“We were stressed and unappreciated … left blinded.”
Over the past three months, seven staff members from the Massachusetts Parole Board have come to this reporter with harsh critiques of the agency. They are quoted throughout this article.
The Commonwealth has a seven-member Parole Board that decides who is or is not fit to earn parole—an opportunity for prisoners to complete their sentences in the community, under supervision. In addition to the board, there is an entire agency which supports the work of releasing prisoners. This agency is charged with assisting those in prisons and houses of correction who seek parole, and it employs parole officers (POs) inside institutions who help prisoners apply, as well as POs outside of institutions who supervise those released on parole, plus a number of others who support or oversee such operations.
The official description of parole officers’ duties includes but is not limited to: providing guidance for those who seek parole; making recommendations relating to parole eligibility; arranging for mental health, medical, and other services; developing treatment plans; analyzing risks; facilitating re-entry; supervising activities; and liasoning with law enforcement personnel. Some POs supervise others, and depending on their rank, all are expected to have several years of education and training.
Both current and former parole agency employees interviewed for this article said that since Gloriann Moroney became Parole Board chair on May 1, 2019—Moroney leads both the board members and the agency employees—the agency has become a more “repressive environment,” rife with “retaliation” and “nepotism.” They allege that the agency is “unsupportive” and “dismissive of concerns,” while parole officers inside the institution “do not receive adequate training,” and too many policies are not published, but only communicated verbally, on a “whim.”
As one person interviewed for this article put it, “They breathe hate here.”
The seven sources emphasized that they were once “proud” to work for parole, but now say that “the tone of the agency has changed.” Because they’re speaking out and fear repercussions, they have asked that their names and positions be withheld.
One woman worried that her supervisor would call everyone into her office and demand to know who spoke to the press. She added, “We can’t hang around with people or call people, reach out to other institutions, or have face-to-face conversations. There is no such thing as networking or socializing. Camaraderie is not allowed.”
Another said, “The best way I can describe working for parole is an abusive relationship. Today it could be okay and tomorrow, you could get in trouble.”
We asked Gloriann Moroney to respond to claims that morale at the parole agency has plummeted, but the chair did not respond to a media inquiry via Timothy McGuirk, deputy director of communications at the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security (EOPSS). Because the only way the press can speak to board members or high-level staff is to go through EOPSS, we were unable to get comments from parole administrators for this article.
Low morale trickles down
Business researchers have noted that companies which want clients to be satisfied need to begin by recognizing the concerns of employees. Whistle-blowers emphasize that the low morale throughout the parole agency stems from their concerns too often going unconsidered. One said that such treatment ends up impacting the people who they are hired to assist: prisoners who are on parole or who seek release.
“Because so many people are leaving, we are short staffed and it slows things down,” one source said. “We prepare cases. If you have 25 cases, three people can do it, but if only one person is preparing all 25 cases, a prisoner may have to be seen later—and go up for parole later.”
A recurring complaint was regarding Moroney’s “lack of communication about COVID protocols.” Data has shown that one out of every three people in Mass jails and prisons was infected with COVID-19, compared to one in 10 throughout the state. According to a public records request, there were five executive orders issued to parole staff between March 2020 and March 2021. Four were about the scheduling of hearings, while only one was about safety issues during COVID. It instructed officers how to safely do risk assessments—in person, through a glass window “if available”; if not, then by video or telephone.
Not having protocols was problematic, stated another source for this article. “I couldn’t get guidance on how to handle things if a staff person working with me got infected, or if a prisoner or a parolee got infected,” they said. “I couldn’t get PPE … If someone was quarantined in our families, we could never get direction. The agency never issued anything in writing to parole officers.”
“Field officers,” said another person, “were not told what to do if they had to bring somebody back into custody. Did they have to clean their car? No answers.”
“Home visits for those on parole can be held up,” said another interviewee, who added, “There has been confusion about program eligibility for COVID positive prisoners leaving the institutions. We were really trying to get people out, but we got no emails of encouragement from the executive director or the chair.”
Another said, “We were stressed and unappreciated … left blinded.”
Gloriann Moroney became chair of the Parole Board on May 1, 2019. According to the Open Salaries website where government employees’ salaries are posted, at the end of 2019, there were approximately 251 people employed at the parole agency. From the time Moroney took the reins to the end of 2021, there was a 20% drop in the number of workers, with only 203 people on payroll at the end of that period.
Contrast that three-year decline at parole with the state’s Executive Office of the Trial Court, which houses the Massachusetts Probation Service. While the Trial Court is a much larger agency, it showed a smaller 10% drop in employees between 2019 and 2021.
It is impossible to say exactly why people left and are leaving, but anecdotally, the seven people interviewed for this article are convinced it is by and large an issue of morale. Notably, there were not significant budget cuts for the parole agency in fiscal years 2019 through 2021. In fiscal year 2022, which ends this July, the parole agency is expected to have a $2 million increase in spending with $1.3 million going to wages and salaries.
It’s also worth noting that many agencies have been strained during the pandemic, and COVID put significant pressure on parole officers working with prisoners or people on parole. Rules were by necessity changed as in-person meetings moved to remote. And officers had to adjust in other ways too.
As the Marshall Project reported, check-ins for those on parole were suspended nationwide for a period of time in 2020. They clarified how less supervision, particularly if it is punitive, could be considered a positive, but for some on parole, fewer in-person check-ins fostered a loss of connection as parole officers were “no longer in people’s living rooms, observing family dynamics, or visiting workplaces.”
