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I vividly recall my initial meeting with the Criminologist Jock Young, whose untimely death was recently announced. I had applied to undertake the part time MA in Criminology at Middlesex University and when interviewed by Jock, his inimitably relaxed but immensely authoritative manner helped me through the meeting to secure a place on the course. He asked in his insouciant way, if I had been influenced by any book on crime and deviance in looking at my work in probation. With some hesitation, I mentioned Jack Katz's seminal text The Seductions of Crime knowing well that grounded ethnographic accounts of law-breaking had greatly shaped his own criminological outlook. I also took some of the insights from the 'seductions of crime' back to the probation office.
Meeting John (not his real name) at the probation office (then situated in a part of London that had been dubbed by the local press as 'London at its most lawless') was a memorable event. His considerable accumulation of deeds of 'theft by shoplifting', and what at the time I imagined was an almost Dickensian persona, heavy build and bewhiskered and often befuddled by copious alcoholic consumption! This meant that our meeting quickly descended into a confused and rambling exchange and offered only limited scope for my pre-sentence report. The magistrates' court, recognising that John was 'in need of probation support', placed him on supervision, and he dutifully reported later in the week. 'So what can you do for me?' he declared, 'I have been "at it" for 25 years, and know all there is to know about thieving!'.
We worked together over a period of 12 months and often our meetings resembled nothing short of bilious mutterings and half remembered reminiscences of the 'good old days' before the Harrods security systems improved! John made occasional racy references to his time when entrusted by a 'Mr Big' to manage Adult Shops in Soho. I noted in small ways that John was beginning to share parts of his richly textured biography that were most meaningful to him. Maybe here was a way to try to encourage and support a shift in his approach to stealing. Maybe behaving like a fieldworker, I might drop some of what I felt was the more distancing language that probation officers adopted to get to know John better. He steadfastly declined all my efforts to home visit, stating that he had to care for an ailing relative, and did not want me to disturb his domesticity! But I did reach a point in our meetings, when I sensed, some modest changes, arising from a better understanding of his life situation, more meaningful engagement and positive experiences of probation, in his pattern of acquisitive offending. At one of our final supervisory sessions, 'Mr Guilfoyle' (he always insisted on that conventional address), 'I am reaching retiring age, maybe I am not as comfortable about stealing from shops, after all, you know more about me, than I do'.
I did politely decline his offer a yuletide present, advising that he return the item to whence it came!
Reading Vicky Pryce's experiences in Prisonomics, I was struck by a number of references she made to the complex needs of some of her fellow prisoners, which brought to mind my former supervisory contact with Miriam (not her real name).
Miriam was a troubled and troublesome woman whose enduring struggle with alcohol dependency and domestic violence required a particularly sensitive approach. When she reported to the probation office, following a Crown Court appearance for assaulting a neighbour, I had already recognised the added pressures attendant on Social Services' involvement in relation to safeguarding her youngest child. Furthermore, that the way ahead in enabling the probation supervision element of a suspended sentence order (which meant that any further infraction or breach could result in custody) was to work alongside the family and enlist those best able to tailor their support to Miriam's sometimes combustible personality.
To this end, I made a particular point of arranging to make regular home visits so that she was better able to comply with the order. Arrangements were made for her to meet with the local Social Services manager, who it appeared had been recruited to bolster the work of the inexperienced social worker, whose relationship with Miriam had teetered on breaking down. When I arrived at the Social Services Office, the anticipatory tension was evident. Miriam arrived with her child - who was unusually fractious - which meant that I was called upon to offer some empathic support so that her threats to withdraw from the meeting subsided.
It was difficult for me to hold back from expressing my annoyance at what I saw as a patronising and, at times, unhelpfully didactic approach from the manager. Miriam did not have such scruples and we agreed to adjourn the meeting to allow feelings to cool. The manager indicated that a more robust supervisory input was needed: 'We could end up with you going to prison, if you fail to agree to mandated alcohol testing', he said. For a few uncertain moments I was convinced that she was about to scupper the planned intervention, the threat of custody was palpably present and the two years that I had worked with Miriam seemed to hang in the balance.
