Life on Probation
In which my social work experiment goes terribly wrong.
by "John Allen"*
From the June, 2017 issue
"Work the steps!" the older member of Alcoholics Anonymous tells us.
Our AA meeting was getting sidetracked. "Joe,"* who's on probation for his second DUI, told the group he's worried that his probation officer is "out to get him" and wants to send him back to jail. Three other men share similar fears before the seasoned octogenarian reminds us to focus on AA's precepts--including accepting the alcoholism that landed us on probation in the first place.
One in forty-five adult Americans is on some form of court-ordered supervision. When I was released from the Washtenaw County jail this past winter after serving fifty-two days on a drunk driving conviction ("A Sobering Experience," March), I became one of them.
The AA meeting is one of the three I attend weekly as a condition of my probation. Like Joe, I've attended diligently but worry about slipping up. In jail, almost all my fellow prisoners were there, not for their original crimes, but for violating probation. Now that I'm a probationer myself, I can see how easy that is to do. Being on probation is a lot of work.
Besides the three AA meetings, my own conditions include: ninety days of daily Breathalyzer tests for alcohol, done at the county courthouse downtown; random drug testing twice a month at the county's Community Corrections department on Hogback Rd; participation in a ten-week outpatient substance abuse treatment program in Ypsilanti; monthly meetings with a probation officer; and attending a Mothers Against Drunk Driving meeting in Ypsi. I also have to pay $1,400 for probation supervision, $600 for the outpatient program, and smaller fees for other programs.
My fellow probationers tell me that this is a minor sentence. On one of my trips downtown, I meet a young man coming out of the courthouse who tells me he'll be "blowing" daily for an entire year. On another I run into a fellow DUI violator I met in jail. He's living
in a Dawn Farm transitional house, has a part-time job, and attends nine weekly AA meetings. He is extremely motivated to get his life back together for his two children in Detroit, but after eighty-six days of continuous blowing, he missed going to community corrections for a random drug test. He says he missed the test because his phone didn't work, but because he did he must start over--he'll be taking breath tests for another ninety days.
Since our offense was drunk driving, I don't understand why we have to prove we're not using illegal drugs. But a lot of things about probation don't make much sense to me. Unbelievably, the daily ritual of proving that we haven't had a drink in the past twenty-four hours is tracked on paper. The date, time, and result of each "blow" are handwritten on forms that we must fax to our probation officers. Lose just one, and you're facing a possible violation.
So I can see why my jail friend "Eddie" wanted to celebrate when he completed five years on probation at the end of March. I just wish he hadn't done it in my stolen car.
I might have known. In jail, Eddie had boasted that he'd made both the Channel 4 and Channel 7 Detroit TV newscasts for leading Ypsi police on a high-speed chase in a stolen car. But he was just fifteen then, and, though he'd had many probation violations since, none sounded dangerous. When we met, he was serving a one-month sentence for smoking a cigarette (he's too young to smoke legally) and missing his curfew.
When we were in jail together, a corrections officer pointed Eddie out to me and described him as his "future job security." Because I liked Eddie, and couldn't imagine how the small, cherubic teenager would survive in an adult prison, I wanted to prove that statement wrong.
After he got out, Eddie told me he was eager to leave his past behind. He wanted to move to Ann Arbor, where "nobody knows my history. At least the cops here don't frisk me constantly when I'm walking down the street," he said matter-of-factly.
I gave him $50 to pay his final probation fee, helped him write a resume, and worked with him to get a job and apartment. But then, in early April, he showed up at my door at midnight, showing all the signs of being drunk or high.
He told me he was celebrating getting off probation and would soon "get it together." I provided him with bedding on the sofa in the living room. Ten minutes later, he and my car were gone.
Instead of helping him start a new life, I called the police.
Picturing Eddie driving drunk to Ypsilanti, my first concern was for his safety and the safety of everyone else on the road. But he must have made it without incident, because at 7:30 a.m., the officer who'd taken my report phoned to say my car had been found abandoned in Ypsi.
The next morning, accompanied by America's "Ventura Highway" on my MP3 player, I arrived at the Blake Transit Center via the number 6 bus at 6:42 a.m. for my eighty-seventh daily trek to blow at the courthouse. I was about to begin my five-minute walk when I saw a familiar figure sleeping in the depot lobby. I sat on a bench next to this no-longer-so angelic cherub and tapped his leg.
Eddie slowly opened his bloodshot eyes and looked wearily into my expressionless face. "Oh shit," he murmured softly, then began to sob uncontrollably while repeating "I'm sorry."
As I helped him to his feet, he told me that he'd been arrested and released from jail the night before on a personal recognizance bond. He'd taken a bus to Ann Arbor, slept a few hours in a parking structure stairwell, and moved to the transit center lobby when it opened at 6 a.m.
