Parole and Probation Officers

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This television program is available at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/video/2010/05/parole-and-probation-officers/

We welcome your comments or suggestions at leonard.sipes@csosa.gov or at Twitter at http://twitter.com/lensipes.

– Video begins –

Leonard Sipes: Hi and welcome to DC Public Safety. I’m your host Leonard Sipes. You know, in the United States of America on any given day there are seven million people under correctional supervision. But, probably what you don’t know is the fact that four of those seven million are under the supervision of parole and probation agencies. Well, what is parole and probation? What happens on a day to day basis when a person is assigned to a parole and probation agency? What do parole and probation agents do? To examine that question, we’re going to look at it from the eyes and perspective of what happens here at the District of Columbia. To talk about it, we’ve got two principals with us today. We have Jemell Courtney and Alexander Portillo, and to Courtney and Alexander welcome to DC Public Safety. Okay, Alexander the first question goes to you. What is parole and probation? How do you explain parole and probation to the average person?

Alexander Portillo: Okay. Probation has been granted by the court””by the D.C. Superior Court, and the parole is granted by the Parole Commission for those people who have been incarcerated for quite some time.

Leonard Sipes: And a lot of people get that mixed up. Probation is when the judge says, okay, we’re not going to send you to prison, but what we are going to do is put you under supervision for a certain amount of time.

Alexander Portillo: Correct.

Leonard Sipes: Okay. Parole is when you come out of prison.

Alexander Portillo: Right.

Leonard Sipes: Okay. The interesting thing in the District of Columbia is that now individuals serve 85% of their sentences. So, people who violate the law within the District of Columbia, they go to federal prison, and federal prison means serving 85% of that sentence. But the last 15% of that sentence they have to report to us.

Alexander Portillo: Right.

Leonard Sipes: Okay, and Jemell, tell me about this. You supervise individuals. Both of your are community supervision officers and other places throughout the country they’re call parole and probation agents but here in the District of Columbia we call them community supervision officers. So, you encounter this individual say how often if you’re in general supervision?

Jemell Courtney: Anywhere between once a week to once a month.

Leonard Sipes: Right. So, it could be up to four times a week, and in some case loads it could be higher than that.

Jemell Courtney: Correct.

Leonard Sipes: And drug testing””we drug test the dickens out of offenders in the District of Columbia.

Jemell Courtney: Correct.

Leonard Sipes: Okay. You are with the TIPS unit.

Jemell Courtney: Yes.

Leonard Sipes: And that’s really unique because all of these individuals coming out of the prison system, you’re supposed to get that file months in advance. I know you don’t get it months in advance, but you’re supposed to get it months in advance, and from that you put together a prescriptive plan whether the offender needs medication, needs to go into drug treatment, needs to have mental health treatment. One time I did an article where folks from your unit had to deal with a massively obese person and find housing for that person coming out of the prison system. What you do is really interesting and very difficult.

Jemell Courtney: Yes it is, and housing, I’m glad you brought that up. Because housing is very difficult for some of the offenders that don’t have anywhere to go once they’re released from the halfway house or prison. So, it’s kind of difficult trying to find them housing.

Leonard Sipes: Now, people need to understand who are watching this program that the District of Columbia we have some of the most expensive housing in the country. So, if you’ve burnt your bridges with your family members, and they’re mad at you, and they don’t want you back in your home, the only alternative for that offender is to go to a halfway house.

Jemell Courtney: Correct or transitional housing and we use the shelter as a last resort.

Leonard Sipes: Right, but finding housing for that individual is part of your job.

Jemell Courtney: Yes.

Leonard Sipes: Finding drug treatment is part of your job. Finding mental health treatment, dealing with a woman offender– female offender coming out and dealing with the fact that she has kids with her mom. Those are all things you have to deal with.

Jemell Courtney: Correct.

Leonard Sipes: And that’s complex and that’s difficult. Correct?

Jemell Courtney: Yes, it is very complex.

Leonard Sipes: Alexander the day to day supervision of offenders. Now I know you’re in the domestic violence unit, but let’s talk about supervision in general. When you’re dealing with individuals whether they be on parole or whether they be on probation, your job is to both supervise them and to get them into programs.

Alexander Portillo : Right.

Leonard Sipes: Tell me about that.

