Standing Guard at the Revolving Door

A Day in the Life of a Parole Officer

Mike Taylor decides people's fates from a tiny second-floor room at 119 West 31st Street in Manhattan. Every Thursday, a few dozen people stop in to see him. They do not come because Taylor gives them a paycheck or because they enjoy his company. They're here because they have little choice. Taylor is a parole officer, and parolees who fail to report to him risk returning to prison.

The first parolee to show up on a recent Thursday walks into Taylor's "report room" shortly after 9 a.m. Taylor, a 41-year-old Bronx native, settles into a chair behind a desk and gestures for Bobby Riley to sit across from him. (Parolees' names have been changed to protect their privacy.)

There is only one wall decoration in this room: a tiny calendar of Scottish castles held up by a thumbtack, presumably to remind visitors about their next report day. The room seems innocuous enough, except for the pair of handprints on one wall, likely left by a parolee who was cuffed and taken away.

Parole officer Mike Taylor: 16 hours, 39 parolees, one trip to Rikers
photo: Keith Bedford
Parole officer Mike Taylor: 16 hours, 39 parolees, one trip to Rikers

"What's up, man?" Taylor asks Riley, who spent nearly two years in prison on a weapons-possession case. At the moment, the 55-year-old parolee sleeps in the basement of a Second Avenue tenement, where a friend is the superintendent.

"Are you working in the building?" Taylor asks.

"Sometimes," Riley says.

"Off the books?"

Riley nods.

"Are you still at the same place?"

Riley nods. He keeps his hands between his knees and his eyes on the floor.

"Any drug use?" Taylor asks.


"Any police contact?"


"Any problems?" Taylor asks. "Everything OK?"

Riley nods again.

"You're good to go," Taylor says. "I'll talk to you later."

The meeting lasts only a few minutes, and then Taylor heads down the corridor to fetch his next parolee. For a parole officer, conducting these interrogations can feel like factory work. They are usually short, dull, and routine. For the parolee, though, these visits are often extremely stressful. Parole officers have tremendous power over parolees' lives—not only to take away their freedom, but to enforce curfews, test them for drugs, and search their homes.

Within the criminal justice system, parole officers have long been the favorite scapegoats. Every time a parolee commits a horrific crime, the state Division of Parole gets the blame. "Thugs Set Free to Strike Again," a recent New York Post headline proclaimed. "Time and Again, Path to 'Outrageous' Crime Sprees Is Paved With Parolees."

Governor George Pataki has fueled this anti-parole sentiment by calling for the elimination of all early release from prison. With this year's session of the state legislature nearing its end, Pataki may finally get his way. But even if he succeeds, people leaving prison will still have to report to a parole officer.

There are 60,000 parolees in New York state, and Taylor oversees 63 of them. At the moment, Taylor's caseload is relatively small—considerably lighter than the 100-plus loads some of his coworkers carry. His parolees' crimes include cocaine possession, robbery, and manslaughter. Like all New York state parole officers, Taylor carries a Glock 9mm pistol. Some wear their guns jutting prominently from a holster on their hip; Taylor keeps his hidden under a long T-shirt. In the three years he has been on the job, Taylor has never had to pull out his gun.

Most of today's visits will be uneventful, Taylor expects, but there is one man who could be trouble: Robert Diaz. Weeks ago, a cop arrested Diaz after he allegedly snorted heroin on the street. Taylor is considering sending Diaz back to jail—that is, if Diaz shows up.

A steady stream of parolees keeps Taylor busy all morning. A schizophrenic man living in a drug program complains that his pills were tossed in the trash. Another parolee mentions that his mother has been missing for weeks. A man who is no longer even on parole comes back because he needs help finding housing. And a female parolee who has tuberculosis reports that she just got out of the hospital.

Taylor tries to help the parolee who lost his meds by calling his drug program. But there is not enough time to stop and chat with every parolee, to deviate much from the standard script and dive into the role of social worker.

By 1:30 p.m., 18 parolees have passed through Taylor's report room. Now he scans the waiting area. No sign of Diaz, or any of his other parolees. Finally, there is time for a break. Taylor heads to the deli next door.

So many restrictions govern parolees' lives that it is hard to imagine anybody obeying all the rules all the time. In New York, these rules include: No lying to your parole officer. No socializing with anyone who has a criminal record. No using or possessing drugs. No leaving the state without permission. No skipping appointments with your parole officer. Often, other restrictions are added on: No staying out past curfew (usually 9 p.m. or 10 p.m.). No owning a rottweiler, pit bull, or German shepherd.

It is, of course, impossible to watch a parolee 24 hours a day. But parole officers do possess a weapon that police officers do not have: the right to enter a parolee's home without a search warrant. When Taylor is not sitting in his report room quizzing parolees, he is tracking them down at home or work.

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