept many violent cases (local community-corrections boards reject around 70 percent of all the prisoners DOC refers to such facilities), so the people most in need of some kind of "transitional" supervision don't get it. Instead, they're paroled only a few months short of their full sentence or cut loose at discharge.
"They're coming out without supervision because they're making them discharge," Sylvester notes. "[The parole board doesn't] want to take the chance of paroling them. I understand that, but we shouldn't be surprised to see them going back to prison, either."
Sylvester believes the board could actually release more low-level offenders than it does now, if only the DOC would commit more funds to parole programs rather than to new prisons. The revocation rate is so high, he argues, because the state doesn't provide adequate assistance to the people it paroles now--and it isn't about to increase its numbers under the current budget limitations.
"They're never going to put more people out here than they have parole officers for," Sylvester says. "That only makes sense. They'll never tell you that, but it's got to be part of it. Why else would they be setting people back [deferring parole decisions] for three months, six months? They recognize there's no room."
To some extent, Sylvester's points are echoed by parole-board members, who readily concede that a lack of halfway-house beds is a major stumbling block, since many inmates wind up going straight from prison to the street.
"Some of the inmates go to programs in DOC just so they can get out on parole," notes boardmember Y.E. Scott. "They have no intention of absorbing any of it or following it. Others really work hard to be rehabilitated, and there are a number who would benefit from community corrections, but the community boards won't take them. Some of these people have no way of making it without community corrections, but we have no control over whether a local board will take them or not."
"We need more resources," adds chairman Trujillo. "It's easy to say, 'Lock 'em up,' but most of these guys are coming out some day. If we decide they can be paroled, then I think we have an obligation to do everything we can to supervise them properly and get them the proper resources so we don't have to have them back. If we're not going to do that, why keep them on parole?"
Trujillo insists that parole decisions have nothing to do with prison overcrowding, the number of parole officers on the street or other considerations beyond the case at hand. The board is letting out fewer people proportionately than it did a decade ago, yet it's seeing a higher failure rate than ever, a trend he attributes to "the type of inmate we're getting." Today's average parole candidate is likely to have a previous record, a history of substance abuse, little or no outside support network, and other characteristics that suggest he's bound for a quick trip back to Canon City.
In theory, the board's parole decisions are supposed to be far less subjective than they were a decade ago. In the late 1980s the state's Division of Criminal Justice developed an "empirically based risk-assessment tool" that was supposed to help take the guesswork out of the parole process. The tool, a sophisticated scoresheet based on statistical data that allows criminologists to reliably predict which groups of offenders are most likely to commit more crimes, has been widely studied and even adopted by other states, but it's never had the full support of Colorado's parole board. Parolees complain that the board doesn't make much use of the objective risk criteria and routinely turns down applicants that have been scored as low-risk.
The scoresheet, though, doesn't apply to all applicants--the underlying data doesn't encompass women and sex offenders--and boardmembers remain skeptical of its value on other counts. Murderers, for example, tend to score as low-risk because crimes of passion tend not to be repeated, but that doesn't mean the board can afford to ignore society's demands for punishment in such cases.
"It's useful, but we also look at other things," Trujillo says, "such as how aggravated was the crime, their prior criminal record, their behavior in the institution, what they have to go out for. You may have a 'low-risk' person who cut somebody and that person almost died, and the offender has no parole plan, no family support, no job. That's not a good parole risk. I don't care what the score says."
According to a 1994 study by the Division of Criminal Justice, the board doesn't seem to care about the scores a good deal of the time. Of more than 1,000 men turned down for parole because the board decided they posed a risk to public safety, fully three-fourths of them qualified as low- or medium-risk applicants. As anticipated, only a handful of high-risk inmates actually received parole--but barely half of the low-risk group was released, either. Hundreds of low-risk offenders were deferred because of minor disciplinary infractions while in prison (such as littering or failing to maintain proper hygiene), "inadequate time served" (even though they were well past their parole eligibility date), or the "circumstances of the offense."
There's little reason to believe the board is paying any more attention to the scorecards now than it was two years ago. "I haven't trained any boardmembers or presented data on risk assessment to the board in two years," reports Division of Criminal Justice director of research Kim English. "As far as I know, only two boardmembers are trained to use the risk-assessment tool."
