Rick Defiel idles his car under a streetlight, typing on his laptop as a police scanner crackles in the background.

A strange noise makes him jerk his head upward, away from the glare of his computer screen and into the darkness.

He’s alone, protected only by a bullet-resistant vest and pepper spray.

“This is your agent. Are you home?” he asks a former prisoner over the phone.

The reception isn’t always welcoming.

“You never know what you’re going to find,” Defiel said. “It would be nice to have an extra pair of eyes.”

Most people convicted of felony offenses in Minnesota are sentenced to probation rather than prison, and there are 5,000 more felons under supervision today than in 2014. But the number of specialized officers who check in on the state’s highest-risk offenders has remained stagnant.

Those specialized agents like Defiel work without backup, often at night. They’re tasked with making sure ex-cons are observing curfew, passing regular drug and alcohol tests and meeting other terms of their release.

But their larger goal is to provide outreach that will reduce recidivism among violent offenders and sexual predators.

“They are doing that front-line community support and intervention,” said Sarah Walker, deputy commissioner of the state’s Department of Corrections (DOC). “They’re also doing the job of a social worker in many cases. And that is time-intensive.”

Many county agencies now require that probation officers work in teams. The DOC wants to bolster staffing to ensure that agents like Defiel have a partner. Gov. Tim Walz included $2.5 million in his 2020 budget and another $5 million in 2021 to fund salaries and equipment for 17 new agents, but it’s unclear whether the Legislature will approve that request this session.

These heightened safety concerns are a new challenge for a state grappling with one of the highest rates of community supervision in the country.

“We’re prioritizing the use of prison for more serious offenses,” said Kelly Mitchell, executive director at the University of Minnesota’s Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice. But those granted probation aren’t exactly free, she said. They must abide by a strict set of guidelines or face punitive action.

For Defiel, cooperation from his clients depends on his ability to build rapport.

His daily encounters with former inmates vary. Some are serene and chatty, others combative — resentful about being roused from their beds for a 2 a.m. Breathalyzer test.

Defiel inquires about their daily challenges, then listens as they vent about the struggles of parenting or the inability to find proper housing. He helps where he can, connecting former inmates with his network of felon-friendly services.

On a recent unannounced visit, a man with ties to the MS-13 gang happily reported that he’d found a steady job based on a tip Defiel provided. The former drug dealer was due to start work as a plumber the very next day.

Assessing any threats

Each agent develops his or her own routine when performing random house checks.

Defiel likes to drive around the residence to make sure there are no unauthorized visitors on the premises. He scans the area before parking his unmarked SUV down the street from the offender’s home, then makes the call.

He’s cautious when approaching the door, because he doesn’t always know who’s behind it.

Agents have walked into situations they can’t control, where strangers were hostile or physically intimidating, said DOC Field Services Director Al Godfrey. They’ve been pushed around and verbally threatened, sometimes by people with illegal firearms in the house.

“That potential threat is always there,” said Godfrey, who believes a second agent would reduce the likelihood of a critical incident.

On a recent overnight shift in north Minneapolis, a man approached Defiel’s vehicle demanding that he roll down the driver’s side window. When Defiel refused to engage, the man repeatedly put his hand in his waistband as if reaching for a gun. Defiel quickly drove away.

“This is your lifeline,” he said, clutching a small handheld panic button. An agent in distress can use the device to signal colleagues at Shakopee and Faribault prisons, who will then transmit their location to local law enforcement.

The process is slow, particularly for those making checks in rural areas where backup is at least 30 minutes away. “It doesn’t really do much. You always hear jokes that it’s ‘just a body finder,’ ” Defiel said.

The panic button is used only about twice a year, and DOC officials admit it’s not foolproof. The state agency has purchased 800 MHz radios for all 53 intensive supervised release agents throughout the state as an additional safety measure and plans to implement them within the year, Godfrey said.

An elevated concern for field workers comes amid a wave of prison assaults that included two officer deaths last year.

Earlier this month, an inmate on supervised release began stalking his former agent in outstate Minnesota. The man is facing new charges after showing up outside the agent’s home one night.

A sympathetic ear

During eight to 12 separate spot checks per day, Defiel acts as a counselor as much as a public safety officer.

“How are you keeping yourself motivated?” Defiel asks one client, Panhia, as they chat at her mother’s kitchen table. (Like all offenders in this story, she is identified only by her first name to protect her privacy.)

“My kids are getting older,” says the 32-year-old mom and former addict, who was recently released from Shakopee prison. “I don’t want to not be around my kids because I’m high.”

Defiel checks her pay stubs to verify her work hours and asks that she complete a urine sample. He tests it in real time to confirm she’s still clean.

Across town in Robbinsdale, Defiel steps over an assortment of toys to join another client, Anthony, on the living room couch. The 25-year-old father of five served two years for assault and weapons charges. Now he is using an anger journal to help manage his emotions. Anthony tells Defiel that the exercise helps him recognize the psychological symptoms of anger: clenching fists, tightening jaw, hot flashes.

After dark, Defiel joins Orlando on a porch so he can let off steam about his teenage daughter as he puffs on a cigarette. For more than 45 minutes, Orlando agonizes about how to pull her away from friends who are bad influences.

“I’m just trying to push them in the right direction,” says Orlando, who earned his GED while imprisoned for drunken driving.

He says he played football at the same Rochester high school as former Vikings cornerback Marcus Sherels. But their stories diverged when Orlando dropped out as a sophomore who was drinking heavily.

“I’m happy to be sober for once and be home with my family,” he says before thanking Defiel for keeping him “on track.”

Defiel leaves the house hopeful Orlando will stay that way.

“If I go through 100 failures to have one [success], it’s worth it,” he says.