Meet Parole Agent III Martin Figueroa, who prefers to go by Fig. Fig is a current EML student and has dedicated his career to servant leadership. Fig aided in the implementation of the first Peer Reentry Navigation Network (PRNN) in the state of California, a program to help long-term inmates and lifers navigate the challenges of re-entering society.
What is servant leadership, and how did you begin this journey?
Fig: My philosophy of leadership is servant leadership. Growing up, I knew I wanted to serve people and make a difference in the world. All my leadership positions and awards I’ve gotten over time have only occurred because I had a singular focus on helping people. I became a leader not because I wanted to, but because I found myself there.
I grew up poor in Oakland, California in a family of 11. I would sit on the back porch and read about Martin Luther King Jr. and others who made a difference in our world. Being poor, I didn’t think I could ever make a difference, but I knew I could educate myself through reading.
"Growing up, I knew I wanted to serve people and make a difference in the world. All my leadership positions and awards I’ve gotten over time have only occurred because I had a singular focus on helping people"
You work as a parole officer with the lifer population. What does it mean to be a lifer in the U.S. prison system?
Fig: The lifer population are those incarcerated for a life term. Most have been in prison for 20-30 years. Some of them have been incarcerated for so long, they spend days walking around their neighborhood trying to contact their parole officer via a payphone. They don’t realize that cellphones have replaced pay-phones. I’ve also had lifers who become carsick after riding in a car because they haven’t been in a car in decades.
What was one of your most challenging experience as a leader?
Fig: When we first began the lifer program; the Peer Reentry Navigation Network (PRNN).
The challenge was to convince a group of former inmates and parole agents that our new program would be co-beneficial for both parties. To succeed, we had to receive buy-in from both groups.
This was difficult because ex-offenders never participated in a program where their input was valued. It was one of the first programs where we wanted them, the parolee’s, to run the group. They had to understand that we actually supported and valued their input. They were not used to this at all. One parole told me, “Fig, it took me one year to actually believe what you were saying. I grew up distrusting the police. It took me a whole year to actually believe you had my best interests at heart”.
All my parolees know that I have their best interests at heart. They all have my personal phone number. It’s the same number that my mom calls me on. My parolees know that. They call me to wish me Merry Christmas, they call me to tell me good news, and they call me for advice. I make myself available for them 24/7.
Once the parolee’s realized the PRNN program was built for them, to truly help them, the program grew. We’re on the same page. It’s really important to get the right parole agents as a part of the PRNN program as building that trust between the parole agents and parolees is the most difficult task.
What drives you to do this work?
Fig: I didn’t believe in redemption prior to working with this lifer group. I saw it on TV, and I saw it in small pockets in the population I was working with. The day my perception changed; I remember vividly.
I get a call that around 3:30pm. I was outside of Whole Foods. A victim’s family member calls me and says, “A lifer is getting out tomorrow. I’m the sister of the victim and I’m really upset he’s getting out. He killed my brother. Please, please make sure you keep an eye on him”.
I listen to her for about 10 minutes and assure her I will keep a good eye on her brother – the lifer who is about to be released.
Another call comes through. It’s the father of the same victim. He tells me the story about his son. He’s crying as he’s sharing this story. He says, “Can you do me a favor? Can you tell him that I want him to live the life my son didn’t live? And I want you to tell him that I forgive him”. We’re both crying on the phone as he says this. I assure him I will.
The next morning, I went to the residential drug treatment program. Three lifers were released together that day and I take them all into the bathroom to drug test them. I pull the individual aside and tell him, “Your dad wanted me to tell you that he forgives you and he loves you”.
This is a big guy. He’s been in prison most of his life and he’s tough. Immediately after hearing these words he falls to the floor, crying. The other two lifers in the bathroom overhear our conversation and start crying too. Here we are me and three lifers, together in a prison bathroom crying.
It was this day my belief changed. Redemption was possible. Not only did I walk away from that bathroom believing in redemption, but I walked away feeling like I was doing the right thing and my job was 100% worth every struggle.
"Your dad wanted me to tell you that he forgives you and he loves you."
Servant Leadership with Parole Officer Martin Figueroa
What is your advice for other leaders?
Fig: Before EML, I thought management simply meant if you’re nice to everyone, they’re going to be nice to you. With the tools EML has given me, I’ve learned it’s so much more than that! I am more confident, and I am more equipped to change our systems from the inside out.
My advice to other leaders is; surround yourself with good mentors. I never had any mentors growing up, although I remember vividly when I was 19, a man telling me to find my passion. He told me if I found a niche for my passion to thrive, I would live a fulfilling life.
These amazing experiences I have experienced as a leader throughout my career has never had anything to do with money. My friends tell me all the time that I’m the only parole agent who would do this work for free.
And I would. I would do this job for free.
"Management deals with the status quo and leadership deals mostly with change"
Sources: Kotter, J. (1996). Leading change. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press.