Part two – Under Supervision: Freedom or Failure
DELAWARE – Michael Bartley is a Delaware man who, at one point, was facing over two decades of probation. That means two decades of supervision; of weekly, and sometimes daily, meetings. Michael made it through, but he says he knows plenty of men and women stuck in the system – the system that he says is designed to keep you in a cycle.
“I was on probation stemming from an armed robbery, and I served a 16-year-sentence on, 16 years and eight months to be exact,” Michael explained. “It was rather frustrating, to say the least, especially knowing the numbers in Delaware with the recidivism rate and how frequently they were sending guys back to prison for the most minor infractions.”
Michael says after serving his time behind bars, he knew his sentence wasn’t over, and that he wasn’t trying to cheat the system. Immediately, Michael says he got several jobs, built his support group with family and friends, and started doing community service. But he says the obstacles were hard to overcome. One of those obstacles was spending hours every week in meetings at the probation office.
“It was frustrating having to wait in the waiting room for hours at a time sometimes, and I was working, I had work, so I didn’t have no transportation, didn’t have no driver’s license at the time when I first came home,” Michael said.
And Michael isn’t alone in his struggles. Shannon Shapter was sentenced to prison after four DUI convictions and was placed on probation upon her release. Similar to Michael, she says she knew her probation was part of her sentence, but that immediately her obligations started piling up.
“I was still made to see my probation officer once a week, my task worker once a week, go to IOP three times a week,” Shannon explained. “On top of that, urines, every place I went I basically had to give a urine.”
Michael and Shannon say what made their time harder was the threat of being sent back to prison for minor technical violations.
“Anything I did, a technical violation, like missing a curfew, or going out of state to visit family, anything like that would possibly have put me back in prison,” Michael said.
But Tara Taylor with the Department of Corrections says that’s not entirely true. She says the department uses what’s referred to as graduated sanctions, meaning alternatives to just bringing a probationer back to court.
“That could be anything from verbal warnings, to work crews, to a referral to substance abuse treatment or a substance abuse evaluation,” Taylor said.
Both Michael and Shannon say the worst part is that rather than building them up, the system made them feel like they were constantly failing.
“This probation officer made me feel like I was doing something wrong when I wasn’t doing something wrong,” Shannon said.
“They think we’re all up to no good, trying to out-do the system or be slick and all that but I was just trying to tell him that I was ready for society and give me a fair chance to get on with my life,” Michael added.
But Taylor says each and every one of her probation officers works every single day to help these probationers succeed and leave the system behind.
“You can walk in and out of the district offices, up and down the hallways any given day and you see officers sitting down, communicating, building relationships, helping,” Taylor said.
Michael says that’s not true to the experience that he, and some other probationers, always have. He says he’d like to see the system redesigned to lift probationers up rather than tear them down.
“That’s an environment where you shouldn’t feel like that, you should feel like you’re in an environment where there’s a lot of help going on, that’s really their job, to help you transition, stay on track,” Michael said.