After blowing, I paid his bus fare and brought him back to my house and made him breakfast. I was hoping that he would tell me where I could recover the credit cards that, he now told me, he also stole. He claimed they were "safe" with another friend somewhere in Ypsilanti.
Before I could check any of this out, we both had to report to community corrections on Hogback. I had to urinate for a drug test. Eddie had to meet with a probation officer about his latest offenses.
I paid his fare for the bus. On the way, he told me that after his friend stole my car from him, he (Eddie) stole another car (with a Jimmy John's sign on top) to go to Milan to visit a woman that he'd just met online, because she was going to give him the $20 his friend was demanding to return my car. He said he'd planned to get the car back, bring it to my house, and then walk away, but his latest arrest "got in the way."
I already knew that the "friend" didn't have my car: the AAPD officer had told me it was impounded at Budget Towing in Ypsi. To retrieve it, I'd need to provide title and pay a $390 fee for their services. Of course, I didn't have the keys--Eddie said his friend had those--and I'd need someone to drive it, since I lost my license after the DUI. (I don't know yet when I might get it back but when I do, it will cost me $1,000.)
When I took the bus to Ypsi to look at the car, I couldn't see any damage. Eddie had told me that he put gas in the tank. I'd thanked him, though I knew he paid for it with one of my stolen credit cards.
Later that day, Eddie informed me via Facebook Messenger that he was "negotiating" with his friend to get my keys. But later that night, the police officer called to inform me that Eddie was back in the Washtenaw County jail: he'd carjacked two other cars with an air gun. I assumed Eddie wouldn't be leaving jail anytime soon after stealing four cars in two days.
It's time for my monthly meeting with my probation officer. Beforehand, I need to fill out a form that asks if I've had any interactions with the police.
Even before the Eddie episode, I'd been worrying about that. Two weeks ago, I violated probation myself.
My roommate, "Tiger," had driven us to the Arbor Fit Club to work out. As we left the club, he'd told me he felt "light-headed and ill" and asked if I could drive the two miles back to our home. I agreed--but as we left the Oak Valley Center, a Pittsfield Township police officer pulled me over. I got a citation for driving on a suspended license and have been consumed ever since by the fear of being sent back to jail, losing my job again and possibly my home.
On the form, I list my encounters with the police: the stolen car report; the xADfollow-up phone call; my citation for driving without a license; and yet another stop by the Pittsfield Township police.
Tiger and I had retrieved my car from Budget Towing, only to find (according to Tiger, who was driving) that the steering wheel turned stiffly. Eddie had probably smashed it into a curb. We'd planned to take it to my mechanic, but first I asked him to stop at the club--I wanted a sauna to relieve my growing stress.
I'm either extremely unlucky, or the Pittsfield police are extremely good. We were pulled over for a missing license plate--it must have been stolen at some point during the Eddie episode.
The carjackings had refreshed Eddie's fame, and the officer listened incredulously as I explained our role in the crime spree. He told us to replace the plate and get the damage looked at, and let us go.
I'm hoping my probation officer will be equally sympathetic. As I wait for my overdue appointment, watching a seemingly endless parade of young men (and a few young women) quickly approach the counter to blow before the 9 a.m. deadline, I imagine the judge in his courtroom upstairs, waiting to have me hauled away in chains.
By the time my probation officer is ready to see me, twenty-five minutes after my scheduled appointment, I'm almost in tears. But he takes pity on me and doesn't even ask for the details of the citation. He tells me to focus on my sobriety and schedules another appointment for next month. The only hurdle left is to attend traffic court next week, pay my fine, and according to my lawyer, that should be the end of it.
My mechanic tells me the car is totaled, so I won't be tempted to drive again. My job is within walking distance of my house, and I'm enjoying getting around on foot in the pleasant spring temperatures. For longer trips, I've been memorizing the bus schedules.
My probation is due to run through April 18, 2018, but almost all of my requirements are now complete. I won't forget the MADD meeting, where a woman described the tragic death of her brother at the hands of a drunk driver, and the never-ending sorrow she and her family feel at their loss.
The final payment on my probation fee is due on June 1. After that, I can petition the court to shorten my term. Meanwhile, I'm continuing with my weekly group alcohol counseling in Ypsilanti, monthly meeting with my probation officer, and those three mandatory weekly AA meetings. Despite their worries that their probation officers were out to get them, "Joe" and the others are still with us, continuing to fulfill their probation requirements. Life goes on.
Riding the bus around town and listening to my MP3 player, I always think of Eddie when "Ventura Highway" comes on. I hope he's in K block. If you look through the windows of the basketball court there, at least you can see the trees.
* All names have been changed.
[Originally published in June, 2017.]
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