Alexander Portillo: Okay. Well, I work for the Domestic Violence and Prevention Program, so, I don’t supervise the offenders that are on domestic violence.

Leonard Sipes: Okay.

Alexander Portillo: What happens is, is that domestic violence officer refers them to our program.

Leonard Sipes: Right.

Alexander Portillo: And then we teach them to deal with situations in a healthy way with alternatives to violence because a lot of these offenders are – this is what they know and this is what they grew up in””violence. So, we try to change that thinking. We try to change the way they do things. Which is a pretty hard job, but we’ve gotten positive results.

Leonard Sipes: Now when I talk to people and either one of you can come in and answer this question. When I talk to people about that we call it cognitive behavioral therapy or thinking for a change, we called it in another state that I was with, and people are astounded when I say that in terms of domestic violence you can’t hit your wife.

Jemell Courtney: Right.

Leonard Sipes: You can’t raise your fist to your wife. You can’t raise your fist to your kids. You can’t do that. That’s not what we find acceptable within society. So, a lot of individuals they find that difficult to deal with.

Alexander Portillo: Right. Well, when you have the same pattern for your whole life, then it is kind of difficult to break away from that pattern. So, what we teach them is that recognize the cycle of violence. To break away from that cycle of violence and maybe they can have a healthy relationship with their spouse, family member or whoever may be on the street.

Leonard Sipes: But, so much of what it is that we do, and again, either one of you can answer this or talk about it, this goes from you can’t raise your fist to your wife, certainly you can’t hit your wife or significant other, but in terms of jobs, how to prepare for a job, how to deal with individuals while you’re on the job. Again, we supervise the dickens out of people on a day to day basis. We have fairly low case loads here in the District of Columbia. But, trying to get people in the programs, and trying to help them overcome some of the deficiencies in their lives. People don’t understand how the issue is, is that, you know, you have to go to work everyday. You have to show up on time everyday. You have to be pleasant every day. I mean, that’s one of the things that we deal with in terms of either your unit in terms of bringing them in fresh from the prison system or the domestic violence. It’s part of a process of getting people to understand that there is a different way of doing things.

Jemell Courtney: And you get a lot of resistance. A lot of offenders don’t want to go into programs and treatments. So…

Leonard Sipes: Uh-huh.

Jemell Courtney: That’s an area that’s very difficult with a lot of the offenders.

Leonard Sipes: Right, and their sense is that I’m fresh out of prison in terms of your unit, Jemell. They’re fresh out of prison I don’t want to be bothered by all of this.

Jemell Courtney: Correct, and, then they don’t want to go into treatment right after they are released from the halfway house because they feel like they just left a confined environment. So, we have to try to do our best to convince them that it would benefit them in the long run.

Leonard Sipes: And how do you do that? I mean in some cases it almost comes down to the point of I’m sorry, you’re going.

Jemell Courtney: Individual counseling usually works…

Leonard Sipes: Okay.

Jemell Courtney: With most of the offenders. Once you sit down and talk to them and get to the core of the problem, and then the results are usually easy to come by.

Leonard Sipes: Now people need to understand that they come in, the offenders come into the office all of the time. But, at the same time, you’re out in the community. Half of our””the requirement here at the Court Services Supervision Agency is that half of those contacts need to be made in the community. And, many cases, surprise visits to their places of employment or to their home. Right?

Alexander Portillo: Right. What people need to realize that this is not a desk job. We are out in the community. We either do home visits, we have to check on the programs. We go do work verification visits. So, we’re not in the office. We’re out in the community so that they can see us. That we’re out there checking on them to make sure they do what they’re supposed to be doing.

Leonard Sipes: Part of this – I mean we’re formally a federal law enforcement agency. But it’s interesting because part of us we wear a badge, we wear a bullet-proof vest, but we don’t have guns. We go into high crime neighborhoods and some of the buildings we go into are pretty dicey. But yet, in many cases, you go in there by yourself. You’ve got a jacket that says CSOSA. You’ve got a bullet-proof vest and you wear a badge, but you’re not a law enforcement officer nor do you carry a gun. But, yet, you still go into these tough high-crime neighborhoods. To me that would be scary, I’m sorry. From my six years of law enforcement to go into a tough neighborhood to deal with an individual who has committed an act of violence. To go in there unarmed, people need to understand that’s what we do day in and day out.

