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TDCJ parole officers like freedom of job, chance to help offenders succeed

Rosann Burke and Gary Lewis standing in the entryway of Lewis' home.
Georgetown Parole Officer Rosann Burke checks in with client Gary Lewis at his home in Round Rock.

Photo by Jene Robbins

Mark Shepherd and Rosann Burke work miles apart but have something very much in common. Neither of these long-time TDCJ district parole officers originally envisioned a career in criminal justice; but both say they have found the field personally gratifying and professionally fulfilling.

“It probably made me who I am,” said Burke, a district parole officer in Georgetown who had studied for a career in government while in college.

Shepherd, meanwhile, had genuinely wanted to be a geologist. But by the time he was close to graduating from Oklahoma State University with a degree in the field, a lackluster job market doused his dream. So he and his family moved to Amarillo, where he instead earned a degree in political science from what was then West Texas State University. Through acquaintances, he arranged for an internship with TDCJ’s Parole Division while in school, and then started work as a parole officer soon after graduation. It was a job he says he thought would be short-term. That was 14 years ago.

“I did the internship and then I really gained an interest,” said Shepherd who supervises nearly 40 sex offenders full-time. “I enjoy the freedom of the job. Probably more than anything, it’s a challenge of your time-management skills, and I’ve always enjoyed that. I feel that to be efficient in this field, you’ve got to have good time-management skills. So that was real plus for me.”

Burke says she, too, became a state parole officer almost by accident. She was finishing up her degree in government at the University of Texas at Austin in 1990 and not really knowing what she was going to do professionally when she got a motivational message from her mother.

“My mother said, ‘I’m not paying for you to live anymore, so you go get a job,’” Burke remembers with a chuckle.

With just one more class needed to complete her studies, Burke took a job with TDCJ’s Parole Division in Austin as a clerk. A year later, she had transferred to Galveston, where she began an unlikely career that has now spanned 16 years.

“I’ve worked with some people in this field who say that this is all they ever wanted to do,” said Burke who moved to the Parole Division’s office in Georgetown two years ago after working the previous 10 years in Austin. “I honestly cannot say that it ever occurred to me to think about people in prison while I was growing up, not ever. I never thought of becoming a police officer or anything like that. It’s funny that I’m here, kind of accidental.”

Approximately 1,400 men and women work as TDCJ district parole officers and case managers. Together, they supervise more than 77,000 offenders released from prison on parole or mandatory supervision.

Burke said she was somewhat sheltered while growing up in Corpus Christi and that her career has exposed her to a side of life she hadn’t seen before.

“This is the side of the world that people do not want to know about or see,” she said. “So it’s having to learn all about other people. It tends to humble you a bit.”
When Mario Puente set out on his career in criminal justice 18 years ago, there wasn’t a parole office in McAllen. So he started in Harlingen and moved back to Hidalgo County when an office opened there two years later.
Today, Puente supervises approximately 45 offenders, 30 of which are mentally impaired.
“I like being out in the field and working with people,” said Puente who earned a degree in corrections from UT/Pan American in Edinburg. “I’m a people person.”

Region I Director Jay Patzke worked a year as a correctional officer at the Clemens Unit near Brazoria before joining the Parole Division. Patzke said that with 70 offices statewide, the Parole Division is able to offer people employment in the communities in which they live and wish to remain.

“We advertise and hire for a specific location,” Patzke said. “So if we want somebody for Paris, Texas, we interview for Paris, Texas. We don’t see a lot of movement between offices, either.”

“As far as criminal justice, I’ve always thought, and it was presented to me when I first came out of college, that within the field, being a parole officer comes with a little esteem,” said Rodney Adams, an assistant regional director to Patzke in Tyler. “It’s always been presented that it is a good quality job.”

And it comes with the freedom to choose.

“The way it was presented to me was that this is the closest you’ll come to having your own business without having the headaches,” Adams added. “That’s because you set your own schedule. There are basic things that you have to accomplish by the end of the month, but basically, you’re in control. You have a lot of freedom to do what you need to do.”

