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Charlotte Weinberg: The Fear Factor - Prison v McDonalds

Written by  (14/06/12)

Last Thursday I met a young man who was recently released from prison. He only served a five month sentence (for a violent offence) but he felt his time in prison had a significant impact on both his life chances and mental health. I’ll call the young man Gavin. Gavin’s short sentence had been served between Brixton and another jail where he served the majority of his time.

One characteristic Gavin describes as common in both establishments is the absolute structure of the regime. He described being in prison as ‘calm’ with few incidents of violence but little evidence of machismo or bullying. Gavin said he avoided any eye contact at all for the most part, but he noticed few people starting fights or ‘looking for trouble’. He felt safe, even in Brixton on remand. This may be a contrast to what many people on remand experience. Gavin, however, felt a sense of reprieve.

Since his release, shortly before our chance meeting (not in a professional context), Gavin had struggled to cope. He described being in a McDonalds in Tottenham as a really frightening experience where the volatility and non-verbal aggression between young men was palpable.
For Gavin, this was proving really difficult to manage. His own anger and resulting violent assault played on his mind. During our meeting, Gavin was conscious of feeling he had been unjustly treated, unheard and was completely unable to access relevant and necessary support. For him, issues of family and his own paternity were significant and he felt no one was able or willing to help him. He might even be right.

Few professionals have the time, patience, scope or remit to be able to work effectively and intensively enough with Gavin. His drug intervention programme (DIP) worker had lost his trust (‘she writes everything down and I know she’s going to use it against me one day. In court probably. What is she writing it all down for?’) and his probation worker no longer needed to see him. So Gavin presents a perfect example of the people most likely to slip through the cracks that may well emerge from the implementation of the Probation Review. Multi-agency public protection arrangements (MAPPA) are applied to the highest risk, serious, sexual or violent offenders with sentences over 12 months.

These people who have been sanctioned by the criminal justice system are the least likely to reoffend and least likely to escalate their offences. Having already committed some of the most serious offences they tend to comply with probation orders, licence or the regime of a long sentence.

MAPPA will make up the core of what remains within the probation remit after the review. So, highly skilled and trained professionals with many years experience will be able to concentrate on a small group of fairly low-risk (in terms of reoffending) adults.

The review will mean that other, traditional probation services will be commissioned out. So, people like Gavin may be dealt with by private providers or voluntary sector organisations who win contracts to pick up what was probation work. This may prove to be an excellent improvement or at least may ensure maintenance of quality of service. It will require particular skills and expertise however. Gavin represents a group of (particularly) young men who are at the beginning of a criminal career which has great potential to escalate in both frequency and gravity of offence. He has already committed a violent assault and by his own admission, can see himself doing something similar again. He is angry, hurt, isolated and afraid. He is one of the least likely people to engage effectively with statutory services or ‘orders’ precisely because he is suspicious of people watching him, recording him and waiting to ‘get’ him.  Gavin needs a lot of time and consistent, professionally boundaried attention. He has multiple and complex needs and he will be selective as to whom he chooses to work with. Gavin is highly intelligent and creative; with a great capacity for manipulation.

For Gavin, being in prison was like being underwater- the calm, heavy silence of the regime dulled his senses and repressed his violent attitudes; he was scared. Being out of prison is like popping up to the surface with the noise and smells and sights of daily life in full techno-colour.

Gavin is scared. And I can imagine some people finding him a bit scary too sometimes.

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