Displaying items by tag: probation
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'.
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'.
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'.
I was particularly delighted to be able to attend the recent 16th Bill McWilliams Memorial Lecture held at Cambridge University, presented by Professor Paul Senior entitled : Privatising Probation: The Death Knell of a Much-Cherished Public Service? Concluding his lecture, Senior made reference to the unwelcome interventions from mandarins (?) in the Ministry of Justice in what appeared to be a spasm of 'Stasi-like' paranoia, to pressure the sponsors of the lecture to alter/delete the 'provocative' epigram! These revelations caused equal measures of anger and dismay from the distinguished audience of probation watchers that the portals of academia could be so assailed! On my way home, I recalled how organisations can at times excite bouts of blinkered conformity when faced with the dilemmas of practice that challenge established ways of working.
One such incident when I was a probation officer kept surfacing in my thoughts. I was apprehensive at the prospect of supervising Ian (not his real name) as his prior pattern of offending had represented a high degree of destructive behaviour. He would engage in actions that, whilst starting off as attempts to 'cock-a-snook' at the authorities, often this brought him very close to potentially lethal outcomes. For example, when he stole motor vehicles and was subsequently involved in high speed police chases. On one occasion Ian said he had deliberately crashed the stolen vehicle he was driving, as he sensed that on the next street a school crossing might well be in use! It took a considerable investment in supervisory engagement to change his perspectives from such harmful risk taking behaviour towards more positive and productive lifestyle choices. I shared my supervisory concerns as to Ian's modest improvements in his managed level of risk (this being the calibrator for more resource led decision making) with my line managers. There appeared to be some inkling that Ian, having found employment and stable accommodation, was reaching a pivotal point in his troubled offending career, when the options for staying offence-free might begin to feature as a more enduring aspect of his changing 'offender' identity.
The telephone call I received from a detective, who was investigating a 'serious armed incident' involving Ian, remains indelibly etched on my memory. I was able to establish some basic facts surrounding the alleged incident and provide some broad information on Ian's response to supervision. What completely confounded me was the expressed intent to effect his arrest at the probation office, when he next reported, with an armed response unit, on standby. I agreed to ring back later when I had discussed this planned operation with my acting manager, but I also conveyed the concerns I had with experienced probation colleagues, who shared my opinion that any such arrest should be at the home address (known to the police) rather than at a busy probation office in the middle of the day! Maybe Ian could be persuaded to surrender so that no further harm would be occasioned to him or any innocent bystanders. He rang and remonstrated that he had not been involved in any such incident in the first instance. Realising that I was privy to information about the allegation from the police, he rang off. I was deeply worried about the implications of such an approach and spent an anxious day or so mulling this over.
I was equally perturbed at what I (and other experienced probation staff at the office) detected had become a palpable shift in local organisational practice. For example, that a number of recalls to prison had been effected on probation premises, when the individual under supervision reported on licence and was then, unsuspectingly and often unceremoniously, arrested in situ and taken into custody to be transported to the nearest local prison. The message appeared to be less a concern for the safety of staff, more an expedient managerial diktat that overlooked the critical importance of ensuring that such safety was also extended to those under supervision (if possible). In the event, Ian took a non-lethal drug overdose, averting what I most feared, a lethal incident at the probation office, and was arrested in hospital.
He later wrote a letter when on remand awaiting sentence, in it he stated, 'I know that you cared about what happened to me, even though I done wrong, maybe next time I will listen a little harder'.
One of the more enduring and troubling images in the public imagination, often used in a morally censorious way by sections of the media and politically motivated policy makers, has been that of the 'welfare scrounger'. Listening to a recent over-heated radio debate on this issue, I was reminded of the scene in the 2000 political thriller The Contender in which the actor Gary Oldman (playing Sheldon Runyon) opines, 'people will believe me because I'll have a very large microphone in front of me'.
This brought to mind my supervisory contact whilst working as a probation officer with Roberta (not her real name). I had been allocated a pre-sentence report on Roberta who was due to appear for sentencing at a local magistrates' court for false representation. That is to say, she had legitimately claimed entitlement to social security but had not informed the Department of Social Security (now the DWP) of a change in her circumstances, and as such was being prosecuted. It proved to be a difficult interview, less due to the complexities of the case; prima facie the prosecutorial burden had been proved. But the emotional impact of this prosecution (attempts to arrange repayments without the shame of prosecution proved fruitless) was immediately and distressingly apparent.
The court followed the proposal in the report that a period of supervision was appropriate (on reflection this might well be construed as too onerous given the facts?) and an ancillary penalty known as a Money Payment Supervision Order (usually employed for fine defaults) was imposed. Although Roberta's circumstances remained precarious, she was able to agree that supervisory contact, whilst aimed at reducing the risk of her reoffending, was also an opportunity for her to access the assistance of an able welfare advisor, who offered targeted support with money management. The beginnings of the order seemed to herald a straightforward supervisory experience and Roberta cooperated and appeared to recognise that the shape and frequency of future meetings (home visits included) would be determined by her continuing good progress. What was less apparent at the time was the very real difficulties she began to have in coping financially: a situation made more challenging with the arrival of her first child. The office meetings began to assume a more fraught and unsettled aspect and the modest repayment schedule had to be renegotiated via the court.
