Standing Guard at the Revolving Door
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.
"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?"
"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' livesnot 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 smallconsiderably 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 jailthat 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.
All of Taylor's parolees live in the 9th or 10th precincts, which include Chelsea and the East Village. He usually visits them on the weekend, when they are more likely to be home. Around 6:30 a.m., he begins banging on apartment doors. Parolees, or their family members, answer half-asleep, dressed in boxer shorts or bathrobes.
"The bottom line is you can't control behavior," Taylor says. "But if you can give the parolee the sense he's being closely watched, that's what's important."
At 2:40 p.m., David Gardner gets his turn in Taylor's report room. The 32-year-old former drug dealer came home from prison five months ago. His most noticeable feature is his nose; it is half-gone, partially removed after a bout with cancer. At first, the visit seems routine.
"What's going on?" Taylor asks.
"I'm staying out of trouble, going to my [drug] program," Gardner says. He pauses, then adds, "My sister called the cops on me."
Taylor stops writing. "When?" he asks. Not reporting police contact is a serious parole violation.
"This was on the 6th [of June]."
"Why didn't you call me? Did the police come to your house?"
"Yeah, but I wasn't there."
Gardner lives with his younger sister, her baby, and their ailing grandparents in a two-bedroom apartment in Alphabet City. Taylor picks up the phone and dials the apartment.
"I'm your brother's P.O.," he says to Gardner's sister. "I understand you had some problems with him. Do you care to tell me about them?"
For several minutes, Taylor listens to Gardner's sister complain about how her older brother is trying to take over her bedroom. Besides addiction, unemployment, poverty, and lack of education, parolees' biggest problem is finding housing. Some, like Gardner, have family willing to take them in. Others have nowhere to go. Taylor's parolees live in residential drug programs, city-owned hotels, and homeless shelters. The city's Housing Authority bans people with criminal records from its projects, but many reside there illegally.
At the moment, Taylor wants to prevent a real-estate squabble between siblings from escalating into a worst-case scenario, with his parolee returning to jail. Sometimes a stern lecture helps. "Sweetheart," Taylor says into the phone, "your brother is on parole, and [if] you pick up the phone and call the cops and he gets arrested, he's going back to jail. If he acts incorrect, certainly call the cops. But just because he snatches some keys from you . . . You can't just keep dropping dimes on your brother with the cops."
The parole officer gives Gardner's sister his number and tells her to call if there are more problems. Then he puts down the phone and glares at Gardner. "I'm serious," Taylor says, his voice growing louder. "If I get a call from your sister, you're going to pack your shit. . . . The moral of the story is don't piss your sister off. Let her have the room. She has a child and she needs some degree of privacy. Everything is cool right now. [But] if it happens again, I'm not going to have mercy on you if the cops come and arrest you."
A few more parolees file in and out of Taylor's report room, and at 3:20 p.m. it is Charles Johnson's turn. Johnson is 23 years old and has already been to state prison twice. After he served three years for selling drugs, parole officers found a gun in his apartment. For that parole violation, he spent an extra year in prison.
Today, Johnson has a request: to stay out past his curfew. "I want to go see Swordfish, the movie with Halle Berry," he says.
"When do you want to go?"
"I want to go Friday or Saturdaywhatever is good for you."
Taylor hesitates. "The last time I gave you the OK to go out," the officer says, "you got shot."
Johnson still carries a bullet in his left leg from the incident a few months earlier, when he tried to help a girl who was being beaten by a few guys on the street.
Taylor runs through his usual questions. "Any drug use?" he asks.
"Yeah," says Johnson, who tested positive for marijuana a few weeks earlier.
"Charles, are you staying off that weed?"
Johnson is doing well on parole, with the exception of turning in one cup of drug-positive pee, known as a "dirty urine." Fifty-nine percent of parolees are unemployed; Johnson has a job as a messenger. "Go out with your lady," Taylor says. "Have a good time. And tell your ma I said, 'Hi.' " The two men shake hands and Johnson leaves.
At 3:40 p.m., Taylor finishes ticking off all the names on his sign-up sheet, which is taped to a table in the front of the waiting room. Even when there is a lull in the parolee traffic, there is always other work to do. Taylor rides the elevator up one floor to his office.
Inside the state division of parole, signs of the agency's lowly status are everywhere. The hum of electric typewriters fills the air. Yellow and green slips of paper with messages scribbled on them dot the officers' desks, since there is no voice mail. The telephone the agency gave Taylor sits in a desk drawer. Dissatisfied with the phones, some officers buy their own. Taylor got one with redial and speakerphone for $14.