Trujillo says the board is conducting its own study to see how many of last year's parole violators were classified as low-risk. "If there are a lot of low-risk people coming back to prison, then I think we'd better look at the instrument," he says.
But there may be other reasons supposedly low-risk parolees are going back--reasons that have to do with the parole process itself. Increasingly, even petty offenders are discovering that it's harder to get out of prison than it was to get in, and even tougher to stay out than to go back.
Paul McWilliams began his residency in the prison system in 1986 as a small-potatoes habitual traffic offender. Ten years later he has five felonies on his record and is facing at least two more years in a community-corrections complex in Lakewood--all because of a series of self-destructive moves he made while on parole.
"I don't always do the smart thing," says McWilliams, who has a penchant for understatement. "But the way I look at it, none of this would have happened if they hadn't messed around with my parole."
In 1986 McWilliams was sentenced to two years in prison for driving while his license was revoked. He served twenty months and was then placed on parole--not for four months, but for eighteen, as the result of a 1987 revision to the parole statutes that recomputed how time on parole figures into the total sentence a prisoner is expected to serve. McWilliams maintains that the revision was applied retroactively--and unconstitutionally--in his case, requiring him to do more than three years on what was supposed to be a two-year stretch. After a year on parole, he stopped reporting to his parole officer and moved to Texas.
"It was like, 'That's it, I've had enough of this,'" McWilliams says. "But my parole officer didn't agree. He issued a warrant for my arrest."
Back in Denver in the summer of 1990, an inebriated McWilliams led police on a car chase through the western suburbs before being stopped and arrested. He ended up serving another three months on his original sentence, then being charged with felony eluding for the chase. Eventually he received an "aggravated" sentence of ten years because he was still considered to be on parole at the time the chase occurred.
His troubles didn't end there. Having bonded out of jail while awaiting prosecution on the eluding charge, McWilliams wrecked his motorcycle on a Texas highway; the accident cost him his right leg. He returned to Denver, gobbled down all the painkillers the doctors would give him, and dropped in on a friendly coke dealer who'd invited him to "come get numb"--just in time to get busted on drug charges. He received two more ten-year sentences, to be served concurrently with the eluding conviction.
McWilliams acknowledges that nobody forced him to violate his parole, to drink and run from the cops, to wander into a drug bust. "They didn't make me commit the crime," he says. "But I would not have been [at the dealer's house] if I had not got my leg torn off. I would not have been on that road if I hadn't violated my parole. I should not have been put in that position. Sure, any sensible person would have knuckled under and got it over with--but I had finished my sentence eight months before that. 'Screw 'em,' I thought. But it was actually 'Screw me.' It's a nonsense cycle. It goes on and on."
Over the years, McWilliams has asked several state and federal courts to hear his claims that his parole was imposed illegally--without success. He hasn't had a drink in six years, he says, and expects to complete his sentence at the private halfway house where he's been staying for the past few months. He rides the bus four hours a day back and forth to his job as a machinist, pays $300 a month room and board, another $260 a month in restitution, another $45 a week for a therapist ("She's decided I need a change in my criminal thinking"), and attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
Still, although McWilliams had no disciplinary infractions while in prison, he admits he's been "written up" repeatedly since arriving at the halfway house--for minor offenses such as mouthing off or "being out of location," meaning that he failed to call in at the time and place required. The closer he gets to freedom, the more difficult it gets, he says.
"These people are trying to change me," he sighs. His case manager has told him he could be eligible for an ISP ankle-bracelet arrangement that would cost him ten dollars a day. "If I could get out of this nuthouse, I'd give them the money not to be here."
But one route McWilliams doubts he'll try again is parole. He applied twice in recent years and was turned down on the grounds of "not enough time served."
"If I haven't done enough time, why am I seeing the parole board?" McWilliams asks. "I'm not going to take parole. Look what happened the last time I was on parole. Why would I mess with these idiots for another three years when I can wrap this up in two years?"
Last year a fourth of all state prisoners eligible for parole waived their parole hearings, either because they figured they'd be turned down or because they preferred to finish their sentence in prison. The 1993 mandatory parole law is designed to put an end to waivers and require everyone to emerge under some form of supervision, but it also virtually guarantees that more parolees will hit the street already resentful at being forced to do parole--and facing more opportunities to fail than ever. Even parolees who appear to be far more motivated than McWilliams say the hoops they have to jump through have made them question what their freedom is really worth.
