Probation is a waiting game. You are trying to make sure you stay out of trouble while community corrections is all but preparing for your re-entry into the system. Nearly 80% of convicted felons re-offend. You’ve got a couple of things to look out for when you’re on probation. When you’re starting out you see your probation officer at least once a week. Once I proved that I respected the process and thus wasn’t going to do anything stupid that got pushed back to twice a month and a year after that I saw my probation officer maybe once a month.
He always seemed stunned that I hadn’t gotten myself into trouble. There was a litany of questions that were standard for everyone on probation and he would ask them sequentially and with the same lack of enthusiasm.
“Have you had any police contact?” “Any illegal drug use?” “Taking your meds as prescribed?”
Those were the terms of my probation. No police contact, absolute sobriety, take medication as prescribed. Pretty basic stuff. Now, you’d think that these sessions with my probation officer would take about five minutes considering my no nonsense approach to going back to jail. They weren’t though. I’d arrive at the small space that looked like it could just as easily be a pickup point for UPS or some other major shipping company and the only distinguishing factor about their space was that it was littered with smokers. Well, that and the bulletproof glass.
The inside of the building – at least in the waiting area – was consumed with every possible sign that the state of Wisconsin could muster reminding the visitors to this outstanding venue of the consequences of breaking the law. You’d think that these signs would serve a better purpose almost anywhere else. Every one who was at this facility had already broken the law and many were planning on doing so again. Obviously the system didn’t work, but they certainly seemed dedicated to the idea that if there was an opportunity to remind us of the consequences they were going to take it.
The first thing that you do when you walk in is sign in with the secretary-ish lady behind the bulletproof glass. She may or may not tell someone that you’re there. My odds always seemed to be 50-50. Then I’d grab a form that had to be filled out on each visit. It was a written version of the questions my probation officer would ask, but on this form they liked to expand on certain topics like property.
“Police contact?” “Drug use?” “Have you made any large purchases?” “Bought or sold any land or cars?”
It was a pretty easy form to fill out once you got the hang of it, so I spent most of my time in the waiting room making the most elaborate signature I could think up on the bottom of the form. It was usually at least a twenty minute wait. I noticed on my first visit that I was the only person in the lobby (if you can call it that) who brought a book with them. This is something that continued for all but one of my visits. Once when I was there a woman was sitting along the bench, which looked like it had been recently removed from a church, who was reading some Dan Brown nonsense. I tried not to judge her based on the quality of the book, but on the fact that she had a book. Surely she herself wasn’t on probation and as it turned out she was waiting for someone.
After I had been waiting for a good amount of time either my probation officer would come out and get me or some loud obnoxious guy would yell for me to come over and talk to him by the secretary’s window. This only happened when someone misbehaved and my probation officer had to leave to deal with the situation. I’d say I only met with my probation officer about half the time. When he’d come get me I’d have to pass through a metal detector which I always worried would go off for some unbeknownst reason to me. I just wanted to get in, get out, and get on with my day.
When we got back to his office it was always dark. I don’t think he ever had the lights on. He’d invite me to have a seat, but there was always forms or folders piled up on the chairs, so I’d have to navigate through that stuff and after finding a spot in his office that wasn’t overcrowded I’d be able to sit down. He’d login to whatever old school computer program they were using to store information about the one group of people you would probably want to have the most information on and then proceed to ask me his three questions. I would answer ‘no’ to all the questions and he would then proceed to type that information into the computer. This was a painstaking process because he was a terrible typer. You know that guy who types one key at a time? Yeah, that was him.
While my probation officer tried to apply his skills to the apparently complex device known as a Qwerty keyboard the most awkward part of our encounter would ensue. He’d sit there and try to make small talk. Keep in mind that this was a man who I had absolutely nothing in common with. He was at least six feet tall and well over two hundred pounds. He was built like he was training for the iron man competition and I was this nerd who was trying not to forget the new Malcolm Gladwell book which I was reading for the second time. By the time we were done I was so bored that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to stay awake long enough to drive myself home. He’d walk me to the exit and tell me some variation on the same phrase time and time again:
“Keep your head low.” I got very good at that over the course of three years which I thought would be beneficial to me over the long haul. I couldn’t have been more wrong about that.