Fall River is a small city filled with both big city promise and problems.
Last fall, the city elected the youngest mayor in its history, 24-year old Jasiel Correia. There are bright spots on Fall River's economic horizon: an Amazon fulfillment center is set to open this month, and a new shopping center is being built on the site of the former New Harbour Mall. With a population of just over 90,000, unemployment in many parts of the city hovers around 8 percent – double the state average. Fall River is also one of the state’s hot spots for opioid abuse. The city is dotted with rehabilitation providers, but strives to tackle the crisis in a more comprehensive way.
In this challenging environment Fall River’s Probation Department supervises its growing case load while helping to maintain public safety.
Probation’s long-term goals for those under its supervision are public safety, rehabilitation, and positive changes in behavior.
Being out in the field is the most dangerous part of a probation officer's job. The Court Bulletin recently went with Probation Officer Michael Borden and Regional Supervisor Pamerson Ifill on a series of home visits to some of Fall River’s high risk probationers. Some are level 3 sex offenders with long-term probation sentences. Others are on probation for domestic violence, assault and battery, larceny, and/or drug charges.
Officer Borden, a 20-year veteran of the Massachusetts Probation Service and a Fall River resident for 29 years, believes in the effectiveness of both unannounced and scheduled, or expected, home visits. The best way to understand how probationers are really doing day in-day out is to visit them at home, in their own environment, he says.
A different dynamic. Probation officers typically aim to complete 15-18 home visits in a day. “We try to give probationers direction and structure in their lives, and also hope. Otherwise they stop caring about anything and keep getting into trouble. We want to lead them out of the system and into healthy, productive lives,” says Officer Borden.
Unlike probationers’ scheduled courthouse visits, home visits present a “different dynamic.” Before leaving the courthouse, Officer Borden reaches out to the Fall River Police Department and State Police patrolling the city that day for back up and possible assistance.
“You can never get too comfortable when doing home visits,” says Officer Borden as we head to see the first client on his list. Years of experience have honed his powers of observation and gut instincts. “You have to always be alert. You can’t let your guard down. When you enter a home, the danger of not knowing what's behind the door is always there.”
Probation officers typically go on home visits with a partner. The main functions of home visits are to make sure the probationer is safe; and to verify the probationer's residential address. Home visits also help ensure that probationers are meeting their conditions as outlined by the court. Home visits also shift the dynamic between probationer and probation officer. “Probationers are more comfortable in their own home, so if an issue comes up, they’re often more open about discussing it,” says Officer Borden. But he also points out that human behavior is unpredictable, and exceptions often become the rule.
When probation officers sense a potentially dangerous situation out in the field, they will cut the visit short and have the probationer come into the courthouse for a follow-up visit in a more controlled environment.
First stop: Quequeshan Street. We head to our first visit on Quequeshan Street, located in a neighborhood known for its gang activity. The street is deserted. "Archie" has been on probation for four years and typically checks in or is visited by Probation three times a week. He’s been out of jail for over a year but has frequently been homeless, often living in a tent in a nearby park.
Things have recently taken a turn for the better: Archie now rents a room for $500 a month in a small, clean apartment he shares with two other roommates. He goes to sex offender counseling and, thanks to Officer Borden’s efforts, has found steady work in a nearby warehouse for a large retailer.
“Sex offenders are often our most compliant probationers,” Officer Borden says as we walk up the back steps to the apartment. “They tend to follow the rules very well. They'll do whatever it takes to stay out of jail--which also makes me feel skeptical about what they're up to. Because of the nature of their crimes, they're also our most dangerous probationers."
Inside the apartment, Officer Borden carefully checks the row of pills lined up on the kitchen table and talks with Archie about the potential for substance abuse.
“Pills and drugs are not my thing. Alcohol is,” says Archie. He is on probation for sexually assaulting a young girl after an episode of heavy drinking. He has a child, but does not have custody. He is not allowed to have unsupervised contact with girls under 16.
Archie is upfront and engaging, so Officer Borden determines that there is no need to stay longer than a few minutes.
Next up: Pleasant Street. Our second visit is to Pleasant Street to see "Daniel." Other than the busy Portuguese bakery nearby, the street is mostly lined with empty storefronts. The smell of baking bread fills the air as we walk up a flight of stairs to the apartment.
