Parole officers: Arm of the law with a human touch

This is the second story in a five-part series looking at prison re-entry. Want more? Alaska Public Media is hosting a live community forum on Thursday, Dec. 3, at 7:00 p.m. to dig deeper into life after prison.

One of the first stops for everyone leaving prison is the Probation and Parole Office in downtown Anchorage. People are required to check in within 24 hours of release. Parole officers have two major roles: law enforcers and social workers. Both help keep the community safe.

Denice Mckenzie. Photo: Anne Hillman/KSKA.
Denice McKenzie. Photo: Anne Hillman/KSKA.

Parole officer Denice McKenzie scans parolee Tyson Davis with a detection wand then lets him through the security door. It buzzes loudly then slams back into place.

It’s time for Davis’ required monthly check in. McKenzie asks about his life.

“So you have self-employed?” she asks, referring to his current employment status on his information forms.

“I am,” Davis replies, nodding politely, hands on his thighs.

“But you’re still doing construction?”

“Yes.”

“For the same guy?”

“Yeah. I’m building a house for him.”

“Same guy through church? Are you still going to church?”

“Oh, absolutely.”

“Excellent!” McKenzie replies with enthusiasm.

“I’m doing well in that regards,” Davis says, nodding.

Davis talks about getting medical treatment and visiting his mom. Within 10 minutes their conversation is over, no red flags, no need for a urinalysis, called a UA. McKenzie cheers his successes and offers support to help him with a 12-step program. Because that’s what she does — she’s a cheerleader, a best friend, and a mom.

“I used to joke with some of the offenders on my caseload that I need to be able claim them on my income tax as dependents because they’re just like my children,” she says, laughing.

McKenzie gets very involved with her offenders’ lives. She knows their partners and their parents. She feels the emotional impact if they die.

“When they overdose, that’s the worst. Because what could I have done to get them into the office, get them a UA? It would have been better to send them to jail than to see them die.”

She sees her role as helping people lead stable lives by connecting them to resources that help them find housing and jobs. McKenzie says ultimately, stability means offenders won’t commit another crime, and it makes the community safer for everyone.

“It comes down to we are as a community only as strong as the least among us. And my job is to make the people on my caseload a stronger and a bigger part of the community because until they can rise, none of us can, really.”

McKenzie is part of a larger cultural shift within the Probation and Parole Division of the Department of Corrections. The division’s leaders are trying to focus on ways to connect offenders to community resources and help them be healthy and productive.

To that end, McKenzie uses different tools like random urine testing to help people manage and treat their substance use issues instead of just throwing them back in jail. She uses her discretion. Being a parole officer is a job with a lot a gray areas.

For Davis, who has been on parole for more than three years, McKenzie’s approach is working. He says that’s not always the case; not everyone has a great relationship with their PO.

“I think (success) has a lot to with who you get as a PO,” he says. “You get the different type of personalities. And I’m super-blessed to have mine. I’m really blessed.”

Parolee Jimmy Tuilefano has a different officer, not McKenzie, and their relationship is more mixed. He says part of the problem is he’s not always sure he understands what’s expected of him, which is frustrating.

“Sometimes I feel like I just want to give up. I’d rather be in jail sometimes. But then I get to thinking, that ain’t really where I wanna be, ya know.”

He says sometimes he thinks his PO is on his side, but not always.

“Sometimes I feel like she’s just gonna throw me to the wolves,” he says, laughing.

Tuilefano likens parole to adult babysitting. “I’m a grown-ass man, excuse my French. That’s what people feel like. But at the same time, you’re on a leash. You’re not free no more. Your life belongs to them for the next couple years.”

PO McKenzie says some people can’t handle all of the rules. Even Tuilefano’s been back to jail a couple of times. McKenzie estimates that 30 to 35 people leave the office every week in handcuffs for having violated conditions of parole or for committing new crimes. Some people simply don’t show up for appointments and have warrants out for their arrest. That’s when her role as a law enforcement officer kicks in.

“If it’s an offender that’s going sideways and committing crimes, my job is to get out there and try to find them and stop them.”

McKenzie says it’s about striking a balance to help keep the community safe and the parolees moving ahead with their lives.

“The reality is, you run across people that are on felony supervision each and every day and you may not realize it. They have jobs. If you go into a restaurant in Anchorage, there’s someone on supervision probably working in that restaurant. And they’re doing an exceptionally good job, and they’re doing what they need to do to be a member of our community.”

And to help them keep doing that, McKenzie says she has to be versatile and approach each person as an individual. She says she has 79 people on her caseload, so she has to be 79 different POs.