by Gina Sestak
The summer after my first year of law school, when I still thought I might like to become a criminal attorney, I got a job with the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. My title was "Parole Agent," a step below "Parole Officer." I didn't get to carry a gun.
Everyone else in the office carried guns, though, except for the few women in the secretarial pool. Parole officers were considered part of the state police, so they took firearms training and carried weapons. The men carried theirs in shoulder holsters that were strikingly noticeable whenever they removed their jackets. The two women both carried their guns in their purses.
The office had an open floor plan, with a few private offices and interview rooms along the sides. Most of the officers and other agents sat at desks that were arranged in rows. I did, too. It's a little scary to be sitting in an open plan office, surrounded by people with guns. Who knew when one of them might snap?
Because I was only working for the summer, I didn't supervise a case load. Instead, I did the intake interviews and wrote presentence reports. The state Probation and Parole Board was responsible for criminals convicted of crimes that carried a sentence of at least two years. Criminals convicted of lesser crimes were the responsibility of the county.
Anyone convicted and sentenced to probation was sent directly from court to our office. I would meet with the person in one of the private interview rooms and explain the requirements he or she would have to meet to stay on probation and out of prison. I would also conduct a social history interview, asking questions about their background and criminal history. [Of course, we checked this with the FBI as well.] Then I would write a report.
I wrote presentence reports, too. The presentence report was prepared after conviction but before sentencing to provide the judge with guidance. It was essentially the same as an intake report, but with two major additions. I got to recommend a sentence. And I interviewed the victims, to let the judge know the impact of the crime. I had the use of a state car to go out and meet the victims in their homes, where we could talk privately. I always asked them what they thought the sentence ought to be and put that in the report as well.
Parole officers had the right to arrest any of the criminals they supervised and hold them for up to ten days if they suspected that further crimes or rule violations had been committed. The most common infraction was drug use, even though the parolees and probationers must have known they'd never get away with it -- anyone convicted of a drug-related crime had to provide urine samples three times a week.
The worst thing I had to do on this job was assist in arrests. This didn't happen often, but when neither of the female officers were available and a woman was being arrested, I was asked to be there in case the arrestee later made claims of rape, etc. Usually the woman (and some of the men) being arrested would sob uncontrollably and beg not to be taken back to jail. It was horrible.
The job could cause some awkward moments -- like the time I went out to a club with friends and saw a convicted prostitute I'd just interviewed there with her friends. I was trying to be inconspicuous, so she wouldn't think I was surveilling her, then I realized that if she saw me hiding behind pillars, she'd be sure I was. I ended up just going home.
What did I learn from this job? Plenty. I learned that:
Convicted criminals are interesting to talk to. One child molester insisted that he was blameless, having been seduced by evil children. A biker claimed that, because he worshipped Satan, the last church he'd entered had spontaneously burst into flames. A burglar insisted that the crime had really been committed by a woman -- the witness only thought it had been him because he wore his hair long.
Criminals do dumb things. Like the guy who was caught having sex with a cow -- he was caught because it wasn't his cow. Or the guys who saw in the paper that the price of copper had gone up. Noticing a copper wire running along the side of the road, they got out, cut it down, and began to roll it up. Turns out it was a railroad communication line. When someone from the railroad came to check on why the line was dead, they were caught. Or the guy who wrote a threatening letter to the judge who had convicted him, and signed his name.
A Caucasian woman (me) walking through a mostly African-American public housing project (where many of the victims lived) and carrying a tablet will always be mistaken for a welfare caseworker by hordes of little kids, who'd follow me and ask a lot of questions. They seemed to be impressed that I worked for the parole board, even though I didn't have a gun.