Alexander Portillo: Right. We have to understand that we do work with difficult people, but you have to understand that if you show them respect, they’re going to show respect back to you.

Leonard Sipes: Okay. So, that’s the key isn’t it? The building that sense of respect with the individual regardless of their background.

Jemell Courtney: Yes.

Leonard Sipes: Building that rapport””building that rapport with a family, building that rapport with the friends, building that rapport with an employer.

Jemell Courtney: Correct. And, some police officers do accompany the CSOs on home visits.

Leonard Sipes: Right, called accountability tours.

Jemell Courtney: Right, for the high-risk offenders.

Leonard Sipes: Right. So, that happens 11,000 times a year. That’s amazing to me. But the 11,000 times with the police officer it’s, I think, something like 45,000 times a year without the police officer where you go out in the community. So, as Alexander said you’re out there all of the time.

Jemell Courtney: Yes, correct, we are a lot.

Leonard Sipes: Do you feel afraid when you do this?

Jemell Courtney: No, I don’t.

Leonard Sipes: Okay.

Alexander Portillo: I go from southeast to northeast to northwest and I’ve never felt afraid, and like I said earlier, it’s about the respect. You know, if you show them that””treat them like people then they’re going to react like people.

Leonard Sipes: The average person sitting here watching this program is essentially going to say to themselves, do you protect my public safety. Do you protect my safety not my public safety. Do you protect me? Do you protect my family? Do yo protect my kids? Do we?

Alexander Portillo: Sure we do. In the domestic violence, we have to contact the victim. So, we have to assure that the victim is safe.

Leonard Sipes: Uh-huh.

Alexander Portillo: We make contacts every thirty days. So, yes, we do. I feel that we do.

Leonard Sipes: And the larger public is basically counting on us that””I remember one woman we were serving warrants and something we ordinarily nearly don’t do, but we did it with the Metropolitan Police Department. We have a wonderful relationship with the the Metropolitan Police Department, and the woman asked me what are you doing, and I said well we’re serving warrants, and she goes good take the ones who are messing with the community. Take them, but help the ones who want to be helped. And, you know, that is to me the essence of community supervision under parole and probation agencies where take the enforcement action of the people who threaten public safety, but those who need the help, help them, get them involved in programs. Is that the essence of it?

Jemell Courtney: Yeah, that is basically the essence of it.

Leonard Sipes: Okay, but I mean isn’t there something more that you think the public needs to understand about your role?

Jemell Courtney: As far as the parole and supervisory release cases…

Leonard Sipes: Uh-huh.

Jemell Courtney: A lot of times, we recommend special conditions stay away orders from the victims through the parole commission or through D.C. Superior Court…

Leonard Sipes: So, we’re constantly working with the parole commission. We’re constantly working with the court. We’re constantly working with a variety of law-enforcement agencies. Correct?

Jemell Courtney: Yes, correct.

Leonard Sipes: So, you’re out there day to day working with the individual offender, but you’re working with your partners all at the same time.

Jemell Courtney: Exactly.

Leonard Sipes: You know, and so, you’re diplomats. Part of you have to be diplomatic enough to deal with the offender, diplomatic enough to deal with the offender’s family and diplomatic enough to deal with the larger criminal justice system.

Jemell Courtney: Yes.

Leonard Sipes: And, what do you say to your friends and family in terms of what it is that you do on a day to day basis in terms of your jobs?

Alexander Portillo: Well, I tell them that it’s very difficult because you try to convince people to do right, and it’s hard because maybe 90% of them don’t want to do it.

Leonard Sipes: Right.

Alexander Portillo: And the 10% is what makes it count. That makes a difference and what makes me keep going.
Leonard Sipes: Right. And, Jemell, how would you say that. What do you say to your friends and family when you’re talking to them?

Jemell Courtney: So, as Alex said, I tell them that it is a very difficult job next to parenting. It’s hard and people don’t understand. We go through many challenges day by day as far as housing, trying to convince people to go into treatment and it’s hard.

Leonard Sipes: I did it for””I had three jobs where I had direct supervision with offenders, and it was the hardest job I’ve ever had in my life. Dealing with them and dealing with the family. It was very rewarding, and at the same time, you had to bring your A-game to the job everyday.