Miriam resolved with a confidence born of necessity to comply with the planned measures agreed at the meeting, with varying degrees of subsequent motivation. But what would it have benefited Miriam, her child, or the wider community to have sent her into custody? Shortly, the government aims to introduce a punitive element in all community sentences. With Miriam, as sole carer for her child, the challenge was to assist her in complying with an ever demanding order and care proceedings whilst strengthening her family ties and offering a pathway to employability. For Miriam being on a community sentence was very far from being the sloganising 'soft option' pandered by headline-seeking politicians. She offered her usually frank opinion at the time of her order concluding, 'Mike, I got through this order... just...my heads up and you ain't goin' see me inside anytime soon'.
Are you aware of any initiatives, policies, strategies or attitudes that contribute to improving conditions or enhance the rights of people imprisoned in the UK? If so, please get in touch and tell us what they are.
We are looking for examples of what can be said to constitute ‘good’ - or ‘better’ – practice in the management of prisons in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies is the UK partner of the European Prison Observatory project , which monitors prison conditions in order to bring about improvements and to sensitise penitentiary systems to human rights issues in both adults and juvenile institutions. We investigate the way prisons are run in each of the partner countries, looking at how prison life, from admission to release, compares to the expectations set by European minimum standards.
The project is based on multilateral cooperation and aims to be the first step towards developing a pan-European network that keeps detention conditions under ongoing scrutiny.
We want to identify which models, experiments or parts of legislation could be said to be bringing about positive change in inmates’ lives. We are interested in local as well as national initiatives in all aspects of prison life and conditions, e.g.:
- Admission practices
- Accommodation conditions
- Hygiene, clothing, access to goods
- Food, nutrition, exercise, wellbeing
- Health care
- Work, education and other purposeful activities
- Access to legal advice and to other support and information
- Contacts with the outside world
- Treatment of minorities, women, foreign nationals
- Order and security, discipline and punishment measures
- Leave and incentives systems
- Dealing with harm and ill treatment in prison
- Release arrangements and ways to help social reintegration and prevent (re)incarceration.
What are ‘positive initiatives’? This is an issue for discussion, but we are thinking of policies and procedures which are characterised, for example, by
- Effective accountability systems
- Independent complaints mechanisms
- Fundamental safeguards against ill-treatment
- Treatment and risk assessments of prisoners which are individualised and proportionate
So far the project has identified a number of key issues of concern that are common to all the partner countries. These centre around the following areas:
- Safety and security measures
- Training and work opportunities
- Actions promoting rehabilitation
- Juvenile detention conditions.
Also get in touch if you have any questions or would like more information about our project. We look forward to hearing from you!
I was measurably impressed after recently reading the refreshingly honest comments of Eileen Munro, Professor of Social Policy at LSE, following the serious case review on the tragic life and death of Daniel Pelka. She said that, having examined the work pressure on social work staff in the challenging environment of child protection, and with such a complex case, 'I can't claim I would have done better'. This brought to mind a particularly stressful parole interview that I undertook when working as a probation officer.
At the time, due to staffing and workload pressures at the probation office, timescales for the preparation of parole reports had worryingly slipped. In addition, allocation processes in which probation officers were assigned specific responsibility for preparing such reports, often amounted to a chaotic and seemingly arbitrary decision making process at middle management level. Through care and resettlement issues had, due to a faltering internal reorganisation at the time, resulted in poor levels of service provision for serving prisoners. In this context, I was allocated responsibility for preparing a parole assessment report on Jack (not his real name). The timescales for preparation were seriously overdue and Jack had sent numerous complaints and left phone messages at the office. I drove to the prison some distance from London with more than a smidgeon of apprehension and approached the interview with some considerable trepidation. This was amplified when I met a prison officer at reception on the prison wing. Officers invariably allow for such interviews within the prison to be conducted without too much ado unless safety issues intrude: he suggested that he stand at the door as he was fearful for my personal safety.
