Nancy Bowman, 45, has been a parole officer for 13 years. Originally from Salisbury, North Carolina, she relocated to the Springfield area after graduating from Southern Illinois University. Last week she spoke with writer Traci Moyer about her career choice. She sat in a high-backed chair, which dwarfed her petite five-foot-two-inch frame. Her soft Southern drawl was peppered by laughter, and her demeanor reminds one of a kindergarten teacher.
"I get that reaction a lot, and usually I think it works to my advantage. People do not feel intimidated by me. I was a substitute teacher for one year--that was all I needed. It would drive me nuts. I taught K through 12, and that pretty much helped me to decide I'm not doing that.
"When I first started this job I thought it would be more law enforcement, but you turn out to be a counselor. Not just to the individual, but their wives, parents, children, about how to deal with this ex-offender.
"Right now I cover Sangamon County, Menard County, and Mason County, with a case load of roughly 150 individuals, and they range in age from 14 to 81. I have 85 that I have to see every month, the same people, but we may get 15 new releases in a month. We tend to gain more than we lose.
"I work 7 to 3:30, and that day starts and ends in my driveway, Sunday through Thursday. We do have an office, but we primarily work out of our cars. We have radios, sirens, cell phones, and a laptop. We are firearms-trained and are equipped with arrest authority over people on parole. We probably have more antennas on our cars than some police vehicles do. They gave us everything in this car we could possibly need--except a bathroom.
"You never know what you are going to do from day to day. You know you have X number of people to see in 30 days. You may call, but you may have people that don't have a telephone. You just do whatever you have to do to get 'em seen. They don't just come to us, that's an ideal situation. But there are a lot of duties other than just seeing individuals.
"Before someone is released, we do placements on them. That is where we go to the home or some prospective host site and talk to parents or family or friends they are going to be living with. We explain what we require from them and what their obligations are to us and to the parolee. We do placements on juveniles, a sex offender, or someone who has done maybe a class X conviction like an armed robbery or some drug cases. We do placements on boot camp graduates, and we deal with treatment facilities and mental health. Every day can be entirely different. You may not see anyone, so you have to be very flexible.
"The first placement I did was in a $300,000 home. That was not typical. Right there you had someone that had everything they could possibly need growing up in life and got involved in cocaine and threw it all away. Of course, you see more poverty than wealth, but you see it all.
"Usually when I meet someone, what I tell them is, 'I am not here to send you back to prison. If there is anything that I can help you with to help you stay out, let me know. If I don't know what is going on with you, there is nothing I can do to help you.' A lot of times they are like, 'I'm glad to hear that,' because they think parole is here to trip them up and send them back, and we're not.
"You get good at reading people. You can always make a mistake, for sure, but the individuals that are hard to figure out--or with a mental illness on medication--are highly likely to have a complete behavioral change. And I've seen that. Those individuals you have to be very cautious with. If someone is very upset, you have to know how to diffuse the situation--by remaining calm and professional and respectful, even if they have done wrong. You just don't go up to their level of being upset.
"I don't think there is anything that I hate about the job, or I wouldn't have been doing it this long. There isn't a big turn over. I think you have the ability to offer help to individuals that want it. It's rewarding when you do see people that make a positive change in their lives. On the other hand, it's rewarding if you can help law enforcement with arrests and keeping the community safe.
"I remember a few times--like the guy that had been sentenced to prison because he had shaken a baby and the baby ended up dying--I would ask myself, how am I going to deal with this person who has killed a child? Days would go by and he would be paroled and he would come in and sit there and you would think, well, this is just a human being that made a terrible mistake. If someone doesn't help him, that is only going to put another individual--whether it is his wife or someone different--at risk again. I'm not here to beat him up--he has been sentenced, he has been convicted, and he has done his time. Yes, it's wrong. Yes, it's sad. There are a lot of other people hurting because of the crime he committed. But if I can do something in his life to make a positive difference, that is what it is all about, and you can say that with any criminal. Does it help to continually kick them to the curb? No.
"It was sad this last Christmas. I had a couple of individuals that I had to see Christmas Eve day, and they had small children at home, and they were sitting there crying because they know they had made a mistake. But there are so many other people that suffer from their shortcomings."