Author Eric Van Zant, relishing his freedom. (Courtesy Eric Van Zant)

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I spent 11,400 days in prison. Since I’ve been out, I’ve held jobs, reintegrated myself into my community, volunteered at local schools and organizations, supervised employees in the workplace, and mentored other individuals returning home or young people at risk of falling astray. 

Having served four years on parole, I can say that supervision did not help my return to community after incarceration. Instead, the system was a barrier to my success and stability.  

As I try to restart a new life and contribute meaningfully to my community, there are times that my parole status — not my actions, but the way the system works — puts my freedom and progress at risk.  

An example: Last month, after a weekend away with my partner, I returned home to a business card tucked in my front door from a parole officer — not even my own. The card said that I had to report by 9 a.m. the next day, Monday, or I would be considered in violation.

It was Sunday night, I couldn’t get in touch with anyone and I was supposed to be in New Jersey at 6 a.m. the next morning for work (which my parole officer had approved). I scrambled to explain the situation to my employer and frantically tried to get in touch with my officer on a weekend evening. Thankfully, this situation was eventually resolved without a violation. But I had to confront the possibility of losing my job or facing a penalty that could have landed me back in prison not because I did anything wrong but because of the whims of a newly promoted supervisor. 

This kind of thing happens to people on parole and probation all the time. The restrictions that come with supervision often interfere with our ability to hold a job or do the things that would solidify our positions back at home.

If we are found in violation, even if it’s a small or technical infraction, we face the very real risk of being sent back behind bars. The system is set up to be punitive — and it’s one of the reasons why Pennsylvania has such a high recidivism rate. At least half and potentially as many as two-thirds of people released from prison in Pa. are rearrested within three years, per an August 2022 Dept. of Correction report.

This is a problem for nearly 200,000 Pennsylvanians like me. So I was pleasantly surprised to hear newly elected Governor Josh Shapiro address the issue

“Probation and parole systems were originally designed to help people get back on their feet and keep them out of prison,” Shapiro said when he gave his budget address last month. “But that’s not what’s happening in reality.” 

He’s absolutely right. In that speech he also committed to signing a probation reform bill if the legislature gets it to his desk. 

We need more people in power to see how broken this system is, and I want to thank Governor Shapiro for calling attention to it in his speech in front of the whole General Assembly. 

I’m hopeful. This could be the year we finally reform probation and get serious about recidivism in Pennsylvania.

Erik Van Zant, 49, is a criminal justice reform advocate and community organizer living in Philadelphia. He is a former "juvenile lifer" and spent 2/3rds of his life in a Pennsylvania prison.