MSUM criminal justice alum is named Minnesota Corrections Agent of the Year.
By: Mike Nowatzki, INFORUM
MOORHEAD – When Mike Schommer visits his “clients,” he’s not making a sales call or pitching a new product.
As an intensive supervised release (ISR) agent for the Minnesota Department of Corrections. Schommer’s clientele consists of convicted murderers, rapists and other high-risk offenders who, under state law, serve the last one-third of their prison sentences under close watch in the community.
At a ceremony today in Fergus Falls, the department will award its Corrections Agent of the Year award to the Detroit Lakes-based agent and West Fargo resident.
“It’s an honor to be nominated by my peers for doing a job that I love,” Schommer said.
That passion was evident during a three-hour ride-along he granted to a Forum reporter and photographer on Monday evening. It included a stop at a rental house for sex offenders, collecting a drug test from a convicted murderer and visiting a sex crime convict at his workplace. Some offenders declined to provide their names or be photographed.
Schommer approached each in the same way: calmly, inquisitively and friendly but stern.
“Our goal isn’t to catch these guys doing something wrong,” he said. “Our goal is to help them integrate back into the community.” Here’s how the evening unfolded:
Schommer explains that he’s one of four ISR agents covering a 13-county area of western Minnesota. Each agent is assigned up to 15 offenders, though Schommer prefers to use the word “clients.” During the first phase of their release, ISR offenders are on house arrest and electronic home monitoring. They’re allowed to leave the house for a specified period of time – often 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., when children are in school – and only for constructive activities, such as job-seeking and attending medical appointments.
Schommer, 33, said when he started the job six years ago, he felt like he had something to prove and his main focus was enforcing offenders’ conditions of release.
He initially didn’t buy into the concept of “cognitive restructuring,” which aims to change the way offenders think in order to reduce recidivism rates. But the Minnesota State University Moorhead alum with a degree in criminal justice said he’s since become a believer after seeing the positive results.
Offenders are subject to random drug and alcohol testing and unannounced visits at home and work.
Schommer’s first stop is a north Moorhead apartment where a man convicted of second-degree murder has been living with his mother.
“He’s been doing well,” Schommer said.
He enters the two-story yellow building and knocks on the first door on the left. A middle-aged man wearing green athletic shorts and a baggy white T-shirt answers the door and leads him into the tiny kitchen.
Schommer says he needs a urine sample, and he stands near the bathroom door to make sure it’s not faked.
The man says he took a welding test at a local steel company and applied for a job.
“What kind of shift can I work?” he asks.
“Any shift you want,” Schommer says. Agents conduct checks at all hours.
The man says he also plans to start studying for his driver’s license test.
“How nice would that be?” Schommer says.
“I haven’t had one since ’92,” the man says.
But Schommer doesn’t leave it at that. He presses the man about whether he has the study guide yet and when he’s going to take the test. He knows the offender has trouble focusing, and he wants him to commit to a test date so he has a goal.
During the next check, just around the block, Schommer finds the offender sitting on the front stoop of a drab rental house with stucco and wood siding. The offender is on ISR for terroristic threats and has a history of assault.
Schommer asks him how work is going.
“Perfect,” he says.
And his girlfriend?
“Just drama,” the man says, shaking his head.
He says she’s in his one-room basement apartment, and she’s been drinking.
“How’s that going to affect you?” Schommer asks, knowing that an alcohol violation could land the man back behind bars.
“It’s going to affect me a lot because I don’t drink and it (ticks) me off a lot when she does,” he says.
But the man still needs a place to stay tonight, so Schommer goes downstairs to talk to the girlfriend and – to his surprise – three other acquaintances, at least one of whom has alcohol. He asks them to leave and follows them upstairs to make sure they do.
Back downstairs, Schommer looks in the fridge and then a closet, where he finds a black BB pistol with an orange tip. The man claims it’s not his and he didn’t know it was there. Schommer confiscates it.
He lectures the woman, who admits she’s been drinking. She holds their baby boy on her lap. Their granddaughter sleeps in a car seat on the floor a few feet away.
“I’m just concerned for the safety of your kids and grandkids, and especially your boyfriend,” Schommer says.
She eventually hands the baby to her boyfriend and heads up the stairs. Again, Schommer follows.
In the past, Schommer said, the offender would have “gone off” on the woman and possibly assaulted her. Now, “He was doing the right thing,” he said. “He separated himself from the situation.” As important as a stable job and housing are, experience has shown that an offender’s companions, attitudes and antisocial tendencies tend to be bigger indicators of recidivism, Schommer explained.
He’ll check back on the man later.
Schommer’s white Chevy crossover pulls up to an isolated house in south Moorhead. The Department of Corrections rents it to house up to four high-risk sex offenders who otherwise would be homeless. Three live here now, including a Level 3 offender.
One of the Level 2 offenders is listening to music on the front step. Schommer didn’t think he’d be here because he’s supposed to be at work. Offenders on ISR must complete 40 hours per week of work or education.