Many of the complaints center on the treatment programs that are supposed to help parolees adjust to life on the outside. Like the community-corrections facilities, most of the programs are operated by private contractors, who have been criticized for taking a bottom-line, one-size-fits-all approach to the "clients" they are supposed to serve. Parolees complain about being saddled with costly programs they have to complete as a condition of their parole, even if they don't fit the circumstances of their crimes. Some say they've had to take antabuse (an alcohol-aversion drug) or drug-treatment programs despite having no record of substance abuse; mental-health classes or one-on-one therapy sessions despite having no diagnosis of mental illness; or "anger management" classes, even though they have no history of violent behavior.
"Corrections should not be a moneymaking business," says revoked parolee Ed Wieder. "The one who benefits the most should be the offender. But the offender is coming out mad because he's being taken, just like he took from somebody else. We've got private prisons, private halfway houses, private work-release centers--and now we've got private mental-health centers. And their attitude is, 'You're on parole, and you're going to do what we tell you to do, and that will be $25, please.'"
Wieder was granted parole from a burglary conviction in the spring of 1995. Like many other parolees, he was required to take a six-month course in "cognitive restructuring" offered by a private group, Pike and Associates. Upon graduation he received a certificate--and the news that he was supposed to continue in an "aftercare program" for the duration of his parole.
Wieder attended the program for several months, until conflicts with his work schedule (he was working three jobs at the time) prompted him to seek another arrangement. According to him, a Pike supervisor first agreed to a change in his appointments, then reneged, telling him to "get your priorities in order." At a subsequent revocation hearing, Wieder's parole officer testified that Wieder had been seen at a restaurant associating with another parolee--a clear violation of his parole--and that he'd hung up the phone on the Pike employee, leading to his "unsuccessful discharge" from the program.
The parole board's remedy was to send Wieder to anger-management classes offered by the Aurora Community Mental Health Center. Wieder wasn't an enthusiastic participant in the weekly group sessions; he said little, and his habit of sitting with his arms folded was construed as "inappropriate" body language.
"One of the rules was 'No whining,'" Wieder recalls. "You're not supposed to say you are in anger management as a result of the system. Well, I was there as a result of the system. They asked me what I really felt. I told them they didn't want to hear it, but they got it out of me. I told them they had a heck of a referral system. Guys are coming out, and they're loading them up with all this treatment they don't need. They didn't want to hear it."
Last May Wieder was revoked again, this time for excessive absences from the Aurora classes. He spent 37 days in jail and was released with an ankle bracelet, with orders to attend even more classes. By this point, he'd already spent more than $3,500 on classes and restitution. He was deeply in debt and scrambling for work, since he'd lost his jobs while in jail.
"I told the parole board, 'I'll go to your groups, but I have to work, too,'" he says. "'These conditions have to go hand in hand. I got to have every Monday off so I can go to mental health. Every Wednesday I have to see my parole officer. You know how hard it is to get a job under those conditions?'"
Wieder didn't make it. Two months ago, only weeks short of completing his parole, he turned in a UA that tested positive for cocaine. He was promptly arrested, and his third revocation hearing was his last. He's now back in a community-corrections program, attending eight different programs a week--drug and alcohol therapy and education classes, Narcotics Anonymous, relapse prevention, HIV awareness, stress management, anger management, "life systems"--and waiting out another year until his discharge.
"I got more groups to go to now than I ever had at Canon City," Wieder notes. "If I've really got all these problems, then I belong back there."
Although he knew he'd probably be revoked for turning in a dirty UA, Wieder says he just didn't care anymore. "You have to look at what there is about parole that makes a guy give up," he says.
"A lot of parolees find the conditions of parole too difficult," says Paul Grant, Wieder's attorney. "They'd rather just go back to prison and forget it. They can't afford it, and they're not being helped. It's more complicated than just trying to figure out how to get a job and get back on their feet."
At Wieder's second parole hearing, Grant was able to elicit testimony that indicated the Aurora Community Mental Health Center hadn't provided Wieder with a program "suited to individual needs"--despite a promise in its literature to do exactly that--and that Wieder couldn't "terminate therapy at any time," as his contract assured him he could, without risking loss of parole. He also established that Wieder's parole officer had done little to assist him in finding work or to accommodate his job schedule.