What also began to intrude into our discussion was an altogether more testing understanding of her index offence and the emotional attributions that she now felt. 'Disgusted' with herself, Roberta believed that being labelled a 'welfare cheat' was somehow going to irreparably trap her in a 'loser' identity.
The order was concluded successfully and the repayment schedule (although extended) was eventually paid. However, the impact of the prosecution and the fall out from what she perceived as her 'welfare cheat' identity somehow morally excluded from making good on her intentions to lead a 'good life' with her newborn child. It led me to think just how have such stereotypical representations permeated the current deliberations of the future of welfare reform? Of course amongst other things critical attention needs to be given to the intersecting links around class, race and gender.
Roberta shared an insight at one of our supervision sessions in which we looked together at some of the ways she might shake off the emotionally laden 'welfare cheat' identity, which is so powerfully exploited in popular debate, and she said: 'surely a label cannot control me?'.
Wolf and Water works with groups in prisons, probation and youth teams. Using drama and arts techniques they aim to develop prosocial skills amongst those sanctioned by the criminal justice system by exploring and challenging the attitudes that led to offending behaviour and considers the consequences on their victims, and on themselves. The creative work is designed to develop communication and team work, thus generating a sense of self esteem with a shared goal and the opportunity for a sense of achievement.
Jock Young has offered many telling insights into crime, power and class structure and recently wrote a fascinating profile of the rise and fall of financier Bernie Madoff (in How they got away with it: white collar criminals and the financial meltdown). This reminded me of my time as a probation officer when I was given supervisory responsibility for Brian (not his real name). Brian's financial transgressions, although on a considerably more modest scale than Mr Madoff, in stealing a significant pot of money from his employers accentuated some pertinent themes arising from white collar crime. When Brian arrived for his appointment for the preparation of a pre-sentence report, his smart, articulate and affluent bearing appeared to sit uneasily with many of the presuppositions that often frame these meetings.
The custodial sentence, as the judge noted, was an 'inevitable outcome' as this was a 'grave breach of trust'. My first post-sentence prison visit to meet Brian was a curiously unsettling experience. The oppressive interview room with all the noise and pent up frustration together with Brian's unflappable demeanour caught me quite by surprise. He asserted that having 'undertaken national service' was a perfect preparation for a spell inside and he cited the offers of help and assistance that he provided to inmates aware of his professional background with letter writing and appeal hearings. The circumstances of his offences appear to owe more to a sense of misplaced loyalty than any narcissistic plundering of the firm's books for personal gain. He politely requested that I make discrete enquiries to ensure that his property remained secure and that I support, if needed, his transfer to an open prison. When next we met it was indeed at the open prison: suitable for his designated cat D status (lowest risk of harm and not likely to mount an escape attempt). By this time Brian had reached a point in his sentence when early release on licence was soon to be realised. His achieved status as a white collar prisoner had, it seemed, resulted in a largely untroubled (outside of the pains of confinement) sentence progression.
I visited Brian after release at his flat close to a busy London landmark and his hospitable offerings by way of lunch made for a stress-free interview. He complied with his reporting requirements and was often seen unhurriedly walking his dog in an adjacent park. The loss of income and livelihood was much more difficult to negotiate for him. There appeared to be no artifice to Brian's return to the community and his modest outlays in rent and subsidence suggested that he had not squirreled away any ill-gotten funds. I remained bemused that Brian appeared to cope with his fallen status and did not adopt the rhetoric of victimisation when faced with the challenge of regaining employment (he was approaching retirement age). Brian's well adjusted and solid persona helped him to re-integrate into society after his time inside. Maybe greed and excess entered into Brian's actions when faced with easy access to financial dealings. The losses sustained by his insider fraudulent behaviour were covered by the firm's indemnity fund and far from 'getting away with it' he was apprehended, prosecuted and jailed.
After one home visit Brian pointed towards a framed certificate on his wall, 'I got that after two years' National Service, maybe you should get a certificate that says you have done your time'!
These were exciting times for me and I took every chance to move on. My Open University studies were the most important thing to me now with regard to my overall rehabilitation to date. Prison industries could not provide me with anything in comparison, only mind numbing work.
Which I was refusing to do now because there was no benefit in it for me, as is the case for most prisoners.
Yesterday I was invited in to a prison by a governor who I met on my travels to help their team to understand the everyday problems of resettlement. One of the things I heard off one of the governors of that establishment was that prisoners get too many benefits being unemployed i.e. free council passes and so on and that the dole is probably the best we can expect in life. I went off it and got into a debate with her, I was fuming!
My argument being: am I not to have any aspirations like wanting to have normal things in life like a relationship, pay bills, start a family and support them? Have a secure foundation after prison so I do not re offend and am a law abiding citizen and not a burden?
This is what we are up against on a regular basis with narrow minded governors, this one worked in a young offenders Institution. So what future prospects have they got when this is the perception of their governor?
