It’s no secret the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way people work and interact with each other. It’s also clear these restrictions were particularly evident in fields that work directly with people in the community every day. For the 23 Montana Department of Corrections’ Probation and Parole offices across the state, COVID-19 posed a significant, but not insurmountable, barrier to overcome to support the offenders they supervise.
"We deal with people, and in a pandemic environment, that becomes even more difficult," said Probation and Parole Administrator Kevin Olson. "I highly commend all the probation and parole officers for not only thinking outside the box, but for being dedicated to still accomplishing their core mission through innovative solutions.”
The population of offenders under the supervision of the department in Montana communities hovers around 10,500. These individuals are placed on various levels of supervision ranging from standard supervision for low-risk offenders to intensive supervision for those who are higher risk.
Before the pandemic, most of an offender’s interactions with their probation and parole officer took place in an office as did much of the officers’ work. That changed dramatically with the arrival of COVID-19 and the introduction of new technology.
“The officers were very positive about the changes,” Olson said. “The one thing that always kept them restricted to the office was the fact that they didn’t have smartphones or laptops. By acquiring those two new items, they weren’t tethered to the office.”
One of the most significant changes for officers was how they would check in with their offenders.
When the state was placed on a stay-at-home order, officers had to get creative to stay connected with offenders under their supervision. With their new laptops and cell phones, many officers connected with their offenders through video chat, text messages and over the phone. Some officers also figured out socially distanced methods to check in with their offenders.
“We called one of those methods curbside supervision. Officers would drive to the offender's house and make contact with them by maintaining social distancing while wearing personal protective equipment,” Olson said. “There is a great example of this being done in Sidney where the officer is sitting on the front porch right outside the screen door and communicating with the offender inside to check up on them.”
Helena Probation and Parole Officer Trevor Newman said COVID-19 brought many changes to his office including plexiglass barriers on officers’ desks and more. While some of those modifications are a bit awkward, Newman said he enjoys the curbside visits as officers are able to gain additional insight and perspective on the offenders they supervise.
“If somebody comes into our office, we see them on our terms,” Newman said. “When we go out to them, we see them in their house and see what their living situation is. It gives us an understanding of their neighborhood and who they live with.”