In the Spotlight

After several meetings, Parole Officer Cynthia Robinson (right) has developed a favorable rapport with Andrew Atchison and his family, as part of Operation Spotlight, to help steer him from potential pitfalls. (Photo by Mary Hanlon)

After several meetings, Parole Officer Cynthia Robinson (right) has developed a favorable rapport with Andrew Atchison and his family, as part of Operation Spotlight, to help steer him from potential pitfalls. (Photo by Mary Hanlon)

“Who she want?”

As soon as the woman saw the white Ford Taurus turn the corner at Marshfield Avenue and 61st Street, she stuck her head out of the second floor window and called down to her nephew Raphael. The woman didn’t know that Parole Officer Cynthia Robinson was behind the wheel, but she recognized the car.

Raphael, a lanky teenager in a long white t-shirt who was already outside on this blustery January day, came to the steps as Robinson parked and approached the Englewood two-flat.

“Does Andrew Atchison live here?” Robinson asked.

Before Raphael could answer, a square-shaped man with twisted dreadlocks and an overgrown goatee opened the door. “That’s me,” he said.

As is usually the case with parole visits, this one was unannounced. And, while this would be his first meeting with Robinson, Atchison did not seem surprised to see her. In and out of prison several times during the past 20 years, mostly for residential burglary, Atchison, 44, soberly admits that he knows too much about the criminal justice system, including unannounced parole visits. “Come on in and have a seat, guys,” Atchison said.

Raphael, the son of one of Atchison’s cousins, followed Robinson and Atchison inside to the first-floor living room and sat on a radiator near the front window. Hearing the commotion, Atchison’s aunt, Alberta Davenport, and several other members of the large extended family rushed downstairs. Davenport stood firmly in the space between the living room and dining room.

“Everything is cool, auntie,” Atchison said. “They just talking to me.”

“Well, you know police. Sometimes they say they are doing one thing and then they do another,” said Davenport.

“We’re just going to talk,” Robinson said.

Still, Davenport would not leave. Some of Atchison’s cousins and their children also lingered in the living room, while other relatives stood nearby on the inside steps, listening.

In many neighborhoods, parole officers are often viewed the same way police are: with suspicion. Parole officers can search the homes of parolees and arrest them when they violate their parole terms, which can include requirements like staying drug free and living with a specific relative. After a hearing on such violations, parolees can find themselves back behind bars.

The fact that Robinson was a stranger added to the family’s unease, but even more familiar parole officers are often met with anxious reactions. But the state wants to change the relationship between parole officers and the parolees they supervise.

In 2003, Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Illinois Department of Corrections officials launched Operation Spotlight, an initiative under which the state would spend millions to double its number of parole officers and provide them with case-management training and laptop computers to better track parolees and help them find work and services, like drug treatment. In addition to monitoring parolees, the parole officers would also be expected to help them stay on the straight and narrow—and stay out of prison.

While Operation Spotlight has not been fully implemented, parole officers are currently swamped with heavy caseloads, and, the last time the state doubled their numbers, technical violations skyrocketed, and thousands of parolees went back to prison. State officials acknowledge that a key part of keeping parolees from violating parole or reoffending is helping them find work, but a majority of them remain unemployed.

Experts, advocates, parolees and parole officers say, in order for Operation Spotlight to work, jobs and services have to become more readily available to parolees; the department has to quicken the pace in hiring more parole officers to effectively lower the number of parolees they supervise; and the “gotcha mentality” of many parole officers has to disappear—which some say won’t happen until parole officers are required to have more education.

When parole officers roll into some neighborhoods, they are an easy mark since they’re typically issued either a white Ford Taurus or Chevy Impala, and the cars are covered with antennas. “Sometimes you can see the lookouts on the corner peering into the cars to see whose parole agent it is,” said Henry Sanchez, a supervisor of parole officers on the South Side. “They will then call out warnings.”

He agreed that parole officers are seen as threats, and that image is bolstered when the agents step out of their cars clad in bulletproof vests, with crackling radios and guns holstered at their sides.

But this is not how some parole agents want to be viewed, he said. “I think many parole agents have long wanted to help these guys,” he said. “Now, with Operation Spotlight, the state is behind us.”

Sanchez, a short, affable man, said he has always stressed to his staff that locking people up is a grave responsibility and not something they should do lightly.

However, some parolees have noticed little change in the attitude of some parole officers. Andre Brown, a 41-year-old who attends the Male Involvement Program run by the Chicago Urban League, said his parole officers sometimes have not been sympathetic to his needs. Brown has been to prison six times for various crimes, including criminal sexual abuse, robbery, aggravated battery and violating orders of protection.