After I had a go at her 2 Independent Monitoring Board members come up to me and said what I was saying was having a greater impact on them prior to anything they had heard before.
At these events I call myself an 'ex-offender'. Another governor who I know through my travels does not like me to describe myself like this, but after yesterday's debate, that divide is still there. Them and us. She has just affirmed that with her beliefs of what we are and what to expect - nothing.
But, getting back to prison.
I could see light at the end of this long dark tunnel and even start planning for my future release.Time was flying past.
I was in the prison badminton team and we used to stay out until 11pm in the prison and were told to make our own way back to our cells. I didn't need to ask permission to go anywhere. You were responsible for yourself and everyone embraced it. The opportunities were unbelievable, paid work, college, Prince's Trust, voluntary work - basically anything you wanted to do the prison was geared up for it and helped you achieve it.
Within days of being there, I had to send my Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) forms to my probation officer who had eight weeks to return them for me to have a full day out with my family. One morning my pad mate came back telling me he was out for the day next week and asked me if I had my ROTL. I chased it up in the wing office then down to the ROTL clerk and anywhere else I could think of. There was nothing there for me so I phoned my probation officer. She was on visits in but was due back in the afternoon. I was missing my deadline date if I didn't get hold of her, when I called back in the afternoon they told me she was on holiday and would not be back until next week.
When I say I lost my head you better believe it!
I called the Chief Probation Officer for Teesside and she had to do my ROTL, something that had never been heard of then and today. First she did not want to talk to me but I'm persistent and wouldn't be fobbed off. I was in the right and I have waited a long time for this. I refused to work with her any further she had no time for me and vice versa.
My time there was great but, as a resettlement regime, for me it was too far away from home and therefore no long term benefits for my release and I asked the governor for a transfer closer to home.
He gave me another ROTL to make my own way there and told me it was the worst cat D going and I was making a mistake, I was better off there. But I needed to be closer to home.
I was off again.
In Ben Shephard's moving book A War of Nerves he uses a phrase from the WW2 poet Keith Douglas (killed in action in 1944) which immediately evoked a memory from my former experiences as a probation officer. The phrase which resonated so strongly was 'beast on my back' and Duncan's (not his real name) expression came into mind. Our first meeting was unnervingly fraught. The case papers hinted at a challenging and troubled individual whose attempts to remain offence–free were usually undone by alcohol binges when a propensity for violence would surface. There was a clear need to try to engage with Duncan and to steer him towards sustained abstinence as a prelude to harm reduction in the areas of his personal life that excited judicial concern.
The sentencing judges noted that although he showed a willingness to comply with the terms of his current community sentence, he was concerned that without a firm approach underpinned by some therapeutic support that Duncan's bouts of violence could escalate worryingly. Duncan offered some broader reassurances to me, that with a pending offer of employment and the chance to settle down with his partner, any misgivings expressed by others could be safely discarded. I remained unconvinced that he had the drive to achieve his goals without some lapses on the way.
Duncan chided me for my lack of faith and suggested I should visit him at his temporary address which would offer added assurances that he had 'mended his ways'. When I arrived at the home address, I was shaken by the almost impenetrable fug occasioned by the heavy tobacco smoke that Duncan's flatmate was giving off. The elderly flatmate was the flat owner.
When we next met at the office I felt that some greater scrutiny was merited into the nature of this relationship, as the responsibilities of informal carer appeared to be swinging in Duncan's direction. This sense of foreboding remained whenever we met, and the topic of whose care was best handled in such an arrangement met with a sullen refusal to open up the conversation. My efforts to clarify the status of this relationship with the local authority did not elicit much by way of raised concern. Duncan did agree to meet with an alcohol worker, which was an important step showing his willingness to discuss the misuse of alcohol and how this was impacting negatively on his relationships with others. I had shared my concerns with my colleague about this scenario as I believed that money belonging to his flatmate was being siphoned off for the consumption of alcohol.
The pattern of supervision did stabilise the tentative beginnings of a more honest professional relationship, with trust leading to the exploration of changes in his approach to better handling his conflicted feelings - often masked by his alcohol usage. Duncan began to feel more enabled in his supervisory meetings and offered insights into his, at times, very visceral anger. He would sometimes bang the desk as if acting to hold back a distressing and intrusive set of thoughts. What lay behind these wounded mutterings? I was slowly sensing some lived trauma that he felt unable to share and that might require greater therapeutic skill. He did eventually offer a terrifying glimpse of what he was trying to suppress. As a former soldier who was enlisted in a UN mission to secure a safe haven for civilians in a war zone, he had witnessed the aftermath of a terrible massacre perpetrated by militia. These scenes of carnage and naked destructiveness, he had tried to block out ever since. Indeed this was 'the beast on his back' and something he could only admit to after two decades.
Reflecting on how Duncan, and many of those former soldiers who now find themselves on probation caseloads, cope with the trauma of war the prescient words of Keith Douglas may serve to offer an insight into the 'beast on my back':
'I can admit only once to anyone, never to those who have not their own!'