When I introduced myself to Jack, it was evident that his pent up rage was at what he perceived was the lack of timeliness from the Probation Service, and which might seriously impede his chances of possible release on licence. He launched into a visceral outburst that I had to concede almost made me press the panic button! I indicated to the prison officer who then entered the room with a view to terminating the meeting that I fully appreciated Jack's genuine upset. Then I suggested that we could find a way of preparing the report which would acknowledge that any delays were due to organisational shortcomings. In the subsequent two hours, in a stiflingly small interview room, I was palpably alarmed (Jack had intimated that his access to firearms might prompt some reprisal on the middle manager he attributed some of his present woes to!). But slowly and subtly his demeanour and utterances suggested that maybe this probation officer was prepared to hear him out, and in spite of his intimidating body language (he had a serious offending history involving the use of violence) was prepared to offer him an opportunity to reflect on his index offence, victim awareness and sentence progression with a view to resettlement on eventual release on licence.
When I left the interview room, the prison officer wearing something of a bemused expression noted that I had stayed the course and commended me on my perseverance in the face of Jack's withering onslaught! On returning to the office, I set about preparing the parole report and looked again at my notes from the interview. To my great surprise, amongst the scribbled notes I had written down was a comment that Jack had made, but overlooked in the highly charged interview: 'you didn't walk away when I dissed the probation service...looks like some probation officers are decent folk!’. Looking back, it was a challenging experience - dealing with a very difficult and volatile individual who, I was informed later, was released on licence to be supervised by one of my former colleagues.
I am left pondering just how the Probation Service will continue to survive if the current sell off plans materialise and wonder if Justice Secretary Chris Grayling would have done better?
The burgeoning literature on the role of compliance in criminal justice, and in particular probation, is finely captured by Fergus McNeil and Gwen Robinson in chapter 6 of Liquid legitimacy and Community Sanctions. Whilst perusing their contribution on how easily the legitimacy of the practitioner's influence can be lost after being hard won, it reminded me of supervising a community sentence.
Ian (not his real name) was directed to attend the probation office from one of my magistrates based court colleagues for the preparation of a pre-sentence report. The index offence was a breach of an Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO). I was pleasantly surprised to see Ian in the waiting room, as the accompanying paperwork had indicated that he was homeless and destitute. However, Ian had good links with a drop-in centre that provided a focal point of support.
The interview was a lengthy one. Ian , whose appearance and associated baggage (his prize belongings he noted) suggested that he had been living homeless on the street for some years. He preferred, he stated, to remain 'unwashed' as this was a protective measure on the streets and meant that he was less likely to be victimised!
The court followed the proposal in the report that his sentence be deferred for six months so that Ian could demonstrate some motivation to address, amongst other jointly agreed actions, his use of crack cocaine. The visible reminder of this was the crack pipe that he carried with him, and which appeared an all too easy trigger for 'over-zealous' police intervention (the breach related to him carrying his crack pipe on his person). Even though he identified our meeting as a positive one, I fully expected that Ian would find it too onerous to make his next appointment at the probation office.
So when the receptionist confirmed that Ian had indeed turned up for his follow-up appointment and was regaling other attendees (perhaps less disposed to engage him in discussion) in a crowded waiting area, I was measurably impressed. I gently asked him what he felt had been the reasons that he had kept our meeting, knowing he had to cope with the chilling uncertainty of finding another safe 'snug' for the night and securing whatever funds he had by begging. ('Too much hassle at the Job Centre', he said). He brushed aside my misgivings, stating that 'I told you I would come back'. Ian found that being able to share in a meaningful way some of his dilemmas about what giving up his periodic usages of crack, and what finding settled accommodation would mean for him, made his journey to the probation office seem a little less threatening.
Over the next few months, Ian attended three further appointments (with some time variation!) and at the planned court appearance he was sentenced to a short period of supervision. ‘Would you remain my PO?' he murmured when I saw him next in the probation office. At the time, I was informed by local management that cases such as Ian's could now be handled by one of my probation service officer colleagues whose already excessive ‘lower tier/risk' caseload left me deeply concerned. A couple of weeks later I tentatively enquired as to Ian’s progress from my harassed colleague. ‘Oh, that was his name!’ was the offhand response, ‘we have approached the court for a warrant (without bail) as he has not reported’.
A short while later when passing the drop-in centre I noticed Ian in the doorway. When I asked him how he was coping and what had prevented him complying with his community sentence he said, ‘When I met you I thought here is someone who can help me, when I went to that other group I felt that I was there to be punished'.