By statute, Grant notes, parole officers are supposed to assist parolees in finding employment and housing, but their caseload is so great that they can't afford to devote much time to such matters, except in the most dire of cases.
"In my limited contact with parole officers, most of them are overworked," Grant says. "They have too many cases, and they expect their clients to fail. And they feel any complaint is an excuse. They get cynical because they're dealing with cons. It's hard to be an optimist when you're dealing with people coming out of jail."
Parole officers, though, challenge the notion that their charges are overloaded with programs. "We certainly hear that complaint a lot," says Kelly Messamore, a Denver parole officer who works with high-risk offenders. "Sometimes it's a valid complaint. But you also have a lot of people who are complaining because they're not invested in treatment. It's not a priority for them, but it's certainly doable."
Messamore adds that, in her experience, parole officers aren't overeager to revoke; it's rare, for example, for a parolee to be sent back to prison on his first hot UA.
"You probably wouldn't have a caseload at all if you filed on every revocation," she says. "By the time we're filing complaints, it's because we're not getting their attention any other way--we've tried increasing treatment, we've tried ISP, we've tried additional contacts, and nothing's working. Or it's because, based on their history and that particular violation, they pose a public-safety risk."
But Grant questions why someone like Ed Wieder should be sent to anger management in the first place, a program usually reserved for more serious offenders, including domestic-violence cases. "It's a way for the criminal-justice system to pretend that they're doing some good for people, that they're not just turning them loose," he says. "The heads of these groups have enormous power. The therapist can just bark orders like a drill sergeant, and if someone doesn't give 100 percent, he can be thrown out of the program and get revoked."
Roughly half of all parolees are ordered to take some form of mental-health program; the Colorado Division of Parole even spends $118,000 a year to help indigent cons pay for their therapy. Countless more take a cognitive restructuring course, which is considered "educational" rather than as treatment and is usually paid for by the parolee. Of 500 parolees whose treatment was subsidized by the state last year, nearly 75 percent successfully discharged their parole; but parole officials have no comprehensive data on the success rate of the programs or whether they have a significant effect on recidivism.
"It's all about money," contends Jeffrey Trott, a convicted burglar who, like Wieder, was jailed for failing to attend therapy sessions. "I guess it's okay to rip me off because I ripped off other people."
Although not yet on parole--he's waived two parole hearings--Trott has made his way to the outer perimeter of the corrections system. He spent three years in prison, then a year at a halfway house, and he now lives in his own apartment, his movements tracked by an ankle bracelet. While at the halfway house, he completed the 26-week cognitive restructuring course offered by Pike and Associates, a program he describes as "like a lukewarm community-college 'Intro to Psych' class. You basically wrote little stories about your life experiences."
Like Wieder, Trott got his certificate, but he didn't feel particularly enlightened by the program--except for his wallet, which was $600 lighter. "Outside of class, everybody would say what a fraud it was, and then inside they'd all pretend to do their therapy and say how much good it was doing them," he recalls. "It was kind of eerie."
Unlike Wieder, Trott was told he didn't need the aftercare program. Then he moved to the ISP program, and his case manager told him he needed something "stronger," which turned out to be $45-a-week therapy sessions with a licensed social worker across town, at a time that interfered with his job as a typesetter. Trott balked, asking to be assigned to someone else. When his request was denied, he presented the therapist with a letter threatening to sue her--and was promptly arrested for refusing therapy.
"When I was in prison, they never asked me to do any mental health," Trott says. "Then I get accepted to the halfway house, and DOC sends me to this expensive, time-consuming program. So I completed that, got accepted to ISP--and now that I'm making money, they load this other program on me. My case manager told me something to the effect that he didn't think it would do me much good, but this was their way of showing that everybody's in treatment."
Trott spent five days in jail before his ISP officer relented and sent him to another therapist. He still resents the expense and questions the value of the certificate he's already received. Living on his own is more expensive than life at the halfway house, which cost him more than his taxpayer-subsidized existence in prison--and, as he sees it, his keepers keep changing the rules. If he doesn't make parole, he could be under DOC control several years into the next century because of the sentence he received for hundreds of burglaries.
"Any day, they could come in and say, 'Mr. Trott, you're going back to prison,'" he says. "They could look for reasons to send me back, but I'm not afraid of it anymore. I spend all my time on buses or at work. There isn't much left for me, and they always want more.