After his most recent release, in September 2004, leaving prison with $10 in his pocket, Brown asked his parole agent for help. He’s “gonna tell me nothing, on how to do anything, but threaten me with a drop, with a drug testing cup, and then he’s gonna tell me, ‘Go on, I’ll see you next month,'” he said. “I mean, what kind of help is that?”@ Bryant Barfield, who recently completed U-Turn Permitted, an employment program at the North Lawndale Employment Network, has found some of his parole agents to be indifferent to his success.

Most parolees feel so isolated that even a little bit of attention would mean a lot, said Barfield, 44, whose drug problem has had him in and out of jail and prison since the 1970s. “When someone shows they care, it makes you want to listen to them and take their advice.”

Sharon Johnson, who also completed U-Turn Permitted, said she was surprised when her current parole agent took enough interest to refer her to the program. She said the agent even showed up there one day to visit her. “I love my parole agent. He wants to see me do well,” said Johnson, 44, who has two drug possession charges on her record. “I am grateful for that. I love him.”

Stevie Childs (center) leads a group of Male Involvement Program participants in prayer at the Chicago Urban League. (Photo by Jason Reblando)

The state has invested a lot in Operation Spotlight, and the dividends could have far-reaching effects. Each year since 2001, more than 30,000 men and women have left Illinois prisons. About 85 percent of them have been released on parole, which can last from eight months to life, depending on the crime and the parolee’s sentence. Corrections officials estimate nearly 40,000 people will be released on parole during the current fiscal year, the most ever in Illinois. About half of them will be returning to Chicago.

Between 2004 and 2006, the state will have spent nearly $10 million on parole agents, their equipment and training, said Deanne Benos, assistant director of the corrections department.

Another $900,000 in federal grants was spent to computerize the parole division’s case-management system to make parole agents more efficient. Each parole agent is equipped with a laptop computer and trained how to log into the state’s system and quickly pull up a parolee’s history.

Benos said the state would like to see Operation Spotlight follow in the footsteps of welfare reform. In the late 1990s, welfare caseworkers went from paper pushers to those responsible for helping recipients get the services and jobs they needed to stay off the rolls. But things were rocky at the start. Records show that, during welfare reform’s first two years in Illinois, just a third of those leaving the rolls had found work.

Individuals leaving prison might experience even more difficulty in finding jobs. Time and again, studies have shown that employers are reluctant to hire people with felony records. Illinois employers have taken advantage of federal tax credits to hire thousands moving from welfare to work, but employers across the state have used the program to hire just a few hundred former inmates. And, since July 1997, more than 217,000 inmates have been released from Illinois prisons, slightly more than the 206,000 who’ve left the state’s welfare rolls.

Sanchez, the parole supervisor on the South Side, admits that it’s difficult to find jobs for parolees. He said that, if a parolee gets a job at one business, his or her parole agent will sometimes inquire if there are any other open positions. “But it is more on a mom-and-pop level,” Sanchez added. “Parole agents don’t have much contact with Fortune 500 companies.”

Parole Officer Marcus Ivy worries that employment remains elusive for one of his parolees, Larry Hartley, who was last released from prison in October and has been free of trouble since a positive drug test in November. Since 1996, Hartley has been to prison four times for armed robbery and drug charges. “Working is a big part of keeping them out of prison because their time is more occupied and they don’t get into other things,” Ivy said.

At the same time, Ivy is upfront about the difficulty in finding work for his parolees. He mostly suggests the Safer Foundation, temporary agencies and the job board at the South Side Day Reporting Center in West Englewood. At the center, a small building that looks like a shuttered corner store at 1758 W. 57th St., parolees take daily drug tests, get counseling and check job listings.

When Ivy met with Hartley just outside the center earlier this year, he asked about the parolee’s job situation. Hartley said that he had been working at a hotel doing housekeeping, but that job didn’t last. He’s also gone by the Safer Foundation, the state’s largest organization focusing on the formerly incarcerated. “The woman there said she would call me when they had something,” Hartley said with a shrug.

Because help is limited, Ivy said, parolees often must look long and hard to find work and be willing to take any job, even when it is tedious and low-paying. “It takes a lot of obedience and diligence,” he added.

Cultivating jobs and resources, like drug treatment, is also difficult for parole agents who continue to be pressed for time, said Anders Lindall, spokesman for AFSCME Council 31, the union that represents various state employees, including parole and corrections officers. As of June 30, 2004, there were 32,666 adults on parole in Illinois. Hiring more parole officers would mean lighter caseloads and allow them more time with each parolee.

In 2003, Blagojevich pledged to hire 370 additional parole agents over the next four years, which would double that year’s force of 366.