There is no shortage of research exploring the relationship between involvement in the criminal justice system and increased problems in accessing housing. A substantially high proportion of prisoners are known to have accommodation needs at point of release; according to the Surveying Prisoner Crime Reduction survey, 79 per cent of prisoners who reported being homeless before custody were reconvicted in the first year after release, compared with 47 per cent who did not report being homeless before custody (Williams et al., 2012). Evidence suggests that lack of adequate housing upon release counteracts the assistance that is provided whilst an individual is in custody; thus, a concentration on services focused towards accommodation offers not only practical solutions to a lack of housing, but holistic support for those who find themselves in unstable circumstances upon re-entering the community.
In January 2013, the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (CCJS) undertook a research project for the housing charity, St Mungo’s, on the housing needs of women from black and minority ethnic (BME) groups leaving HMP Holloway. Organisations such as St Mungo’s facilitate services for those currently serving a prison sentence in order to help with the various challenges faced by individuals upon release; once ‘beyond the gate’, women in particular experience a variety of difficulties in finding accommodation for themselves and their families. The aim of the service for BME women is not only to help meet housing need, but additionally provide follow-up assistance to guide women beyond their housing placement and, if necessary, refer them to other services.
The goal of the research was to offer a series of recommendations which would assist St Mungo’s in engaging with the current practical challenges facing its services, and to ultimately help resolve these issues in order to benefit both the staff and service users. This involved generating evidence about the housing needs of BME women leaving prison, and about the needs that may affect outcomes from its service. The research involved the analysis of data provided by St Mungo’s in order to establish the nature of the relationships between housing needs and outcomes. The project team, led by Research Director, Dr Roger Grimshaw, conducted interviews with six service users to explore their views about the attributes of a good service, and the methods by which a good service should engage with its users. Interviews were also undertaken with St Mungo’s staff in order to find out how they view the relationship between needs and outcomes, and what, in their view, could be changed to assist in the improvement of the outcomes for its users.
The final report from the research team at CCJS put forward a number of long and short term recommendations to the organisation regarding service user needs, outcomes and further service development. Figures obtained from St Mungo’s demonstrated that the most frequent outcome for service users was assistance with a placement through a Homeless Persons Unit (HPU), followed by residing in temporary housing or staying with friends or family. The data revealed that those who had been sleeping rough before they were convicted had disengaged with the service; the report therefore suggested St Mungo’s could consider how a service for those who had been ‘rough sleepers’ could be further developed. Evidence indicated just how complex and demanding it is for a service such as St Mungo’s to access accommodation for its users. Many housing needs arose from the inability to retain a tenancy, resulting in the number of those in temporary accommodation upon release from prison considerably higher than the number of those in temporary accommodation beforeimprisonment.
The interviewing process noted the importance of continued ‘beyond the gate’ support as a significant attribute of a successful service, and it was clear that vital to most women was the assistance they received in helping to care for their families upon release from prison. Whilst palpable throughout the interviews with service users was the appreciation for the tireless perseverance and hard work of the St Mungo’s staff, women frequently expressed a bleak and negative view of housing and the growing number of shortages caused by significant external barriers outside of the organisation’s control. The research recognises that much of the housing instability is perpetuated and exacerbated through the implementation of short term, repetitive prison sentences, and the practice of ‘recycling’ convicted women through the prison system is resulting in the social punishment of not only the women themselves, but their families as well.
Williams, K., Poyser, J. and Hopkins, K. (2012), Accommodation, homelessness and reoffending of prisoners: Results from the Surveying Prisoner Crime Reduction (SCPR) survey, Research Summary, 3/12, London: Ministry of Justice.
In recent years there has been growing discussion centred on the need to work more effectively with those who have been sanctioned by the criminal justice system. Invariably the loudest voices call for job-placements or re-training to enable people to take on roles where there is a skills shortage. Yet, just as simply, it may also require offering opportunities to gain or improve an often far more important and yet frequently neglected ‘soft skills' set.
Soft skills (defined variously as ‘skills, abilities and traits that pertain to personality, attitude and behaviour rather than to formal or technical knowledge’; Moss & Tilly). are never more important to employability than for those individuals from a hard-to-reach background. These individuals often have low levels of education, little or no employment history, are disproportionately from ethnic minorities, and/or have a history of involvement with the cjs. Yet, Nickson et al., make the point that in terms of entry level employment it is often the soft skills that make the difference, rather than the usual requirement for qualifications and previous experience. Yet whilst there are many organisations across the sectors who are working with hard-to-reach clients who are unable or do not qualify to undertake accredited learning, it is something which is frequently missed from the funding stream.