"It's sad to see people trying to put their lives back together, and the system just drains them with these programs that aren't doing any good. They need more than the programs offer."
Tom Maddock, head of the Denver parole office, says that one of the greatest enemies parolees face is their own frustration with the process. "There's a whole lot of them who are making it and staying out of trouble," he insists. "But some of them want everything right away. It takes time."
Working out of an office above a McDonald's on the 16th Street Mall, Colorado Division of Parole officer Kelly Messamore takes the worst the Colorado prison system can dish out.
Rapists. Pedophiles. Child abusers. Arsonists. Mentally ill and developmentally disabled prisoners, many with violent histories. If they're loathesome and they're on parole, chances are pretty good that they're assigned to Messamore, a RAM (Risk Assessment Management) officer whose caseload consists almost entirely of high-risk parolees.
High-risk cases are supposed to have considerably more contact with their parole officers than other parolees. In practice, that works out to an average of two hours per month devoted to each high-risk case, including a minimum of two face-to-face contacts, compared with ninety minutes and one face-to-face confab for a medium-risk case. That may not seem like much quality time; but then, Messamore has sixty parolees to supervise every month.
That's ten more than the average caseload recommended by the American Probation and Parole Association, yet considerably fewer than the numbers confronting parole officers in other states. (The champ in minimal parole supervision is Washington, D.C., which has only one officer for every 172 parolees.) Messamore isn't complaining. Until fairly recently, when the Denver parole office received the funding to hire four more officers, her caseload was at eighty.
"Having done eighty for a long time, sixty is feeling pretty good," Messamore says. "In the past couple of months I've had more time to do home visits. Sometimes that causes revocation hearings, because I find something out that I didn't know before. Any time we increase the surveillance, we're going to find more people dirty. But it feels more manageable now."
Messamore isn't shy about arresting parolees who violate their conditions of release, such as a child molester who makes even a brief contact with a minor; it's her job to try to catch the backsliders before they commit more serious crimes. But it's also her job to try to help impoverished, untrained outcasts find a place in free society again, a task she says there's never enough time for.
"There's a lot of people who come out with almost no resources," she says. She describes one recent arrival at the downtown bus station: mentally ill, no driver's license, no Social Security card, no identification of any kind. "When he got off the bus, he had his medications and his parole agreement, and that was it. We didn't connect at the bus station for some reason, and he spent a day wandering the streets and finally wandered into a police station. We got him into an assisted living situation, but when you're coming out with no ID, no money, no skills, it's hard."
Although their failure rate is higher, Messamore doesn't see her cases as inherently different from others. A few parolees will overcome enormous odds to succeed. Others will fail, despite having a loving family and several other breaks. Some will simply choose to do evil. But in many cases, she suggests, parolees give up because they don't have much of a stake in making it--no family, no job, no prospects, nothing to stay clean for.
"If we had more places to house people for a month or two," she says, "to give them a chance to save money so they can put a deposit on a regular apartment, a decent place to live, it's my belief we'd have better results."
Messamore doesn't expect her caseload to remain at sixty for long. She and another RAM officer are already talking to colleagues about recruiting more officers to specialize in supervising high-risk offenders, anticipating the coming boom in the parole population. The mandatory-parole law is expected to increase the load across the board: more paperwork, more ankle-bracelet cases (who have once-a-week contact with special ISP officers), more technical violations (each one of which requires an average of one full day of an officer's time to investigate and resolve). But Messamore figures the impact will be particularly dramatic in the area of high-risk cases such as those of sex offenders.
At present, only a handful of sex offenders are released on parole each year. The majority end up serving most, if not all, of their sentence because the parole board refuses to release them. In many cases, they're rejected because they refuse to complete the mandatory treatment program in prison, which requires them to admit their guilt. Unless they're serving a life sentence, such hard cases eventually do discharge; in the future, though, they'll be coming out under the supervision of Messamore or other RAM officers.
"When you don't have any discretion about who you parole, you're going to have more people who aren't good parole risks," Messamore says. "The ones we'll be seeing down the road are the ones with severe felonies who are hitting that mandatory parole period. They didn't get out early because they weren't doing the programs, and they're going to be a higher-risk group of sex offenders."