The man says he’s just leaving for work, and soon takes off on his bicycle.
Inside the stiflingly hot house, the other Level 2 offender, a short stocky man with a shaved head, is sleeping shirtless on the couch. A fan on the floor is aimed directly at him in a futile attempt to stay cool. Schommer wakes him and asks him to put on a shirt.
The Level 3 offender emerges from his room. Schommer says hi and tells him he can return to his room. His offense was in Clay County, but he doesn’t know anyone here and officials are trying to get him transferred to Hennepin County.
The short man has been out of prison only four days, and he still wears a black electronic home monitoring bracelet on his left ankle. It lets authorities know when he leaves the house and comes home, but unlike the bracelets for Level 3 offenders, it doesn’t have GPS tracking.
The man says he’s looking for a job but only wants a graveyard shift. Schommer asks him what could happen if he limits himself like that.
When the man says he plans to spend the night planning for the next day’s job search, Schommer asks, “And what would that look like?” The questions aim to motivate rather than threaten the offender.
“You can threaten these guys all you want,” Schommer said. “They’ve been to prison. They’re not scared of anything.”
Despite the dangerous nature of the job, Schommer and other ISR agents don’t carry a sidearm, only mace.
“It’s a barrier between us and them,” he said of a gun.
Schommer swings back to the part-stucco house and finds the man in the basement unit with his son in one hand and a diaper in the other. His girlfriend hasn’t returned.
The man says he’s going to talk to his boss about finding another place.
“He seems to be rationalizing and handling things pretty well, which is new for him,” Schommer says.
In addition to ISR clients, Schommer oversees low-risk offenders in the Challenge Incarceration Program. It’s open to eligible inmates who want to earn early release prior to serving two-thirds of their prison sentence. They must complete a six-month, military-style boot camp followed by supervised release.
Schommer stops at the apartment of a gray-haired, weathered-faced man who completed the program. He has a job, is living with his girlfriend and is spending more time with family.
“His girlfriend said he’s a completely different person,” Schommer says. “She wishes he could have gone through the program sooner. It would have saved some years of his life.”
Shawn Evanson, 39, another CIP success story, welcomes Schommer into his ground-floor apartment in south Moorhead. He was supposed to go out to eat, but decided to avoid the heat and stay home to cook enchiladas; the aroma permeates the apartment.
Evanson admits he only applied to the CIP to cut time off his felony DWI sentence, but it eventually forced him to take responsibility for his actions. It also got him hooked on running: He recently completed a 10k and plans to run a half-marathon.
“That’s a good program, and I hope they keep it there,” Evanson said. “It’s got a good success rate, and you can’t really fake your way through it.”
Now sober for 27 months, Evanson said he has reconnected with his brother, with whom he used to fight “like cats and dogs,” and has his priorities straight.
“You should be proud of where you’re at,” Schommer says.
“Yeah, I feel good about myself,” Evanson says.
Schommer drives into an apartment-heavy area of south Moorhead to check on a man convicted of first-degree assault. He finds him washing a car in the parking lot, using a yellow sponge and a small garbage can for a bucket.
Schommer and the man discuss his job search and his mental health, including how he needs to refill his medications.
The man is affable until Schommer mentions women, which have been his downfall in the past. He says there are no problems and quietly returns to washing the car.
Cassondra Barry, 24, is on her apartment balcony with a man Schommer doesn’t recognize when he arrives. She buzzes him up.
Barry, who was convicted of second-degree assault with a dangerous weapon for hitting a woman over the head with a bottle, was released from prison on April 2 and already has her driver’s license and two jobs, despite a kidney cancer surgery in June.
“I’ve accomplished a lot,” she says.
Schommer agrees, but he’s concerned Barry may be hanging around with too many people who, like her, are recovering from addiction, including the man on the balcony. The risk is that if one relapses, the others may follow. He encourages her to think about places she can meet a wider range of people, and she suggests church.
The ISR program allows offenders in Moorhead to work in Fargo and West Fargo because so many of the metro area’s jobs are there.
In Fargo’s industrial park, Schommer rolls up to an equipment assembly plant with an open garage door and waves over a young, fit male worker.
Jesse Paskey, 28, pleaded guilty last February to gross misdemeanor criminal sexual conduct involving a 22-year-old woman in his home.
Now a supervisor at the plant, Paskey tells Schommer he’s moved on from one relationship and is in another.
“So how is this relationship going to be different?” Schommer asks.
“I’m more settled down,” he says. “I want a normal life.”
In addition to his supervisory duties, Schommer trains other agents in safety and communication skills. For the past six months, he’s also partnered with local law agencies to present NetSmartz, a program that teaches students how to be safe online.
Schommer said there is a high failure rate for those on ISR, and that’s the hardest part of the job.
“You put a lot of time and effort into helping someone, and then they just give up. That’s hard,” he said.
But the success rate is improving because agents are focusing not just on enforcing conditions but altering behavior, he said.
“To actually see people buy into it, try to make a difference, change their behavior – that’s the reward,” he said.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528