Right now, however, the department has 443 parole officers. And the department’s projections show that in 2006, three years since the initiative’s announcement, there will be 471 parole officers—270 short of the goal.

While the recent addition of parole officers has helped shrink caseloads by 20 percent, each Chicago-area parole agent is still typically responsible for between 90 to 120 parolees, Lindall said. The agents are typically expected to meet with each parolee up to two times a month. “You do the math,” he said. “The expectation that they also do referrals and follow-up and keep up with the clerical demands makes the job enormous.”

While Lindall thinks the large caseloads are the biggest challenge, experts and advocates say Operation Spotlight could backfire if the mindset and protocol of parole officers don’t change.

The last time the state doubled its number of parole agents, the number of parolees readmitted to prison on technical violations skyrocketed.

Between 1998 and 2001, under then-Gov. George H. Ryan, the number of parole agents climbed from just under 200 to about 370. And, in July of 2000, Ryan and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley unveiled Operation Windy City, a crackdown on parole violations deploying 100 parole agents, riding with police officers, to gang-infested Chicago neighborhoods. Of the first 330 parolees investigated, more than half were sent back to prison for positive drug tests or gang affiliations.

From 2000 to 2001, the number of people who went back to prison for violating parole more than doubled—from 3,715 to 9,545—and grew from representing 13 percent of adult admissions to 29 percent. The number of technical violators admitted to prison has remained high, averaging 8,469 people each year from 2002 through 2004—about a quarter of all admissions during that time.

Under Operation Spotlight, parole agents are now working more closely with local law enforcement agencies, community service organizations and area businesses to catch parole violators, said Jac Charlier, parole regional supervisor for the state’s northern district, which includes Cook County.

During so-called “compliance checks,” in the early morning hours, parolees are rounded up by agents and police and brought into police stations, where they are interviewed and given drug tests.

“We want to make sure that we have the right people in prison and the right people are getting the help they need,” Charlier said.

But Charlier touted newly implemented “graduated sanctions” as a way to curtail the flow of parole violators back to prison and to ensure consistent penalties for parole violators statewide. With graduated sanctions, some who violate their parole conditions face less severe consequences than going back to prison, Charlier said. For example, if a parole violator poses no threat to public safety, they could be put on an earlier curfew or on electronic monitoring. Only repeat violators or those who commit new crimes would be locked up again.

Experts also say that better-educated parole officers would be more likely to help their charges succeed. In Illinois, corrections officers, who undergo training but only need high school diplomas, can get promoted to parole officers. Among parole agents hired so far under Operation Spotlight, three-fourths were former corrections officers.

Lindall said his union thinks this is a good hiring program for corrections officers. He points out that the promotions happen only after the corrections officers receive extensive training in how to work with parolees. In the past, the training was mostly technical, covering subjects like how to fill out paperwork and what questions to ask parolees. But, because of Operation Spotlight, current and prospective parole officers began receiving additional training in case management this winter, he said.

Yet Mario Paparozzi, a former chairman of the New Jersey parole board and a former parole agent, said he doesn’t think the parole division can be more involved in preventing recidivism unless parole agents are required to have college degrees in social work or sociology. Most states require parole agents to have college degrees, he said.

“This is very complicated work, and you have to understand human behavior,” said Paparozzi, now a criminal justice professor at the University of North Carolina-Pembroke. “You also have to believe that people can change. Too many corrections officers think, ‘Once a crook, always a crook.'”

The Operation Spotlight philosophy is not new to Robinson, a former corrections officer now working as a parole officer supervising 90 parolees.

Eight of her charges, including Atchison, are former inmates of Sheridan Correctional Center, a state prison which reopened with much fanfare in January 2004 as a pilot program where inmates get additional services.

While in prison, Sheridan inmates are required to participate in intensive group and individual substance abuse counseling sessions. They also get employment training for specific jobs and direction on how to stay away from bad influences on the outside.

Once they’re released, former Sheridan inmates work with parole agents who’ve received extra training and are expected to spend more time trying to get to know them. The state also pays service providers to work specifically with former Sheridan inmates—like an employment specialist with the Safer Foundation. Such services are not guaranteed for parolees released from other prisons.

So far, Sheridan program seems to be working. About 12 percent of 150 inmates paroled from Sheridan within the last year have been re-arrested, compared to 27 percent of a similar group of inmates released from other state prisons, according to the corrections department.

If this success continues, corrections officials said, the department would like to extend some parts of the Sheridan program to all state prisons. Corrections officials said that eventually, under Operation Spotlight, all parolees could be treated like former Sheridan inmates, with longer or more frequent visits and concrete referrals that direct them to available services.