The changes and adjustments raised new questions for those on parole, and even added perspective in some cases.
Dion Young, who I interviewed in 2020, criticized the haphazard approach by the Mass parole agency. Young, who has now been on parole in Mass for more than 14 years, asked rhetorically, “What is the validity of these urinalysis tests and other requirements if they aren’t required during the pandemic?”
Civil service issues
To be a parole officer inside an institution or in the field, similar to other state and municipal employees in Massachusetts, one has to take a civil service exam. To be promoted, for example, from a transitional parole officer working inside (TPO) to a supervisor, one takes another exam. The exam reading lists are posted online, and the names of those who pass the test and become eligible for hiring are also posted.
One of the people I interviewed said that, for parole advancement, the “civil service process is part of the problem now.” She said exam requirements have been eased from when she first came into the job. At one time, “You had to have a certain amount of years and education” to take a promotional civil service exam. Now, she said, “If you are working as a field officer, you can take two exams at the same time—they made it easier.” In her view, the agency has allowed some inadequately-prepared candidates to be hired. She said it has also cut some jobs that would have allowed more advancement in the agency.
After Gov. Charlie Baker nominated Collette Santa to the Parole Board in October 2017, Santa appointed Michelle Wetherbee to her job as the chief of transitional services. At the time, Wetherbee was serving as Santa’s deputy chief, a job she was appointed to after being an entry-level parole officer called a “transitional parole officer” (TPO). Wetherbee now supervises all the institutional parole officers (IPOs) working in approximately 34 state prisons and houses of correction throughout Mass. The IPOs supervise parole officers (TPOs) who work under them.
According to the people I interviewed, this sort of promotion was formerly unheard of. One person said, “In the past, people were supervisors before they became managers; she is the only one who didn’t get promoted up the ranks before getting that promotion.”
Per a public records request to the Massachusetts Civil Service Commission, Wetherbee failed two different civil-service exams prior to becoming chief—one to work in the field in 2013, and another to become an IPO in 2014. Wetherbee also failed another IPO test in 2020. According to state records, she protested her test results, and the appeal was denied, with the commission writing, “The Appellant was unable to show that she followed the instructions to complete the E[ducation]&E[xperience] component of the examination.”
Civil Service Commission Chair Christopher Bowman asked Wetherbee at a 2020 hearing, “How is it that someone goes from being a TPO to chief?” Wetherbee responded, “The chairman of the board took an interest in me and my skills and asked me to apply for the position.” The board chair at that time was Paul Treseler, now associate justice of the Boston Municipal Court.
Everyone I spoke to faulted Moroney for not knowing that her current chief of transitional services is “lacking in information and doesn’t know enough to be a manager.” Wetherbee assigns people to work in facilities far from their homes, alleged another, “if she doesn’t like you.” That person added that board members come to the institutions to do parole hearings, most often arranged by parole officers, but “are prohibited from talking to [the board],” which “makes our jobs with those who seek parole very difficult.”
Power and punishment
In 2020, Parole Board members traveled to state prisons and houses of correction to do 3,625 parole hearings. They go in twos and threes, and the parole officers in the institutions prep prisoners for those hearings.
The people I spoke with criticized Moroney for not getting to know her employees by traveling to all the state prisons and houses of correction. “She doesn’t go to a lot of institutions,” said one interviewee. “She mostly goes to Walpole—where parole violators are.” Another criticized her for not taking part in more hearings throughout the state, saying, “It is a disservice to those seeking parole not to be seen by a diversity of the board.”
Moroney also has not insisted her parole officers get outside training in areas that some say would be helpful to them. “How can you tell me a request to attend a domestic violence (DV) training will get denied?” said an interviewee who works inside with prisoners and has never had DV or sex-offender training. Another person said, “We had a training a couple weeks ago. We listened to a TED talk on a guy singing a song and the point was to listen to the lyrics—it was effective listening skills training. There was no explanation, only a ‘what did everyone get out of it?’ Worthless, in my opinion.”
A 2022 report by researchers at Northeastern University School of Law in partnership with the Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee (MHLAC) titled Parole, Power and Punishment noted that Massachusetts parole officers “lack the training and skills to successfully support people with disabilities seeking parole.” According to the US Department of Justice, disabilities range from cognitive issues to ambulatory or vision problems, neither uncommon for those who have histories of trauma. “Nearly 2 in 5 [3%] of state and federal prisoners had at least one disability in 2016.”
Parole staff also said that under Moroney, “There’s a mean girls’ mentality. She doesn’t want us to have power.” Prior practice would have been freely sharing flyers via email of retirements and other agency news but now one source commented, “Even an obituary has to go to my supervisor for approval before I can send it out.”
Moroney’s term on the board is up in June, although she could be reappointed as chair by the governor. However, as I reported last year, it is rumored that Moroney has applied for a judgeship.
“If Gloriann is not fair and impartial to her employees,” one interviewee said, “how is she fair and impartial to [prisoners] and how can she become a judge?”
Faith Bugenhagen and Dan Atkinson contributed to this article.
This article is syndicated by the MassWire news service of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. If you want to see more reporting like this, make a contribution at givetobinj.org.
Jean Trounstine is a writer, activist, and professor whose latest book is Boy With a Knife: A Story of Murder, Remorse, and a Prisoner’s Fight for Justice. She is on the steering committee of the Coalition for Effective Public Safety.