Scott Shafer, host of “The California Report” on radio station KQED, recently spent two days shadowing Parole Agent Martin Figueroa of the San Francisco 1 Parole Unit and produced “A Day in the Life of a Parole Agent.”
Below is a transcript of the show. It is available for listening by clicking here.
Shafer recently learned he had won an award for the story, but was quick to note that the award was as much Figueroa’s as his.
The link to the KQED audio file is
A Day in the Life of a Parole Agent
When parolees leave prison, most are assigned to a parole agent — a state officer who keeps track of what they’re up to, and tries to keep them from committing new crimes. Host Scott Shafer spent a couple days with one of the people on the front lines.
Scott Shafer: At any given time, more than a hundred thousand parolees walk the streets of California. When they leave prison, most are assigned to a parole agent — a state officer who keeps track of what they’re up, and tries to keep them from committing new crimes.
Earlier this month, as part of an ongoing look at how California’s parole system is changing, I spent a couple days with one of the people on the front lines.
Martin Figueroa: My name is Martin Figueroa. I’m a parole agent in San Francisco. And we’re going to start doing some home visits.
Shafer: Martin Figueroa is wearing blue jeans, a plaid shirt, white sneakers and a black zip-up hoodie — it helps him blend in he says. But underneath his jacket: handcuffs, pepper spray, and, just in case — a 9-millimeter Smith and Wesson pistol. With extra bullets.
If there’s one sound that exemplifies Agent Figueroa’s job, it’s this. We’re standing outside one of San Francisco’s most notorious public housing projects. At eight in the morning, it’s eerily quiet.
He’s looking for one of his parolees — Ricky Foster. It’s the third time Figueroa has tried to contact him in four or five days.
No one answers the door, and Figueroa turns to leave, when a young man opens an upstairs window and pops his head out.
Figueroa: How you doin’? Yeah I’m his parole officer.
Orlando: We had a family reunion. So he went to Vallejo with my sister. I was trying to give him that note about calling you.
Figueroa: Remember I called you told you on Thursday for him to be around here?
Shafer: The parolee’s brother explains why Foster isn’t there …
Orlando: Then I was trying to give him that note about calling you, so…
Shafer: But Figueroa is losing patience.
Orlando: Well, he should be back today.
Figueroa: Well, tell him he needs to be at the office tomorrow … he needs to come see me tomorrow. OK? Can you do that? I appreciate that Orlando. Have a good day.
Shafer: Figueroa jots down the details of this brief exchange on one of the small index cards stuffed into his jacket pockets. If he can’t find Foster soon, he’ll take out a warrant for his arrest — a kind of “time out” to make sure a parolee doesn’t disappear.
Figueroa has 40 or so parolees to keep up with. As we walk down the street, he describes this game of cat and mouse.
Figueroa: I feel like I’m chasing ghosts. Because I’m just going from one hotel to another or street corner to another or one homeless shelter to another looking for them. Sometimes it’s a big chess game — I have to find out where they’re gonna be next, you have to use community resources to hunt ’em down.
Shafer: Most of Figueroa’s parolees are Second Strikers — serious, violent, repeat criminals.
We visit one of them — his first name is Charles. Charles had his first run in with the law in 1984.
Charles: Me and a lady had got into it. And she called me out my name and I went at her neck and her chain, when I went at her neck and she snatched back, her chain broke and it was on my hand. So, they called that some kind of robbery. I don’t know what it is. But, they call that a robbery.
Shafer: His most recent crime: second-degree robbery and assault with great bodily injury. Charles has been out of prison almost a year. He tells Figueroa that’s the longest he’s ever been out.
Figueroa: What made the difference? You’re doing so well now.
Charles: Well, I’d guess I might as well say say all the love and support I’m getting from a lot of people. And you keeping me on the right track — making sure I don’t do nothing wrong.
Shafer: Charles is a very intense man, and his tone soon changes. Sitting on the couch of his sister’s house, you can sense the anger he feels, and he describes the financial pressure he’s under, and he complains bitterly that he can’t get a job without a California I.D.
Charles: Now, it’s a lot of people that I done met this year right here already that I have met that said, ‘man, soon as you get your California ID, give us a call. But, it’s so easy for me to go back to the penitentiary, but it’s hard as hell for me to get my California ID because I don’t even know where I was born at. But now if I go outside the police stop me and pull me over and I don’t have no ID on me, I can easily catch a violation for coming in contact with a police officer. And I don’t have no ID.
Shafer: It’s frustrating.
Charles: Yeah, it’s frustrating. That’s back to the penitentiary.
Shafer: Back in the car, I ask Figueroa about his work. He says the way it used to be, most parole officers came from inside the Department of Corrections. They were former prison guards.
Figueroa: When you have somebody who comes from the institution. When you come out you have a certain way of interacting with parolees — as you would in the institution.
Shafer: Meaning they carry a bit of that guard-prisoner mentality to the streets. Not Figueroa. He came in nearly 10 years ago as an outsider. He has a Masters degree in counseling and psychology. Figueroa says he tries to treat his clients the way he treats anyone else … perhaps because they remind him of the kids he knew growing up in East Oakland.
Figueroa: I knew that a lot of my friends were good people. They just made poor decisions. I look at my parolees the same way. At that time they made bad decisions. It doesn’t mean they’re going to make bad decisions in the future.
Shafer: That belief is put to the test every day. Many of Figueroa’s clients have serious mental health problems — including Ezekiel Hoyt. We meet up with him at a drug treatment program.
Hoyt: I kinda fell off the wagon a little bit a relapsed on marijuana and alcohol. And stopped taking my medication.
Shafer: Hoyt describes his struggle with schizophrenia.
Hoyt: So I have a few personalities and they come into contact, collision with each other. So I have to keep that in check.
Shafer: With a shaved head, stylish glasses, and sharp clothes, you could easily mistake Hoyt for an artist or an architect. But he went to prison for using a pipe to threaten two people he was living with — including an elderly woman.
Hoyt meets privately with Figueroa in another room, and then we head outside to the car.
Figueroa: I’m going to get Ezekiel his meds because he’s had a hard time getting up there and I just want to make sure he gets some.
Shafer: As we drive to a Safeway pharmacy nearby, Figueroa describes the game plan.
Figueroa: I have to like try and get him back on track again and refocus him on what he needs to do to stabilize him.
Shafer: Figueroa walks Hoyt up to the pharmacy window. He even helps with the co-pay.
Figueroa sees his job as keeping the community safe by helping his parolees get stable — and stay out of trouble.
Figueroa: The main thing is you’re taking your medication. That’s what we need you to do.
Shafer: As he drives this very troubled parolee back to the drug treatment program, Figueroa has one last piece of wisdom to Hoyt.
Figueroa: Life’s a struggle man. It’s a struggle for me. It’s a struggle for Scott. Life is tough.
Shafer: With Hoyt out of the car, I ask Figueroa where the line is between his social work and law enforcement.
Shafer: I mean how many times, how many warnings. What’s the tipping point for you finally?
Figueroa: Every case is different. If there’s threats of violence involved, somebody may get hurt. That for me is a huge red flag.
Shafer: Three days later, Ezekiel Hoyt crosses that line. He threatens staff at the drug treatment program, gets arrested and is sent to San Quentin Prison.
He’s now awaiting a hearing to see how long he stays in prison before getting released — again — on parole … and back under the watch of Agent Martin Figueroa.