Atchison was released from Sheridan in October. Although most of his arrests were for residential burglary, he said the underlying reason for his crimes was his cocaine addiction. After spending a couple of months at Inner Voice, a halfway house on the West Side, Atchison moved in with Davenport, his aunt, in Englewood.

But, as Robinson walked into Davenport’s house for her first meeting with Atchison in January, it was clear that—even with former Sheridan inmates—challenges exist.

Robinson sat with her feet apart at the edge of the couch in the living room with a thick folder of paperwork balanced on the coffee table in front of her. Atchison sat next to her, leaning back.

As Atchison and Robinson began to talk, Davenport sat down. She came downstairs when Robinson arrived, appearing leery of the parole officer. But, mostly, she just listened.

“Number One: Do you have your state ID?” Robinson asked in a deep, brassy, authoritative voice. “Yes,” Atchison answered.

Unlike those from other prisons, Sheridan parolees have full schedules of programs, such as intensive outpatient drug treatment, that they must attend, or face sanctions. But, when Robinson asked Atchison whether he had been going to drug treatment, Atchison stuttered and stammered. “That’s at –¦ it is going good. –¦ I start next week. –¦ I went down there, and they gave me days to go –¦ actually it starts tomorrow.”

Robinson listened to him for a bit, but eventually turned her head to look him straight in the eyes. “One thing I want to caution you –¦ one thing I am big on as an agent is that I can not help you unless I know what is going on. It is far better for you if you tell me the truth than if I discover it by myself.”

Atchison fired back, affirming his commitment to making things work this time around. “I am going to do whatever they got required,” he told Robinson. “I am not only here to hold myself accountable, but to hold every agency out here. I am not a sleeper.”

Robinson didn’t respond, but just pushed forward with her list of questions. After Atchison told her he did not have a high school diploma or GED, she gave him a referral to a program that allows people to earn their diplomas.

Atchison took the information, but didn’t commit to going.

Davenport chimed in that she didn’t want him to have too many other things to do. “He is doing a lot of things around the house. Just the other day, he was fixing the cabinets,” she said.

Robinson didn’t probe Atchison too much on his employment prospects. Atchison told her he was able to string together a living using his skills as a barber and carpenter. Robinson simply noted that getting a high school diploma would be a first step in learning how to develop those skills into full-fledged businesses, with locations and employees, and good money flowing in.

He nodded.

Almost an hour after the meeting began, Robinson got up. “I’ll see you soon,” she said pointedly.

Robinson said she wishes she could offer all of her parolees what she gives former Sheridan inmates. The extra time, and the fact that they are not only referred to programs but forced to attend them, makes a big difference, she said.

Since their first visit in January, Robinson met with Atchison once or twice a month at his aunt’s home. This attention appeared to have broken down barriers when Robinson went back there to check in with Atchison on a muggy April morning. Many of Atchison’s relatives no longer seemed leery of her. This time, Davenport greeted her with a hug, and other relatives knew her by name.

It also seemed that Atchison was making good on his promises. He had completed a drug treatment program and had been free of any contact with police.

For his accomplishments, Robinson told Atchison that she would give him a six-month verbal commendation. Still, she harped on him about not making any moves to get his GED. She also asked him if he had found employment.

Atchison didn’t really see the need for a GED at the moment because he said his skill lies in working with his hands, either as a barber or a carpenter. And, while he had heard about various jobs, he said he hadn’t followed up on them because he’s had steady work as a barber.

He has converted his aunt’s garage into a barber shop where he gets anywhere between two and 10 clients a day. He calls it “Buff and Cuts,” because customers can lift weights and watch TV while waiting for their haircuts.

As Atchison walked Robinson out to her car, he explained why he thinks this time out of prison has been so different than previous times. When he was released in the past, he said, he initially wanted to stay straight. But, within months, he would start using cocaine again and then, desperate for money, would go back to what he knew best: robbing houses. Over the years, his family lost respect for him, pushing him deeper into his addiction, he said.

But Carol Buchner, a counselor at Sheridan with whom Atchison connected, helped him deal with some of the pain in his past and “get his mind right” for the future, he said. “I knew I needed help when I went into Sheridan, but I was surprised at how much it helped me.

Atchison said his experience at Sheridan convinced relatives to give him another chance, and, at 44, it convinced him that he was simply sick and tired of wasting his life.

Now, Atchison said he’s ready and willing to take advantage of the programs Robinson directed him to. “I didn’t want to die, and people say I wasn’t about nothing.”

Contributing: Miriam Cintrón and Robert VerBruggen. Cassandra Gaddo, Liliana Ibara and Bianca Sepulveda helped research this article.

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