Messamore believe mandatory parole will provide more opportunity to nail those who have no intention of changing their ways. Others may, with some help, make "better choices," she says.
"I understand why people say, 'Why should we help them?' But the bottom line is, if you don't give them resources, you're not doing public safety, either," Messamore says. "There's a view that you're either a social worker or law enforcement, that the two aren't the same. But they are. You give people resources to help themselves and change their behavior, and you're protecting the public."
But resources are getting squeezed in the ever-growing prison bureaucracy, and parole programs aren't high on the DOC's wish list. Asked by the legislature's Joint Budget Committee to rank its expenditures in terms of their importance to the department's overall mission, the DOC budget team last year ranked parole at No. 19 of 62 items, behind a host of security and training concerns. The parole board itself weighed in at No. 35, slightly ahead of drug, alcohol and sex-offender treatment programs. The "resources" handed out to a parolee when he leaves prison--the bus tokens, $100 check and the clothes on his back--came in dead last.
Bob Sylvester of Dismas House says the DOC still won't acknowledge the extent to which its overcrowding problem is really a parole problem. "The only way they're going to straighten this out is to have a summit meeting with the legislators, the judiciary and the parole people," he says, "and sit down and discuss the pieces that aren't working."
In recent years, several states have severely limited or abolished the use of parole, moving toward a "truth-in-sentencing" approach. Reformers such as Sylvester say it's time to get rid of the automatic time-off-for-good-behavior discounts that erode public confidence in the criminal-justice system, as well as the treacherous guesswork involved in discretionary parole decisions. Instead, he suggests, criminals would be expected to earn their way out, through voluntary rather than mandatory programs--programs that would bring them, under tight supervision, closer and closer to the street.
Chairman Trujillo, though, boasts that the parole board has "over 150 years of criminal justice experience" among its present members. "If all these people were going to be in prison until they're sixty, then you could consider doing away with parole," Trujillo says. "But the majority of the sentences we see are two, four, eight years. That tells me they're going to be out in the next six months to four years. So why not provide a transition? If public safety is our concern, we should do that."
Trujillo suggests that too many parole violators have come to regard prison as "better than the alternative they have on the street." If it were up to him, he'd send them all to the Colorado State Penitentiary, the state's supermax, for a little "bar therapy."
"I think prison ought to be a little tougher," he says. "CSP--every prisoner ought to have a taste of that. I honestly feel that a certain segment, if they were to have a taste of 23-hour lockdown for ninety days or six months, they'll never commit another crime."
But parolees says prison is tough enough, thanks; it's parole that needs fixing. John Robert Nelson wrote a letter to that effect that was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph two months ago--the same day he was granted parole.
At age 38, Nelson has served seven years on a seventeen-year sentence for possession of LSD and amphetamines, including one year in a Colorado Springs halfway house. "I made it through the system quicker than most," he says, adding that the prison programs he found available to him upon entry in 1989 helped make a difference.
"I went into it with an open mind and got out of it what I could," he says. "When I came into DOC, I was fairly illiterate. I took a GED program and went on to college while I was in prison. And I took all the drug classes I could."
But federal funding for prison college programs has dried up, and much of what remains, Nelson believes, consists of merely token gestures of rehabilitation. "They aren't really comprehensive programs," he says. "They're short, six- to eight-week courses that most individuals are forced into, and they don't take it as seriously as they should."
Nelson contends that once a prisoner shows he can function in a halfway house or other less restrictive setting, parole and ISP should soon follow, freeing up more options for others. Instead, he says, one of his housemates spent four years in community corrections awaiting parole--despite his demonstrated ability to live outside a cell.
"They're using halfway houses as penal institutions rather than as a transitional program," Nelson says. "They should be implementing comprehensive, individual programs so people can get out and be successful. You can put the productive ones on the street, living at home, paying taxes--and save a lot on incarcerating them."
While in prison, Nelson says, "I looked at myself and decided there have to be changes in my life." Many others at the halfway house had gone through a similar process, he adds, but that didn't seem to cut any ice with the parole board. He was stunned to receive parole on only the second try.
"The first time you go before the board, you're going to get a setback," Nelson says. "It's almost an automatic scenario. It doesn't matter what you've done while you're in prison. And I really didn't expect to make parole the second time. They don't really look at the individual. You're just another number crossing their desk."
Visit www.westword.com to read related Westword stories.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.