Jemell Courtney: You have too.

Leonard Sipes: If we don’t, it could have an impact on public safety. That’s the point, right?

Jemell Courtney: Uh-huh.

Alexander Portillo: Right, there’s no room for error.

Leonard Sipes: There’s no room for error.

Alexander Portillo: Because, you know, someone could get hurt in the community or one of our offenders could go out and, you know, cause havoc, cause trouble in the community.

Leonard Sipes: Okay, Alexander, you’ve got the final word on the first segment. Ladies and gentlemen, please stay with us for the second segment as we continue to explore the role of a parole and probation agent in the United States and here within the District of Columbia. We’ll be right back.

Leonard Sipes: Welcome back to DC Public Safety. I continue to be your host, Leonard Sipes. We talked about on the first segment that there were seven million people in the United States on any given day under correctional supervision, but four million are under the supervision of parole and probation agencies, and we said we’re going to talk about what parole and probation does within the United States through the perspective of what happens here in the District of Columbia through my agency the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency. By the way, we call our people Community Supervision Officers not parole and probation agents. That’s unique to us here in the District of Columbia. There are 350 community supervision officers on any given day. We supervise about 16,000 offenders. When we say supervise, it’s a combination of supervision where we try to hold them accountable in terms of their day to day life. Where we can go to their homes and expectantly work with the metropolitan police department, the local police agency, we together go to their homes and do what we call accountability tours. Maybe another 45,000 times a year we actually go to their house, and in some cases, surprise visits if not surprise visits, prearranged visits, sometimes, like I said they’re surprise visits. But, we drug test the dickens out of individuals. We do a lot in terms of supervision. The key to the research is that what we try to do is to get them involved in programs. The question becomes if a person comes out of the prison system, if he has a mental illness problem, what’s going to happen if that person does not receive treatment for mental illness. So, here again we’re going to talk about community supervision with Anthony Smith and Emily McGilton both community supervision officers from my agency Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, and to Anthony and Emily, welcome to DC Public Safety. Anthony, the first question goes to you. On the supervision side, we use global positioning systems, GPS or satellite tracking, where we have these devices. They’re on the anklet of the individual, and we can track them 24 hours a day, 365 days a year in terms of where they go. Correct?

Anthony Smith: Yes, GPS has been a very good tool used within CSOSA. It’s used typically to monitor our high-risk offenders. Typically, which would be the sex offenders, the domestic violent offenders who have stay-away orders from particular blocks unit within a district and it is also used as a tool for unemployed offenders. It is policy that they’re place on GPS thirty days after being on supervision due to the fact that they’ll have a lot of idle time and may be more vulnerable to get re-involved in criminal activities.

Leonard Sipes: Right, and we’ll also put them in day reporting, which basically says that if you’re not going to find work then you’ve got to report to some place everyday until you find work. We’ll help you find work. We’ll train you in terms of how to find work, but you’ve got to report to day reporting every day. Correct?

Anthony Smith: Exactly, and it has been useful in pinpointing various crimes throughout the district where the offenders were actually at the spot near the assisted MPD and various other law enforcement agencies to solving crimes within the district.

Leonard Sipes: Now the interesting thing there is that they can take a look at the computers in their cars and track offenders through our system the individual police department. And, it’s not just the Metropolitan Police Department, it could be the Secret Service, it could be the Housing Police, it could be a wide array of individuals.

Anthony Smith: Exactly, and we’re also charged with monitoring the offenders whereabouts. We are to check the GPS devices daily to make sure that they’re charging them, and we also do VeriTracks. We get VeriTracks emails of the offender’s non-compliance if they’re not charging or if they’ve been in an area that they’re not supposed to, we’re notified by email that the offender is not in compliance.

Leonard Sipes: Right. Emily, explaining what parole and probation is, is always difficult. I have the hardest time, you know, because you take all of this supervision stuff, GPS, as Anthony was just talking about, the concept of constantly drug testing them, surprise visits, working with the Metropolitan Police Department just to hold them accountable and then the treatment part of it, which is a very complex hard job for the individual community supervision officers who have to manage that process everyday. Correct?

Emily McGilton: It is. The main thing to realize is that we’re governed by the U.S. Parole Commission and the D.C. Superior Court is releasing authorities. When they’re given special conditions to the offenders, we’re responsible for setting the offenders up for those programs. However, if we find something that we think may be suitable for the person, we have the authority to go ahead and have them assessed for mental health concerns.