Taylor sits down at his desk, flips open Robert Diaz's folder, and starts reading. Diaz is 37 years old and has made two trips to state prisononce for grand larceny and once for selling drugs. Like 86 percent of parolees, Diaz has a history of drug use. He came home from prison last August.
Every report day, Taylor would ask Diaz, "Any drug use?"
"No, no, Mr. Taylor, I'm fine," Diaz would insist.
But when the parole officer reached into his desk drawer for a plastic cup, Diaz sometimes changed his story. "Mr. Taylor, I got something to tell you," he would say.
Diaz failed several drug tests, and Taylor referred him to an out-patient drug program. When that did not work, Taylor sent him to a methadone-maintenance program. Still, Diaz's urine kept testing positive for heroin. Then, a few weeks ago, Diaz got arrested. Getting arrested is not an automatic parole violation. But Taylor warned Diaz, "If I get a police note that tells me they took [drugs] off of you, you're out."
The hint was intentional. "I don't believe in not telling someone I'm taking them into custody," Taylor says.
Ever since Diaz was spotted allegedly snorting heroin, Taylor has been trying to get the arresting officer on the phone. Today Taylor finally reaches him. The cop says that he saw Diaz purchase heroin, then use it.
At the moment, Diaz is free and waiting for his case to go through the city's courts. Taylor might consider giving him another chance, if he can get the parolee into a residential methadone program. But Taylor already knows that the wait for a bed can last a month or two because there are few such programs. This is too long to let his parolee stay on the street, Taylor thinks. After consulting with his supervisor, Taylor decides to take Diaz into custody.
Taking a parolee into custody can be dangerous. Most go willingly, but some balk. They show up with their spouse and children in an attempt to win sympathy. They lunge at their parole officer. They try to run for the door, even with cuffs on. At least once, a parolee tried unsuccessfully to jump out a window.
Back downstairs, there is no sign of Diaz. By now, the waiting room is packed with parolees, many on their way home from work. There are not too many business suits or briefcases in this crowd, but there are all the trappings of construction work: dusty work boots, paint-speckled pants, tape measures clipped to belts. One woman wears a white uniform with an Au Bon Pain name tag.
So many of Taylor's parolees are here that the wait to see him stretches to an hour or two. Taylor rushes to get through everyone before office hours end, hustling 14 parolees in and out of his report room over two hours. Circles of sweat appear beneath his armpits. His visits with parolees shrink to three minutes.
At 7:30 p.m., Taylor skims his sign-up sheet and pauses at the last name. Robert Diaz. The parolee sits near the front of the waiting room, wearing sandals, a T-shirt, and silver hoops in both ears. Taylor notes that Diaz has shaved his stubble and snipped off his ponytail. Maybe he is preparing himself to go back to jail.
"Yeah," Taylor says.
Taylor steers the parolee into a report room, where his partner is waiting. A supervisor appears. These are routine precautions, but today Taylor does not need anyone's help. Diaz holds his hands behind his back and waits calmly, while Taylor locks a pair of cuffs around his wrists. No argument, no struggle, no surprise.
"I felt I should be violated," Diaz says. "I need to start over. I'm tired of the meth." His response is unusual. Not too many parolees agree with their officer, saying they believe their parole should be revoked.
"Did you get your tools?" Taylor asks Diaz, who has a job at a woodworking company. Taylor does not want him to lose his livelihood while he is locked up.
"I brought them home," Diaz says.
Taylor and his partner slip their hands into Diaz's pockets, removing the contents: a pack of Big Red gum, a napkin, a wallet. Then Taylor snaps an extra set of cuffs around Diaz's wrists and leads him into the nearby custody room. While Taylor goes upstairs to get his supervisor's signature on the parole warrant, his partner watches Diaz and reads The New York Times.
Deciding to take Diaz to jail is not an easy decision. Taylor knows that the parolee has elderly parents, that his father is in a wheelchair, that his paychecks help support the family. "Sometimes you feel bad, when you know someone is trying to do right by their folks, even if they're still using drugs," Taylor says. But "you have to convince yourself that when he gets out in a couple months, he'll be clean and be able to start anew."
Taylor returns to the custody room at 8:38 p.m. to pick up Diaz, whose wrists are still locked together. Before taking the parolee to Rikers Island, Taylor helps him out one last time. He picks up a phone and dials Diaz's parents. While Taylor presses the receiver to Diaz's ear, the parolee delivers the bad news.
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