Those sanctioned by the criminal justice system comprise an important and interesting group for discussions of employment, as this group exhibits the multiple deficits of both soft and hard skills variously reported by academic, NGOs, and ministerial departments. Indeed, it has been variously reported that a large proportion of those leaving custody have very low educational standards. Rhodes has added to this suggesting that sustainable employment can help reduce the chances of returning to custody. However, National Audit Office figures estimated that only 10 per cent of those leaving custody were in employment during the 13 weeks following release. And yet the revolution offered is still directed toward gainful employment and accredited learning. Directing funding in this way often neglects the argument that it also requires engagement with a system from which the individual is regularly excluded at an early age.
Concerns have recently been voiced by Chris Grayling who suggests that in order to aid the journey toward change, the individual needs to be supported and empowered to motivate the right future choices, as much as being punished for past behaviours. However, it would not be appropriate to seek a quick fix, and nor can it be achieved. Instead what is needed is a strategy for change, one which includes employment as an end goal, but which sets targets to achieve recognisable change in the skills level for the individual. Those who have been involved in the criminal justice system experience the same barriers when faced with unemployment levels in excess of 2 million people. In addition, they are also faced with the additional barriers of discrimination, social stigma and alienation associated with having a criminal record. However the majority have been convicted of petty and minor offences, which is often compounded by the associated lack of skills, qualifications, employment history and experience.
Those leaving custody or who have a record are much more likely to gain employment if they were equipped with the relevant skills required by local employers. Crucially, Nickson et al. argue that these ‘relevant skills’ are quite often the social skills that many of us take for granted, appearance, attitude, work ethic, team work, and communication, concluding that ‘the focus on qualifications ignores some key issues in skill formation within the labour market’.
What we have tried to highlight here is that if barriers are to be successfully broken down and if the individual is to be successfully equipped for employment there needs to be a greater concentration upon the broader, social and life skills if there is to be a sense of success in tackling social exclusion and skilling people for life and work.
Dr Andy Bain is Associate Professor Criminal Justice, University of Mount Union, Ohio, USA. David Pritchard is Senior Lecturer in Criminology and Social Policy ,Institute of Criminal Justice Studies, University of Portsmouth
In his provocative critique of how the American justice system concerns itself with the complicated relationship between sex-offender surveillance and punishment (Sex Panic and the Punitive State), Roger N Lancaster cautions the reader to keep track of the difference between rational fears and irrational ones. This insight brought to mind my initial meeting with Peter (not his real name) when working as a probation officer. He had been convicted of downloading sexual images of children and a Crown Court had requested that a pre-sentence report and assessment for his suitability to participate in a community based sex-offender treatment programme be prepared. He showed a great deal of discomfort and shame in our interview. At times, I struggled to suppress the recurrent urge to see in Peter all the most heinous and associative predatory aspects of sexual crime. I wondered how I might handle what many reading about such offences would see as the only proper response, namely an unremittingly punitive, controlling and surveillance driven approach to supervision.
The court accepted the proposal in the report and arrangements were made for Peter to come to the probation office (with a referral to the dedicated sex offender team in the offing). The early stages of supervision provided a foundation for what was to become a trusting and engaged professional relationship (recognising that it was important not to over-estimate the value of this type of intervention) at the expense of other aspects of his life which had disintegrated on the discovery of his sexual offending. Peter found himself without the meaningful relationship with his partner (as she had distanced herself from him when she discovered his downloading activities), and this was an area in which building hope for the future, and fostering the aim towards longer term desistance from these activities featured as joint supervisory goals.
Peter remained motivated and actively participated in the community sex offender programme (which had a specific component to address internet offenders) as well as cooperating with the Jigsaw team (specialist police officers working with sex-offenders). I endeavoured to pre-empt, what is sometimes referred to in the literature as, the 'golem effect', (low expectations leading to poorer outcomes). My expectations of Peter's efforts to successfully complete his community order (three years was the standard length for such offences), made this a challenging supervisory experience. Not least because Peter lost his job in the IT sector and found that his specific career path had to be rethought. In addition he was dealing with the often invisible stigma of such offences, including the ostracism from friends and family.
