Displaying items by tag: probation
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!'
I have followed with increasing dismay the numerous concerns expressed over the likely implications of the Ministry of Justice's, alarmingly short, six week Transforming Rehabilitation consultation. If the consultation is implemented without amendments, it could lead to what many fear will be the demise of the Probation Service. Alongside this consultation trundles another legislative milestone in the shape of the Crime and Courts Bill. Contained within the Bill are concerns surrounding the provision that every community sentence should contain at least one punitive element. Reflecting on these developments reminded of a particularly difficult experience that occurred during my time as a probation officer. I was preparing a pre-sentence report on Clare (not her real name) whose index offence was one of threatening behaviour. She had according to the prosecution, persisted in remonstrating about her personal circumstances when faced with potential homelessness from council premises. The police were called to the incident and arrested her and subsequently the magistrates asked that the Probation Service provide a 'fuller picture of this troubled woman's situation'.
I noted on the court papers that the interview for the pre-sentence report might well need to be home–based (in this instance at an address funded by the community mental health services) and arrangements were made for me to visit her. I was used to visiting a high percentage of clients at local hostels and bed and breakfasts. The first meeting with Clare was suffocatingly intimate, in the sense that the B&B room provided was so small I had to write my report notes on my knees as she struggled to articulate her story of increasing marginalisation, vulnerability and an unwelcome dependency on psychotropic medication. Before the visit, I had spoken to her community psychiatric nurse (CPN) so was better prepared to understand the stresses and demands of her situation.
There was some dispute regarding her culpability and as such I was minded to propose to the court that sentence be deferred for between 3-6 months. I would arrange to see her during this time and liaise with her key workers.
I sensed that when the deferment was sanctioned Clare felt 'let down' because deferral was often construed as a prelude to statutory supervision and as such was cited as 'testing motivation'. One day she appeared at the probation office unannounced and insisted that I see her to resolve a number of issues that she believed merited immediate resolution. Hurriedly rescheduling tasks for that day, I accompanied Clare to an interview room and said that I would help as best I could. As I listened to her concerns, she became increasingly distressed. Colleagues in adjacent rooms looked in anxiously to see if my safety was being compromised. I never experienced any fear of potential harm but began to realise that her deep seated issues could not be dealt with on one day. After three hours, and one of the most fraught interviews in my 20 years as a probation officer, Clare left the office weeping inconsolably.
Shortly before her court date at the end of the deferment period, I spoke to Clare by phone and said that a period on a community sentence, shortened perhaps by her deferred sentence, was uppermost in my mind. She accepted that maybe there was some worth in re-engaging with probation, partly to access services that addressed her needs but, just as important, to allow her to explore what she believed to be her 'deeper needs' for some connection to sources of help and support.
I was profoundly saddened to hear from her key worker that staff at the B&B had discovered Clare's lifeless body in her room when they went to remind her of her appointment with her GP. I subsequently found out that she had taken a fatal overdose and had most probably lain dead over the weekend. The verdict later at her inquest recorded Clare's death as suicide. The court was duly informed of this tragic turn of events. I arranged to see Clare's CPN to try to make sense of this sad outcome. He explained that she had mentioned self harming when he visited her over many years but she had always drawn back from the precipice of self destruction. I returned to the office full of gloom and disbelief.
But whether further criminalising or indeed 'psychologising' of Clare's disruptive behaviour would have made any difference to the direction her life might have taken, is indeed a moot point. Certainly when I interviewed her for the first time she said that 'everyone needs to have someone to care for them'. From my point of view, punishment in the community was what Clare had experienced in reality.
Open Door, based in Grimsby, runs VEET (Volunteering, Education, Employment and Training) a project designed to create a community of businesses in the area to work with local women aged 18-40, who have been involved with the criminal justice system. Due to past issues they find it difficult to access voluntary placements, education, employment or training. The project works on a two tier basis: volunteering and paid placements, assisting women into work by using volunteering/paid placements within local businesses.
Funded by the Community Development Fund, the project has been receiving referrals from key partners including, Humberside Probation Trust, the Integrated Offender Management programme, Care Plus Employability Services, Empower, Jobcentre Plus and the Department of Work and Pensions.
In the latest Prison Inspectorate’s Annual Report the Inspectorate's observations capture some of the challenging and complex relationships existing between staff and prisoners. This reminded me of a particularly difficult interview that I undertook with a lifer at a High Security Prison as his Home Probation Officer.
Patrick (not his real name) was serving a life sentence for murder with a 20 year tariff. That is the minimum term to be served before the Parole Board can consider release on life licence. I met Patrick 5 years earlier when he was serving his sentence at a Category B prison. At this point in time, he had had very limited contact with the Probation Service, and his splenetic views as to this hiatus were conveyed in such a manner, that one of the prison officers near the interview room thought I needed 'rescuing'. In the event, I recall recognising that this had been an organisational failing, as many lifers preferred to delay contact with probation until nearer their tariff point.
