Violating Conditions of Supervised Release

By · Saturday, July 4th, 2009

Rick, a white collar offender from Las Vegas, was serving a one year term in Taft Prison Camp for violating conditions of supervised release. I listened as Rick told me his story while we sat on a bench near the camp’s tennis courts. The adjustment choices Rick made following his initial release from prison perplexed me. It sounded to me as if he had followed guidance from one of the many pessimists who walked prison yards. The sad consequence of Rick’s choices required he and his family to struggle with a new prison term that could have been avoided with better planning.

With hopes of helping other prisoners enjoy more successful adjustments following release from prison, I’d like to share what I learned from Rick, an obviously bright man who had significant earning potential.

Rick was the epitome of a self-made entrepreneur. Despite his not having a gold-plated academic pedigree or family wealth, he built a seven-figure net worth by raising capital for various business ventures, marketing, and offering consulting services. When he was in his early 40s, however, a violation of securities laws resulted in Rick’s being investigated for mail fraud. Wanting to clear his name and put the matter behind him, Rick said that he cooperated fully. After pleading guilty to a single count of mail fraud, he reported to a federal prison camp to serve his 33 month sentence.

A combination of good time credit, halfway house, and time off for completion of the Bureau of Prisons’ Residential Drug Awareness Program (RDAP), meant that Rick could complete requirements for the prison portion of his sentence in 16 months; he would follow release from prison with six months in a halfway house. Such opportunities inspired hope. Rick could see the end, or the possibility for a new beginning, and he adjusted accordingly.

While serving his initial sentence in the prison camp, Rick worked full time as an orderly for the Receiving and Discharge department. He exercised religiously, organized activities, tutored other prisoners, and complied with all prison expectations. He focused on making the best use of his time so he could return to society, complete the requirements on his three-year term of supervised release, and resurrect his career as a prosperous entrepreneur.

After 16 months passed, Rick walked out of federal prison camp a quasi free man. He reported to his assigned halfway house and listened as the administrator laid down expectations. While in the halfway house Rick remained beholden to the BOP rules. The terms of his early release required Rick to sit through classes on drug aftercare, with which he complied even though he thought them an unnecessary nuisance in his particular case.

With the strict conditions of the halfway house, Rick made the personal decision to give authorities the impression that he would accept a nondescript adjustment with his return to society. He didn’t want any attention devoted to him and thought the best way to complete his term in the halfway house, along with his three years of supervised release, would require him to live as low-key as possible.

Other men with whom Rick served time in prison and in the halfway house influenced his adjustment decision. From them, Rick heard that federal probation officers resented felons who came out of prison to lives of affluence and opportunity. The people who would supervise Rick’s release, he came to believe, would not want him to engage in business transactions, provide investment advice, consult, or participate in other ventures that he felt qualified to pursue. Rather than pushing matters, Rick said that he decided to comply with employment expectations he believed probation officers thought were appropriate for people who were released from prison.

Rick accepted a job that would pay him $10 per hour with a marketing company that an acquaintance operated, and he structured his life in a manner that would reflect that he was living within his means. Rather than requiring his wife and family to sacrifice their affluent lifestyle, Rick set up separate housing for himself in an apartment that would be consistent with his $10 per hour earnings. Although the probation officer could micromanage Rick’s life, he did not want his troubles with the criminal justice system spilling over to his family. Until he completed his three years of supervised release, Rick wanted to be invisible, or forgettable, as far as concerned his probation officer.

Once Rick completed the halfway house portion of his sentence, he moved his personal belongings into the apartment he rented. He kept the utilities in his name, and he slept in the apartment each night. Early each morning Rick would visit his wife in the home where she lived with their youngest son. After the visit, Rick would report to work at the marketing company, though his responsibilities suggested he was worth far more than the nominal wage.

Although Rick did not have an equity interest in any business venture, and he did not personally receive any type of compensation besides his $10-per-hour wage, Rick was directly responsible for tens of millions of dollars in annual revenues. His elder son, who was 22, set up a marketing company that received millions of dollars in annual revenues. Rick could file technically legitimate monthly reports with his probation officer that suggested he was a $400-per-week employee, but even a cursory investigation would suggest that Rick was, in reality, a chief executive officer.