Patzke said that, like Burke, parole officers are often grown from the ground up.

“This year, we hired three of our own clerks who went to school to get their degrees to become parole officers,” he said. “And that’s something we encourage, we encourage that development.”

Edna Douglas started as a clerk at the Region I office in 1997 and has worked as a parole officer the past six years in Tyler.

“I enjoy my job because it’s a challenge,” she said. “I like to try to help if they will allow it.”

Her fellow officer, Larry Rosemond, worked as a correctional officer at the Coffield and Michael units near Palestine for four years before moving to the Parole Division 20 years ago.

“I wanted to help people,” he said. “I saw people inside that needed help, and I figured I could become a parole officer. Some people come out with no place to go, no family, no nothing. This gives us a chance to try to help, to try to reintegrate these people and get them back into society in a positive way.”

The TDCJ parole officers interviewed all said that the opportunity to help people was the overriding reason for them getting into the business of supervising offenders.

“The reward, I think, is seeing people who have maybe been in our system a long time (actually) make it,” Shepherd said.

“I knew I wanted to do something to help people,” Burke said. “And I still to this day find that to be the best part of this job. I save every card I get from a client that says ‘thank you.’ Just to see people succeed is gratifying. But at the same time, I hate to see them fail. That’s the tough part of the job.”

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illustration of neighborhood with street lamp in foregroundCollege degree required

Desire for safer community key ingredient in making of parole officers

Every case manager and district parole officer working for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Parole Division is a college graduate. But not one graduated from the “University of Parole.” That’s because there is no such institution of higher learning. Instead, most of the 1,400 men and women who supervise offenders upon their conditional release from prison seem to have gravitated to the profession from other walks of life.

“People come to this profession from many different paths,” said Parole Division Director Bryan Collier. “Few are career-tracked to be a parole officer. You’ve never heard of a University of Parole or a degree in parole supervision. If you studied engineering in college, you likely will be an engineer after graduation. Many other examples exist which do not apply to parole. Some people need a job, some want to help people, some to make their community a better place.”

Whatever their reason, people have chosen to take on the role of supervising offenders who are on parole or mandatory supervision. Recruiting teams consisting of a human resources representative, a parole officer, and a parole supervisor routinely attend career fairs around the state at no cost to the division.

“We perform a number of usual strategies, such as college job fairs and internships,” Collier said. “But the real challenge is retaining officers. After completing our parole officer training academy, our graduates face two distinct challenges. The first is learning the job. The second, and likely more significant, is answering the question of, ‘Is this what I want to do with my life? Remember, most, if any, only had one or two courses in college that exposed them to what community/parole supervision entails.”

The Parole Division’s 149 case managers and 1,269 district parole officers differ only in their entry-level experience. Landing a job as a case manager requires at least a bachelor’s degree, preferably with major course work in criminal justice, counseling, social work, psychology, sociology, or a related field. An applicant can start as a district parole officer with a college degree and one year of full-time, wage-earning case management or case processing experience in the criminal justice or social services fields. Before entering the field, case managers and parole officers receive 248 hours of pre-service training.

Collier said that besides the college degree required by the state’s Code of Criminal Procedure, several other ingredients go into the making of professional parole officers in Texas.

“A desire to make their state and community a safer place makes for a good parole officer,” Collier said. “A belief in the mission of the department and the division is important, as is common sense, good judgment, discipline, organization, and respect for others.”

Collier started his TDCJ career as a switchboard clerk in the main administration building in Huntsville. After finishing college, he worked first as a correctional officer, then as a parole officer.

“When I first became a parole officer, my intent was to work for a few months to save some money before beginning law school,” he said. “However, I found the work of a parole officer to be so interesting I forgot about going to law school. For me, I found the work to be very rewarding, never boring, and always interesting. And I really enjoyed working with offenders and all of the other entities you come into contact with as a parole officer. If you like dealing with all types of people, you will enjoy being a parole officer.”

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