It’s 6:21 p.m. on a chilly grey day in Midtown. Men are lining up to get into the Manhattan Office of the New York State parole system before it closes at 7. It looks like they’re in an airport security line—they’re whipping off belts, taking off hats and putting cell phones in grey plastic containers with handles, queuing up to meet with the officers who oversee their post-prison lives.

There’s a lot on the line, because if a parolee misses an appointment with their parole officer, that is a parole violation, which, if repeated, can be punishable by anything from a verbal warning to jail time, says Charles Walker, who is on parole and has been in and out of New York State prisons for the last 23 years.

“The PO can send you back (to jail) the first time you violate,” says Walker. ” If a parole officer likes you, they give you a couple breaks. It’s all arbitrary; there are no concrete things there.”

Parole is a form of approved release from prison. It is granted by the New York Board of Parole and only applies to inmates who have been given indeterminate sentences. An indeterminate sentence—for instance, “eight to 15 years” or “25 to life”—indicates that an inmate has to serve a set number of years but may serve additional years up to a maximum. (Inmates serving sentences with a hard end date can also be released early for good behavior and under other circumstances. )

Currently, there are 35,000 parolees in New York State, of which 26,000 reside in New York City. According to the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, there are 725 parole officers in New York City, meaning each one supervises roughly 36 parolees.

The New York State prison population is down about a quarter from about 71,538 inmates in 1999 to 51,300 inmates currently. But it’s not only the prison population that’s down: The proportion of prisoners receiving parole has been slashed. From 1993 to 2003, inmates who applied for parole had between a 30 to 60 percent chance of receiving it. That proportion has been steadily declining, and in 2013 only one in six inmates who applied for parole received it.

Arbitrary power?

Wesley Caines, a re-entry and community outreach coordinator with the Bronx Defenders, says parole officers have enormous power over their parolee’s lives—not only with how they punish violators, but also in determining whether a parolee can get a job and where they can live. It’s a power that can be abused, he says, or at least not always be used in the best interest of their parolee.

The system is set up in such an arbitrary way that if a parolee moves from one borough to another he’s playing by a completely different set of rules.

“It shouldn’t be the case that if you change your borough that it’s so much different. If they move from Queens to Brooklyn the procedure should be the same,” says Caines.

Caines says he’s had instances where a parole officer will grant a parolee a curfew extension to keep his job, but when the parolee moves, he gets transferred to another parole officer who won’t make the same concession. Caines says in those cases, the parolee often ends up losing his job.

Antwan Oconner, 31, lost his job because of his parole officer. He said he was ecstatic when he finally got a construction job through Center for Employment Opportunities, but then his parole officer enforced his curfew rather than let him pursue the job.

“I’ve got to be at the construction site at 6 a.m. She said my curfew was 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. She said I can’t work that job,” says Oconner.

Oconner says his relationship with his parole officer went from bad to worse, and when he violated curfew by staying out all night once in July 2016, he was promptly arrested and jailed for 30 days.

Going back in

He is one of many parolees who has been reincarcerated because of a parole violation. In 2011, around 23,710 people were released from New York State prison—of whom 9,217 were released on parole. Within three years, more than half of those released on parole were back behind bars, not because they had committed a new crime, but because they had violated the conditions of their parole. These reincarcerated parolees have a very real cost to taxpayers—$60,000 per prisoner per year; in 2011 they cost the state $276.5 million.

Ruben Hernandez is a former parole officer who retired in 2013. He said one reason that parolee recidivism is so high is because parolees often don’t understand that although they’re in the free community, they are still not free. Hernandez said parolees are merely doing time on the outside.

Still, Hernandez says the conditions for parole, as well as consequences of breaking them, are carefully outlined for parolees, and they have to sign a form accepting those conditions before being released from state prison.

State parole authorities concur. “Upon release a parolee has to agree to abide by and sign his conditions of parole. During an arrival report with their parole officer, the rules of parole and parolee’s responsibilities are carefully explained. Special parole conditions will also be thoroughly discussed. If a parolee fails to adhere to these conditions in an important respect, or commits a new crime, that person is in violation,” emailed a DOCCs representative.

“Each violation and any appropriate discipline is decided on a case by case basis, within an established guideline system,” the DOCCs representative wrote.

There is room in that system for uncertainty: It’s not clear, for instance, what constitutes a violation in an “important respect.” Even more important is the question of whether those rules are in step with the underlying purpose of parole.

A two-sided role

Hernandez acknowledges that the job responsibilities of a parole officer might seem a little contradictory: On one end they are there to serve as social workers to connect parolees to services and help them reintegrate into society. (In New York, parole officers have a background in counseling or social work in addition to a bachelor’s degree. The minimum requirement to enter the training program is a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field like criminal justice or psychology.)

But on the other hand they are also responsible for the safety of society with the power to arrest their parolees for various violations.

To apply for the job, applicants must take the Parole Officer or Parole Officer Trainee civil service test. The starting salary for New York parole officers is $40,507.

Parole officers answer to the parole board, which makes decisions on whether to grant parole in individual cases and sets the rules for parolees.

“It’s totally up to their discretion. There is no oversight to the parole board,” says Robert Dennison, a former state parole board chairman. “The courts have been critical of the parole board, but it doesn’t matter to the parole board commissioner. Courts don’t have any authority over it.”

The parole officer operates within the parameters set by the board. “When the parole board releases somebody, they set the conditions that the parolee is supposed to adhere to,” says Dennison. “Some of those conditions are at the discretion of the parole officers. So they do have some leeway to vary the conditions but generally they stick to the conditions that the parole board commissioner set.”

Reasons for restrictions

Some critics say the parole oversight is completely arbitrary, but Dennison notes there is a level of supervision built into the structure: on a fairly regular basis, parole officers are supposed to meet with their senior parole officers. He said the senior parole officer meets with the parole officer to discuss the parolee’s behavior and conduct and whether he is complying with parole.

Hernandez echoes Dennison in saying that there are guidelines to monitor parole officers’ behavior. He adds that there are built-in checks that the parolee can use if the parole officer is abusing his or her power by making sexual advances or illegally overstepping boundaries.

While some stipulations seem arbitrary to parolees, Hernandez argues there are reasons for the rules set by the parole board or that parole officers make at their own discretion. Hernandez recalls one case when he was a parole officer where he made up a special condition for a parolee based on his shoplifting offense.

“I told him you can’t go into Macy’s, Bloomingdales, et cetera. He loved to go to those places and go shoplifting,” says Hernandez.

Hernandez said restricting his parolee’s access to high end department stores made a lot of sense—and it was a fairly easy decision to make based on his crime. But not all decisions that parole officers have to make are that simple.

Dennison, the former state parole chairman, says he regrets a decision he made early in his career when he was too lenient on a parolee, who wanted to live with a member of the opposite sex. Back then, Dennison says, parolees couldn’t do that unless they got permission from their parole officer first.

“This woman came in and she begged me to let this guy live with her. She had a daughter,” says Dennison “He wasn’t that violent of a guy as far as getting convicted for violent crimes go but he drank and he did, you know, he did have a temper.” Dennison says he reluctantly agreed to grant permission.

“He was living with them for awhile and then he one night was totally drunk and he lined up the little girl’s dolls on the floor and smashed the heads of both dolls,” says Dennison.

It’s impossible to with certainty know how a parolee will react to the freedom he enjoys outside of prison. But critics say parole officers often react to this uncertainty by relying on instinct instead of using tools with some predictive power.

“POs have a tension between their roles as a law enforcer and a social worker,” one non-profit staffer who works with parolees said. “The reality is, you need to be a bit of both.”