I left the prison determined to offer greater continuity of contact and to follow up Patrick’s request that I arrange to see his elderly mother whose well being was his principal concern. His mother was the most important family member to visit him and such occasions were prefigured by a great deal of written correspondence to the office. Patrick's progression through his life sentence had oscillated between periods of emotional stability and periodic 'psychotic like' symptoms, resulting in transfers to a special hospital under section 47/49 of the Mental Health Act. On one planned prison visit prior to his transfer I was notified at the prison gate that I wouldn't be able to undertake our interview as he was 'too ill ' to be seen. I was then invited to 'listen in' to the segregation unit by phone, it was explained that Patrick had ingested hallucinogenic substances (following, it was claimed, a family visit). I vividly recall hearing what sounded very much like 'drug induced' hypomania.
After visiting his mother, I began to build a more trusting and meaningful relationship with Patrick. The changing landscape of prisons and probation signalled by the inception of NOMS in 2004 had yet to surface and the cultural differences between probation and prison staff in terms of occupational role boundaries and multi-agency practices meant that my contacts with prison staff at times often remained aloof and distant. Certainly when I prepared to attend a Life Sentence Review meeting at the prison I approached this with some apprehension. The preparation for sentence planning was, I sensed at the time, a little threadbare and I braced myself for what I perhaps unfairly imagined would be a tense and difficult meeting. In the event, my prison based probation colleague indicated that the meeting would be held on the lifer wing of the prison.
When Patrick entered the room he exuded a confident bearing and this was, I later realised, partly on the basis that I was 'on his side' having formed a good rapport with his mother. I managed to convey some of the issues that I felt needed to be discussed and participation with some of the embryonic offence -related programmes available via the prison was mooted. Patrick appeared ill at ease with any prospect of undertaking prison based programmes. At this point I realised that, without some core understanding of Patrick's deeply entrenched pattern of denial and minimisation surrounding the commission of his index offence, progress towards eventual release would be highly problematic.
Nonetheless, I was able to provide what I took to be the beginnings of an effective and consistent professional relationship which did, as I subsequently discovered, offer an opportunity for Patrick to think afresh about the impact his offences had caused to others and his own carapace of deeply held anger.
At the conclusion of the meeting, held a little unnervingly in one of the vacant cells on the wing, Patrick held me in a constricting embrace and said unabashedly 'Mike I want to be free someday to see my mum at home and you have made that dream seem possible'!
The Geese Theatre Company is a team of actors and group workers who present interactive drama and conduct workshops, staff training and consultation within the criminal justice system. Since 1987 the company has worked in more than 150 custodial institutions and in 42 probation areas.
They have worked with:
- those in prison, on probation, or in mental health settings
- young people who are seen to be at risk of being caught up in the criminal justice system
- professionals who work with these client groups
An example of one of their projects is Re-connect exploring resettlement on release from custody and focussing on: drug use and relapse, re-integration with family, parenting and re-establishing connections with children and work and employment issues.
While new ministers at the Justice department may be expected to concentrate on delivering the new policies put in place by their predecessors, they have a chance to put their own stamp on the way we deal with people in conflict with the law. So here are three proposals for Mr Grayling and his team.
The first is to talk to the sentencing council about reducing the 'going rate' for particular crimes, especially those which do not involve violence. A recent study on lessons from Europe found milder sentencing tariffs in several countries where crime has been falling (as in the UK) but where prison numbers have come down too. While reducing the maximum penalites for theft and burglary would be politically hard, working with the sentencing council to develop more austerity in the use of imprisonment would be feasible. Why not look to apply the 20 per cent reduction in public spending expected by the end of this parliament to the average prison sentence?
The second suggestion is to champion community based measures as alternatives to short prison sentences and to encourage the necessary resources for their implementation. This is not just about making sentences tougher which a bill going through parliament is expected to do. It is about encouraging stronger relationships between, on the one hand probation, health and social services and voluntary organisations working with offenders; and on the other the courts and communities which they serve. Some are sceptical about whether community sentences in their current form help to reduce imprisonment. But if we are to succeed as a society in locking fewer people up we will need instead a wider range of community based measures - therapeutic, restorative, educational and supervisory – to deal with the aftermath of crime. Justice Reinvestment offers a promising approach but not yet a clear model or methodology.
Third the MOJ should give a much greater attention to young adults in the justice system. The focus of the Youth Justice Board on under 18’s has brought results - not least a 45 per cent fall in the number in custody between June 2008 and June 2012. One option would be to extend the YJB’s remit to cover 18-21’s. Short of this an initiative to apply the lessons from youth justice to the next age group up is surely overdue.
There are many other priorities to which the MOJ could and no doubt will turn their attention. The advantage of these three is that they will keep the treasury happy without compromising public safety.