The federal probation officer tolerated Rick’s adjustment for the first half of his term on supervised release. He had kept current with his monthly reports, and no one could find fault with his financial statements. Rick managed his expenses to the penny, promptly making a $500 monthly restitution payment. When the probation officer asked Rick why he did not pursue a career opportunity more commensurate with his skills and earning capacity, Rick said that he did not want to accept such responsibilities until he had completed the terms of his supervised release.

Recognizing the irregularity, Rick’s probation officer ordered Rick to comply with tighter restrictions. His attempt to lead a nondescript life had failed. Rather than mailing in monthly reports, as Rick had done during the first 18 months of his supervised release, the probation officer made changes. With her suspicion aroused, she began requiring him to submit detailed reports that would account for his hourly whereabouts for the week ahead; Rick had to send that schedule by fax each Monday morning, and he was required to report in person to the probation officer regularly.

With Rick’s hourly schedule, the probation officer could observe Rick much more closely. The probation officer and a colleague would show up unannounced at the marketing company where Rick was supposedly earning $10 per hour. Rather than seeing a man who swept floors and made copies, the probation officers found Rick leading seminars, directing sales teams, coaching executives, and instructing his son how to increase revenues. Despite his charm and smooth preparation skills, Rick had lost all trust and credibility with the probation officer who was supervising his release.

The federal probation officers did not charge Rick with violating the conditions of his supervised release at once. Instead, they monitored him more closely. Thinking that he was in compliance with the technical conditions, Rick continued to submit his monthly reports, his weekly schedule, and he was careful to show deference and respect during his required visits to the probation office. Although he visited with his wife and younger son daily in their home, Rick returned to the low-budget apartment he maintained to sleep each night. He was committed to making it through the final months of his supervised release.

The probation office wasn’t having it. Rick had completed 34 of the 36 months he was required to serve on supervised release and he thought he was about to be discharged as a free citizen. Not so. Instead, the probation officer ordered Rick to come in for an unscheduled visit. The U.S. Marshals were waiting for him and took him into custody. The probation officer charged Rick with violating several conditions of his supervised release, including his filing of misleading reports, untruthful financial statements, and inappropriate business relationships.

As an offender on supervised release, Rick was not entitled to the higher standard of proof that applied to defendants in a criminal case. Instead of a unanimous verdict that would require jurors or a judge to find that Rick had violated the law beyond a reasonable doubt, the judge only had to conclude that a preponderance of the evidence suggested that Rick was in violation of his supervised release requirements.

While Rick believed he was advancing toward discharge and complete freedom, the probation officer was building a compelling case against him. The judge convicted Rick and sentenced him to serve a flat year in prison. Following his release from prison, Rick would begin a new two-year term of supervised release.

As a long-term prisoner I have had the questionable privilege of interviewing and writing about hundreds of federal prisoners. I have known many who left confinement to complete their terms on supervised release without disruption, and I have known many more who, sadly, because of their misguided efforts to hoodwink the probation office, returned to complete new terms of supervised release.

My experience convinces me that the best way to complete a term of supervised release successfully is to live with complete transparency. I am not a believer that probation officers have an inherent bias against offenders who transition from prison to successful careers. I am in contact with many people who concluded their prison terms and, upon release, launched ventures that brought them millions of dollars in earnings. Their strategy required absolute honesty, offering the probation officer complete access to all schedules and financial records without reservation or hesitation.

Succeeding on supervised release, I felt convinced, required the same five-point strategy that I have written about elsewhere. Those who know my work understand that I based that strategy on what I learned from Dr. Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. Individuals had to lead proactive adjustments. They had to begin with the end in mind. They had to then put first things first. Those who succeeded upon release from prison, just as those who succeeded in any other life venture sought first to understand, and then to be understood. They always thought from a win-win perspective.

Recently I’ve become familiar with the work of Suzy Welch, who is married to Jack Welch, the famous former chairman of General Electric. She has spoken about a concept by which I have lived throughout my 22 years of imprisonment. Suzy Welch articulates the concept as ten-ten-ten thinking. When individuals think about how the decisions they make will influence their lives in 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years, they tend to make better decisions.

Rick was scheduled to serve several more months with me at Taft Camp and expected release in the fall of 2009. Upon his return home, he intended to adjust much more transparently, with full disclosure and completely open communications with his probation officer. He was 50-years-old and starting over, determined to extinguish his problems for good. I could see the anguish this second separation from family caused. The sad truth, he knew, was that he should have finished with the criminal justice system long ago.

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