Leonard Sipes: In your case because you work for the Sex Offender Unit, which is one of the hardest units I can possibly imagine that plus the Mental Health Unit. That’s something else, we have all of these specialized units we were talking in the first segment about the Domestic Violence Unit. We have all of these specialized units. So, you can have a sex offender come out from the Parole Commission through the prison system, and you can analyze that individual, work with local law enforcement officers in terms of supervising that individual, but if you need him or her to do more, to go into treatment, to the ability to check their computers, you have to go back to the Parole Commission and ask for their permission to do that?
Emily McGilton: Correct.

Leonard Sipes: And that’s something a lot of people don’t understand. We don’t work autonomously. We, basically, do what the judges ask us to do or tell us to do. We basically do what the Parole Commission wants us to do. So, people don’t understand that. We’re not independent. We have to work within the confines of the courts and the Parole Commission. Do we agree?

Anthony Smith: Yes.

Leonard Sipes: Okay. Tell me a little bit about that. That’s frustrating. Okay, so, I’ve got this offender who I feel really needs to be””I need to search his computer, but I can’t do it unless the Parole Commission tells me that I can. Do you go back to the Parole Commission and ask for permission to do it?

Anthony Smith: There are steps that you have to take before going back to the U.S. Parole Commission. We have to utilize the graduated sanctions matrix and make sure we have exhausted everything on the matrix before notifying the releasing authorities. And at that time, depending on whether they’re on supervised release or probation, we’ll then notify the releasing authorities. Typically, with probation, it will be an AVR which will be submitted to the court, and with the U.S. Parole Commission, you’ll ask for a sanctions hearing.

Leonard Sipes: I’m glad you brought that up. Now, if a person is not doing well, then we just don’t run back to the courts and run back to the Parole Commission and say you’re not doing well. We have to go through a whole series of steps of what we call intermediate sanctions. So, intermediate sanctions are what? Come into the office more often, reading him the riot act, putting him on some sort of detail to do community service. So, we try to convince the person to come back into law abiding behavior. Is that it?

Anthony Smith: Yes. I mean the sanctions vary. It can go anywhere from a verbal reprimand. Trickle up to a written reprimand, to daily reporting, daily reporting center. You can have an SCSO conference. The offender can be given a therapeutic task…

Leonard Sipes: We can put them back in a halfway measure…

Anthony Smith: Put them in a halfway back program.

Leonard Sipes: Basically saying, this is your final step. If you don’t comply, you’re going to go back to prison. This is the final step. Correct?

Anthony Smith: Exactly.

Leonard Sipes: Okay. Go ahead.

Emily McGilton: It’s just that we have a lot of room to explore different options together with our supervisor and the offender. We can typically come up with a plan that will address their sanctioning them and also getting them back into compliance with their court order such as community supervision.

Leonard Sipes: Uh-huh.

Emily McGilton: We could increase drug testing. We can make referrals to the central intervention team…

Leonard Sipes: Okay.

Emily McGilton: To get treatment if we feel it’s needed if they test positive. Also, working together with the other departments at CSOSA. So, we have a lot of options as far as sanctioning.

Leonard Sipes: Now, that’s a huge bureaucracy come to think of it from the standpoint of the community supervision officer. He or she’s got to deal with the court, got to deal with the parole commissioner, got to deal with the bureaucracy of their own agency. How do you survive? Do you feel that you have the flexibility to bring ingenuity to it, to bring creativity to the job in terms of how you supervise or how you assist an offender?

Emily McGilton: I believe we do. I think the main part is looking out for public safety. If we have an offender who has violent tendencies or any offenders who have special conditions like sex-offender treatment or domestic-violence treatment. We make sure that they’re in compliance with their treatment and to not have another victim.

Leonard Sipes: One thing I’m going to say that obviously you’ve been afraid that everybody’s been afraid to say so far is there is a lot of paperwork involved. You’re sitting at that computer putting in””spending a lot of time documenting what it is that you’ve done or what the Parole Commission has done or what the courts have done. That’s a big burden.

Anthony Smith: It can be, but it has to be done. The accountability is still there. So, you just go along with the flow.

