Knock, Knock, Knocking on a Felon's Door
October 2, 2015
MASON COUNTY – It's early in the morning when Kathy Jonas walks up to a small, battered Airstream trailer surrounded by trash and makeshift storage sheds covered with tarps.
She needs to wake up Ernie, a felon living inside the aging trailer, which is parked in a remote, wooded area. He's under Department of Corrections' supervision. This is an unannounced visit to see if he's breaking any laws.
Jonas doesn't know what will happen after she raps on his door, but the Community Corrections officer undertakes the task wearing a smile instead of a gun, reasoning side arms just make people nervous.
Knock, knock, knock. "Anybody home?" Jonas calls out. "It's DOC."
A middle-aged man with sleep-tousled hair opens the door, holding back a large dog by its collar. At the sight of Jonas, the felon breaks into a broad smile. "Good morning!" he says.
Jonas, a motherly 61-year-old former school teacher, gets this reaction a lot – smiles instead of scowls. She works hard to keep it that way by showing inmates she cares, asking them about their jobs, their families and their health, as well as providing counseling and encouragement.
For Jonas, this approach is second nature. But the Department of Corrections, DOC, is undertaking a whole-scale "re-engineering" of the community corrections division to get all of its officers to be equal parts counselor and cop. The division has more than 650 officers who supervise roughly 17,000 inmates.
DOC is holding training sessions statewide where Jonas and other officers can role play friendly ways to engage felons, and discuss methods to get them on the right path.
Community corrections officers have long had two competing approaches when it comes to handling felons under supervision. Many officers emphasize the law enforcement side of the job, while others view their role more as social work, says Tracy Grunenfelder, a veteran DOC manager overseeing the new training.
"We've kept going back and forth," Grunenfelder says. "Now the evidence is saying both models need to work together. One is not more important than the other."
Teachers make good CCOs
Jonas, who works out of a field office in Shelton, has around 40 felons on her caseload. She doesn't hesitate to put them in jail when needed, but tries hard to change their lives instead.
Her background as a school teacher helps, she says, given that the felons she works with often were involved with drugs from a young age and never seemed to fully mature. "Let me tell you from experience, there's no difference between the mind of a 13-year-old boy and a 30-year-old inmate," she says.
Jonas keeps tabs on her wards by phone, through mandatory visits to her office and by going out to their homes unannounced.
Her visit to Ernie, the drug inmate living in an old trailer, is a surprise visit to see if he's breaking any of the conditions of his supervision, such as using drugs or drinking alcohol. This is the routine with all field visits.
Under Washington's "Swift and Certain" law, DOC takes quick action when felons violate conditions. The first minor offense results in a "stipulated agreement," essentially a warning that outlines the violation and what will happen it there's another one.
Future violations land the inmate in jail for one to three days. After five of them, they can go to jail up to 30 days. The idea is for inmates to learn there will be quick consequences for bad behavior.
Jonas, who's wearing a baggy DOC vest that hangs like a cardigan, asks Ernie to step out of his cramped trailer while she pokes around inside with a flashlight.
"Anybody staying in the trailer with you?"
"Just a dog and a cat," he says with a laugh. "It's great for sleeping."
"Are you cooking in here too?"
"I do everything in there," he says. "There's a shower back there and a toilet."
Although another DOC co-worker hovers in the background as backup for Jonas, it's clear she knows the felon well and is comfortable. She asks about whether he's finding work, how he's feeling, if he's been able to get his driver's license and if he's seen his son lately.
Jonas steps out of the trailer after a few minutes. Ernie is clean. They chit-chat some more, tell each other to have a good day and then Jonas and her partner climb into their car to see other inmates.
Avoiding 'sneaky stuff'
On the road again, she stops to chat with one of her charges – an inmate who served time for drug offenses – she sees walking down a street. He's headed to work and says he hopes to attend college soon. That earns him a thumbs up from Jonas.
She finds another felon at his mother's home, just waking up. His mom's boyfriend, also an inmate on Jonas' caseload, had just left the house for work.
At this stop, an inspection finds a single beer in the fridge, but the inmate says it's his mother's. Considering he's been doing well and has never tested positive for drugs, Jonas makes a mental note of the fact instead of citing him for a violation. She tells him there cannot be alcohol in the house the next time she visits.
While Jonas looks for evidence of drugs and alcohol use at each visit – which can lead to handcuffs and jail – she also tries to keep up their self-esteem with words of encouragement and verbal pats on the back. She tells them to keep the big picture in mind.
"I think it's definitely important for me to say, 'Look at how far you've come and look at where you're going,' " she says. "For a lot of them, I'm the only person who can validate that because there are other people around them who are saying 'Man, you're sucking up to the system.' "
Dawn Cooper, 42, doesn't mind waking up to find Jonas at her door, even though the knocking causes her dog to start barking and sets off a chain reaction of barking dogs in the neighborhood.
Jonas, she says, cares about her. "She's understanding, she's helpful and she just tries to work with me," she says. "I want my CCO to know me and not be just another name on a list."
Cooper recalls Jonas comforting her when her boyfriend and her father both died the same year, and giving her information about counseling services. DOC needs more officers like Jonas, she says.
"You don't want to be afraid to talk to your CCO. That's the person who runs your life. When you're afraid, that's when people start doing sneaky stuff," Cooper says. "We need to be able to open up. That's easier to do when you can talk."
Jonas, who still substitute teaches in Shelton, says that while she loves teaching, she doesn't regret switching careers.
"I have two 'kids,' ages 19 and 20, on my caseload who are both high school drop-outs, who I've gotten enrolled at Choice, which is Shelton's alternative high school," Jonas says.
"Truly, the only way they're going to get out, and stay out of DOC, is through education, which leads to better self-esteem, better jobs and better friends. It's nice having a foot in both worlds."