At the point at which the order was transferred to another area when Peter moved address he had not relapsed. He spoke to me by phone just after moving into his new address, 'Mike, you stayed with me when I thought that I had nowhere to go with my life, I realise that these offences are harmful but now I can see a different future opening up'.
Another element of prison life which came to light during the European Prison Observatory project was the prevalence in England and Wales of people on remand, awaiting trial, are expected to share the same spaces and undergo much of the same experience as those who have been convicted.
There is conflict between the Prison Rules, which says that remand and sentenced prisoners should under no circumstances be required to share a cell, and Prison Service policy which allows it on the condition that consent has been obtained. Neither guidelines seem to be put in effect, however, as few remand prisoners surveyed by the Inspectorate for Prisons recalled being asked for their consent. As remand prisoners are usually held in Category B prisons, this means that potentially innocent people are being held in the same cell as those convicted of serious crimes.
There are limited differences in their conditions. For example, those on remand are able to have three prison visits per week compared to one visit every two weeks for those who are convicted. The levels of amenities such as the quantity of cigarettes they are allowed also differ. People on remand are also allowed to wear their own clothes.
But in an environment as demanding as a category B prison, those who formally speaking are innocent until proven otherwise are being punished in similar ways.
It is a given that any criminologist - and next to no politician or media source - will give a health warning on the deficiencies of crime statistics as a measure of ‘crime’ or of the extent of our discipline. When discussing this with students I invite them - in their heads - to consider the numbers of crimes they have committed or have had committed against them. I might then invite them to say who has use of a car - show of hands, including my own - and accuse us all of being criminals.
Here I admit to two very recent ‘incidents’, ‘problematic situations’ (Louk Hulsman) or ‘harms’ crime/victimisations. According to Best and Furedi (2001: 111) I am an ‘academic expert’ responsible, amongst others, for spreading the phrase ‘road rage’ as ‘an expression of destructive masculinity’ (1998). They quote, as do I, comic Jo Brand on the topic, ‘Road Rage? Isn’t that blokes being arseholes in cars as well as everywhere else?’ Well my incidents involve said arseholes, in which my family insist I have to include myself.
Sunday afternoon 23 June 2013 a main but single carriage way road in Essex:
I am driving my teenage son and his friend back home. In my mirror I spot a silver VW Golf hopping in and out of the slow, but steadily progressing, line of traffic. I believe he is going too fast and represents some danger but prepare to be overtaken with some resignation to avoid personal harm. However, as he comes up behind me I see he is also on his mobile.
So I slow down and motion for him to put his phone down. He hoots, flashes his lights and then roars past only to slam his brakes on. I avoid tail-ending him and he leaps out. Remonstrate doesn’t do justice to the rage etched on his face and in his gym-honed torso but he doesn’t attack the car. I centrally lock the car and sit this out. The queue may prove to be a deterrent and he’s not to know my phone decided it was already full.
Sunday lunchtime 20 July 2013 a narrow B road in Norfolk:
My wife and I are on an extended walk of which about a mile and a half was on roads with no pavement. On the main road this was not pleasant. Later on a side road a caravan is towed at speed round a corner. We have to jump up onto a scrubby verge. I am frightened but have enough time to work out that the drawstring bag on my shoulder only has the map and a water bottle in it. I slap the caravan with it like I’ve seen cyclists do on car roofs in London when nearly killed by drivers. He screeches to a halt, jumps out and asks if I’ve ever towed a caravan at 60 miles an hour. He is clearly very angry and pushes me into that scrubby verge with its nettles. I get up, his female passenger urges him to come away. His final words to me, ‘You prick’. Mine to him, ‘That was assault’. Even though I had edited the phone’s photos to take pictures in such circumstances I could not organise myself to do so and my repetitions of the license number failed to stick.
Now I obviously hope that they will both now drive full of consideration for the next ‘prick’ around the corner. I’ve no reason to believe that police action would have been quickly forthcoming or useful or any punishment ‘work’. I’m not sure I was right not to report. I am sure that both incidents might be seen as ‘road rage’ and that my masculinity and their’s was a factor. Strongly felt both saw themselves as ‘victims’ of my actions. Crimestats fail.