Officer Borden warns that there is a pit bull inside, so he orders Daniel to put the barking dog in a safe room before he opens the front door. The apartment is filled with piles of clutter and tattered furniture. A row of long-forgotten plants sit dying in the front window. Daniel is on probation for harassment and a violation of harassment orders. His mother comes out to greet Officer Borden and pulls him aside to talk about how her son is doing. Her body language signals that she is comfortable speaking freely with the probation officer.
“I think she’s tired of taking care of him,” says Officer Borden once we are outside. He describes Daniel as a procrastinator who is slow to do the things he needs to do to make positive changes in his life. “She calls me and talks with me all the time about how she’s trying to make sure he does the right thing, but it’s hard for her,” he says as we get back in the car.
Next stop: Prospect Street. We head to Prospect Street to check on "Karl." He’s been on probation for three years for domestic violence charges against his girlfriend and their two children, who have since moved to Florida. Karl has asked the court permission to move to be with them, but has been denied contact based on the severity of his charges.
We drive past a neighborhood of stately Victorian homes.
“Watch now,” says Officer Borden. “You turn the corner here and everything changes.” We turn and go downhill, to a run-down section of triple-deckers.
“This whole place is camera-ed up, so he’ll see us before we see him," says Officer Borden, who points up from the alleyway to the first floor windows, at a series of exterior surveillance cameras. "I’ve been trying to work with him to clean up his apartment but it’s been slow going.” A neighbor walking a dog glares at us as we walk up the driveway between two multiple family homes. The man has been feuding with Karl for months and is the reason behind the cameras, Officer Borden explains.
Karl is waiting for us on the back porch, smoking a cigarette. We shake hands and go inside. Karl talks about running out of money at the end of the month and having to ration food from the neighborhood soup kitchen. Officer Borden suggests additional food pantries nearby that he can try. He praises Karl for the small piles of neatly folded clothes on the shelves in his bedroom, for staying away from his feuding neighbor, and for enrolling in computer classes at Bristol Community College.
Last stop: Corky Row. The next stop is Third Street. We are now in Corky Row, a section of 19th-century tenements built for Irish immigrant factory workers. Located behind the Fall River Justice Center, the neighborhood is considered to be the most dangerous section of the city. It is a low-rent area where many sex offenders can find housing. We are here to check in on "Freddie," whose criminal record is several pages long. He is a level-3 sex offender on 24-hour lock-down. “We need to make sure he is where he's supposed to be,” says Officer Borden. “He’s been known to target kids at the park.”
“What's going on?” Borden asks sternly as a disheveled Freddie opens the door after repeated knocking.
“I didn't hear you,” says Freddie. He backs up and lets us inside. The apartment is clean and sparsely furnished. A second man emerges from the kitchen. Officer Borden recognizes him – it's a probationer he's previously supervised – another sex offender with a long criminal record. Officer Borden asks the man what he’s doing there. “Nothing, just visiting,” the man says. “Nothing wrong with that, is there?”
Officer Borden checks that Freddie's GPS bracelet is on and working properly. He also inspects the apartment’s three small rooms to make sure there are no children under 16 inside per court order, and speaks to both men for a several more minutes. Freddie agrees repeatedly to obey the judge’s orders not to leave the house, and, after Officer Borden warns the men that he will be back soon and to stay away from children, we head out.
Our last visit is to another probationer on Corky Row, "James," a level-3 sex offender, who lives with his girlfriend. The woman lost custody of her child to the Department of Children and Families because James repeatedly molested and raped her daughter. Officer Borden remains polite and nonjudgmental as he inspects the home for signs of children living there or other suspicious activity.
“I’m in a lot of pain these days,” James says as he shuffles over to us. He grimaces and touches the left side of his neck. Officer Border inspects the row of prescription pain medicines on the coffee table and talks to the couple for a few minutes.
“I know you had surgery on your neck last month, didn’t you,” says Officer Borden. He makes an appointment for the probationer to come to the courthouse for his next appointment the following week.
On our way back to the courthouse, Officer Borden remarks that it was a productive home visit day. The probationers were safe and where they were supposed to be. There was no need for police back-up. Officer Borden heads inside the Fall River Justice Center to update the probationers' records in MassCourts and plan for the following week.