Emily McGilton: Also, having that documentation has helped us. I know it has helped me out at hearings. It’s helped me out just””you can’t remember everything about every case. So, having that documentation has been really helpful.

Leonard Sipes: When I was with Maryland for 14 years, it was all paper. Here it’s all computerized. So, here I’m amazed because you can go in and get a complete dossier on that individual going back five and six years. Where in Maryland, you had to just spend hours and hours and hours going through paperwork. And, it was a very inefficient system, but it’s still time consuming. The average community supervision officer constantly tells me well, Mr. Sipes, I’m spending way too much time plugging information into the computer, but it’s necessary. Correct?

Emily McGilton: It is.

Leonard Sipes: That from my standpoint it is necessary. What else haven’t we talked about in terms of getting people to understand your role as a community supervision officer? You’re in the community, you’re by yourself, you’re dealing with sex offenders, you’re dealing with violent offenders, you’re dealing with people who need programs. A woman who got kicked out with her two kids because she couldn’t get along with her roommate and suddenly, that offender and her two children are in the community and you’ve got to help them find housing. There are so many layers to what you do. Your job is so complex. Your job is so demanding.

Anthony Smith: Yeah, we collaborate with various programs within the community. CSOSA also has the community justice programs and they assist the offenders with both vocational and educational programs…

Leonard Sipes: Uh-huh.

Anthony Smith: Housing and various other things that may be useful to the offender.

Leonard Sipes: We deal with the faith community, which is one of the things that I do want to bring up. We have a lot of churches and mosques and synagogues throughout the District of Columbia, and they volunteer their time to help that individual offender, and they don’t have to join their religion. If it’s a Baptist church or a Catholic church or a mosque, they don’t have to join that religion, but these individuals will help that offender in terms of food, clothing, shelter, finding a place to live, drug treatment or basically how to act right. And, I’m really interested in that faith-based component. Do you guys use that, that much within your jobs?

Anthony Smith: I do. I actually have an offender who is linked with a mentor through the faith-based initiative and what the mentor and the offender have been doing is that he meets with him on a monthly basis, and they go over jobs, resume building. He invites him to church and so on and so forth. When he’s available, if not, at the least, they’ll make telephone contact…

Leonard Sipes: Right.

Anthony Smith: On a monthly basis, and it has been helpful.

Leonard Sipes: You know the interesting thing is that so many of our offenders are not necessarily caught up in formal gangs but groups or whatever it is that you call them. Other people who are involved in the lifestyle. What we call criminal activity. And, this way, if they come out and they’re involved with a religious body it’s a gang, but it’s a gang for good instead of a gang for bad.

Emily McGilton: That’s a big part of our job is reconnecting the offenders with a community that they’ve lost touch with, whether it’s religious, whether it’s drug treatment just helping them if they need to find housing, if they need to find clothing. We have offenders that come to us that feel comfortable that despite our position and that we have to report to the judge if they do something wrong, we’re also there to set up programs for them and reconnect them with the community.

Leonard Sipes: Right because we know””I mean people don’t seem to understand that the research is clear that just supervising the dickens out of them doesn’t reduce the recidivism, doesn’t necessarily make the public any safer. But, if a person has a mental health problem, getting that person into mental health treatment or getting that person into a domestic violence treatment does help.

Emily McGilton: Correct. And a lot of our offenders have overlapping issues. So, it’s up to us to determine what’s the most pressing issue. So, at any given time, we’re typically working on two to three different issues for each offender.

Leonard Sipes: Right, it’s mental health, it’s drug treatment, it’s resentment over Dad not being in the house and having that anger management issue. So, right there, mental health, drug treatment, and anger management. That’s the typical offender that you deal with.

Emily McGilton: True.

Leonard Sipes: That’s challenging. That’s massively challenging. Correct?

Anthony Smith: It is, but we have a lot of assistance from””we have a strong partnership with the MPD in which we conduct accountability tours. We’re out in the community a lot at various events, community service events where we monitor the offenders who have special conditions in completing community service for the courts.

Leonard Sipes: All right, Anthony, you’ve got the final word. Ladies and gentlemen thank you for being with us today on DC Public Safety. Look for us next time as we explore another very interesting topic in our criminal justice system. Please have yourselves a very, very pleasant day.

– Video Ends –

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