TIGHTER REINS Tough parole program keeps tabs on offenders

Lee Yoder doesn’t live in a cell anymore, but he’s hardly a free man.

The convicted child molester can only leave his tiny studio apartment for work, church, therapy sessions or visits to his father. Whenever he drives, he has to take the same route, avoiding schoolyards and parks. And at least twice a week during those commutes, he sees the black Camaro in his rear-view mirror.

“He’s become really paranoid – which is good,” parole officer Andre O’Bryan said as he trailed Mr. Yoder’s car one day last week. “I want him to think that I’m always there, that I’m always watching.”

Parole officers have kept Mr. Yoder under tight surveillance since fall 1997, when he was released from prison. Had he come up for parole a few months earlier, Mr. Yoder would have been just another parolee, one of about 75 handled by an administrative officer.

Instead, the 46-year-old was one of the first people in Texas to be placed in the Super-Intensive Supervision Program, a no-tolerance version of parole engineered for the state’s most dangerous criminals.

About 1,650 convicts, including more than 200 in Dallas County, are in the program today.

Among them are people such as Pedro Martinez, 72, who has expressed no remorse for his crime, telling Mr. O’Bryan that he molested a young girl “because I felt like it.”

Under the two-year-old SISP, each parolee is overseen by two parole officers: one based in an office and one, like Mr. O’Bryan, who works in the field. The parolees all wear electronic monitoring devices on their ankles that alert a command center in Austin whenever they step out of the house. Every aspect of their lives, from when they can go to work to when they can take out the trash, is governed by a rigid schedule that, if broken, could send them back to prison.

Presiding over their tightly monitored lives are parole officers such as Mr. O’Bryan, who have lighter caseloads than typical officers – no more than 20 parolees each – giving them the time to better understand their subjects.

“I try to learn everything about them, figure out what their game is,” Mr. O’Bryan said. “Lee Yoder likes to find single mothers so he can get to their children. Once I figured that out, I could make sure he never moves toward that again. It’s about getting into their minds.”

Costs of program

Since November 1997, 2,640 convicts have been released into SISP, which costs taxpayers $ 17.03 a day per convict, compared with $ 2.16 a day for normal parole and $ 39.51 a day for incarceration.

Nearly all of the participants have been freed under the mandatory release law, which has since been repealed but still applies to a large portion of the current prison population. And, as in prison, an overwhelming majority of SISP parolees – 97 percent – are male.

In addition, the attitudes of SISP parolees tend to differ from those of prisoners or even people in normal parole, officials say.

Officer O’Bryan said that most of the men under his watch have said they’re sorry for what they did.

And although it’s not necessarily a sign of rehabilitation, all go to therapy – they’re required to – and most attend 12-step programs.

Mr. Yoder, who was convicted of molesting two children, has gone beyond that, attending a Methodist church on Sundays and working there during his personal time on Mondays. He said in an interview at his home that through the spiritual guidance of church, combined with drug- and sexual-addiction therapy, he’s come to understand why he molested children and how to control the appetite.

His parole officer, though, isn’t convinced.

“I think he’s just waiting his time,” Mr. O’Bryan said. “He’s going to do everything he’s supposed to do, and then when he gets off, he’ll be back to his old game.”

Whether or not SISP actually rehabilitates parolees, Patsy Day, whose 14-year-old daughter was kidnapped and murdered in 1985, said SISP is the best program implemented to deal with sexual offenders. The alternatives – releasing criminals after their full sentence without supervision or freeing them early on normal parole – are much worse, she said.

“I think the program is wonderful,” said Ms. Day, who serves as executive director of the Dallas-based Victims Outreach and is a member of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice. “If you could see the sexual assault victims who walk into this office, you would have no doubt that the cost of the program is well worth it. If the program prevents just one person from devastating a child’s life, it’s worth it.”

Night watch

On a Monday night in March, Mr. O’Bryan’s Camaro crept by a house in Grand Prairie. Joseph Ruisinger, an SISP parolee, sat on the porch talking with the owner of the house.

On that night, Mr. Ruisinger, a convicted rapist who had been active in prison gangs, was allowed to visit his friend for three hours as long as he didn’t step out of the yard until 8:45 p.m., when he had to go straight home.

At 6:30 p.m., when Mr. O’Bryan drove by, everything checked out. Just to make sure Mr. Ruisinger didn’t take off, though, Mr. O’Bryan swung back by the house at 7:35 p.m. Sure enough, Mr. Ruisinger was gone. Someone at the house said the parolee had taken off just minutes before.

As soon as he could get to a fax machine, Mr. O’Bryan sent a form to the warrant division of the Department of Criminal Justice. Five minutes later, a notice went out to all police departments in Dallas County: felon Joseph Ruisinger, considered armed and dangerous, was on the run.

Mr. Ruisinger actually wasn’t trying to flee; he had just taken a joy ride before heading home for the 9 p.m. deadline. He didn’t expect Dallas County constable officers to be waiting at his door. He didn’t expect to be taken to jail.

But, as SISP parolees quickly learn, rules are rules, and excuses are pointless. Last year, 333 SISP participants went back to prison for technical violations alone – getting home late for work or violating some other term of their paroles. An additional 65 were convicted or charged with a crime.

Mr. Ruisinger didn’t go back to prison. After he spent two weeks in the Dallas County Jail, a hearing officer decided to give him one more chance.

Now, though, there’s no margin for error, and, Mr. O’Bryan said, personal time won’t be an option.

If SISP seems overly strict, state officials say, it’s because that’s what these convicts need. The regular parole program would give them too much freedom, they say, too many opportunities to return to their old ways.

“When you’re out on normal parole, you can probably get away with a few things without your parole officer finding out – missing work, writing bad checks, flunking a urine test,” said Gary Castlebury, a spokesman for the Department of Criminal Justice. “On SISP, that’s not going to happen.”

SISP creates the structured environment of prison in the free world, allowing prisoners to enjoy certain benefits of living and working on the outside – buying groceries, for instance – while keeping them from many of the negative influences that could draw them back to crime.

Some of the parolees say the lifestyle is suffocating.

“I’m still a prisoner,” Mr. Ruisinger said. “I’m a prisoner in my own home. What’s the incentive?”

Others, though, say that despite all the inconveniences and stress caused by SISP, it has been just what they needed after getting out of prisons.

“I lived in such a structured environment for so long, that coming out was a complete change – the clothes, the food, everything,” said Danny Oglesby, a drug addict and robber who has been in SISP for nine months.

“This program has really helped me. I have two people [Mr. O'Bryan and the second parole officer] who help me through the day. I can talk to them about my problems.”

The program may be restrictive – “Saturdays will come along, beautiful days, and all I want to do is go outside.” But, he says, “My time will come.”