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'!
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.
There have been many occasions during my 20 years as a probation officer when I was confronted by a distressed and angry parent or relative of a serving prisoner or young person protesting their innocence of the offence(s) for which they were sentenced. Once there was the unexpected arrival at the Probation Office of the irate mother of a young offender (the term 'offender' is given to a young person sentenced for a criminal offence between the ages of 18 and 21) called Stephen (not his real name). I had been allocated casework responsibility for Stephen shortly after he was sentenced to two years in a Young Offender Institution (YOI) for robbery.
Unusually I had not prepared the pre-sentence report for the hearing and as such felt a sense of palpable awkwardness when I looked at the contents of the report in a stuffy interview room with Stephen's mother. The author had commented on the fact that Stephen had not accepted responsibility for this offence and had said that he had been 'framed' by the police. This was greeted with suitable judicial derision and the remarks on the court case papers made for uneasy reading.
Stephen's mother had a resolute and heartfelt belief that mistaken identification had played a crucial role. She claimed to know the identity of the actual perpetrator as he had 'openly' admitted to the fact and this widely heard admission had added to her feeling that an injustice had been committed. I asked how Stephen was coping, having earlier spoken to probation colleagues at the YOI to enquire as to his welfare, and if he was considering an appeal. The appeal against sentence and conviction had been lodged within the 28 days timeframe. At that point, I arranged to visit Stephen and to keep his family informed of my contact. Stephen rang the office and we had a conversation, conducted with the noisy and volatile backdrop on the wing at the YOI.
He requested that I defer any decision to visit him in custody pending the outcome of his appeal. Afterwards Stephen's mother invited me to her address as I had to undertake a Home Circumstances Report. I readily agreed to the home visit and on my arrival, all family members presented themselves (including the feisty family dog), and I was given an impromptu viewing of Stephen's bedroom bedecked fortuitously in the colours of my favourite football team!
The course of the appeal was grindingly slow and it was ever more likely that Stephen would be released before any appeal decision had been made. Stephen's family ties and their fervent belief in Stephen's ability to readjust (in light of what they perceived as a major injustice) really challenged my own preconceptions on some of the quotidian approaches to seeing people who offended as somehow in need of 'fixing', to how best to repair the harm, occasioned by what I could accept was an injustice, with his family and the community. Indeed the one sustaining element which kept Stephen on track during his sentence was the hope of release and his being found innocent.
I met Stephen on the day of his release. He was quietly self-assured and agreed to comply with the terms of his licence (notwithstanding his appeal). I had disguised my own disappointment when an over-zealous middle manager had admonished my attempts to frame Stephen's evident unwillingness to participate in an offending behaviour course – as a part of his licence supervision – as an expression of a legitimate concern that this might confirm his offender identity! Collusion being the unspoken shibboleth of what was often viewed as being ' too close to the offender'!
The pathways towards a successful re-entry to the community had been facilitated by his family support and Stephen had opted not to engage with or contact the person who had 'boasted' that he had 'got away' with this offence. He cited the many occasions in which he had been stopped and searched by Police as he was known to them when a juvenile and mentioned the particular animosity that he had engendered when he had successfully complained about being harassed. To his credit, he was mature enough to be able to distance himself from such events and the take up of employment via a solicitous uncle had removed him from the malign peer driven pressures so many of his contemporaries were exposed to engage in offending.
I recall his mother ringing me on the day that his licence period had expired, her dented confidence in the 'justice system' tempered by what she deemed my open minded and decent approach towards her son, I averred that I hoped that he would be exonerated in due course and secure some redress for 'stolen time'.
Some of my own preconceptions and prejudices had been challenged and I began to rethink my approach to the issue of miscarriages of justice as more than just occasional system failures. In Stephen's case it remained an alleged miscarriage of justice as the appeal was eventually unsuccessful.
But his mother's words at the outset of her struggle for justice for her son were 'Don't just look at the surface, see if you can look in the heart'.
In a memorable passage from his powerfully crafted memoir, Gone Boy, author Gregory Gibson brings to the readers' unwelcome attention the painful fatherly realisation and uncomprehending grief, when sitting across a room viewing another young man around the same age as his recently murdered son Galen, at the now to be unrealised possibilities of his son maturing to manhood. It was while reading this memoir that I was gripped by a strangely intrusive flashback (maybe a vicariously experienced trauma?) of an incident when working as a probation officer that for a long time afterwards, continued to exercise a haunting half shadow in my mind whenever I passed by the scene of a violent death. The significance of this place arose after I had secured day release from the governor at a local prison for an individual who was coming to the end of a custodial term for manslaughter. Bernie (not his real name) had been compliant and cooperative during his sentence, and I had kept in regular correspondence with him. At the outset of his sentence Bernie expressed a positive intention to engage with the dedicated treatment provider at the prison. It was as his problematic drug usage that had contributed towards a verdict of manslaughter after trial.
I prepared a lengthy pre-sentence report when Bernie was held on Judges Remand (which refers to when the defendant has been convicted and is kept in custody whilst awaiting sentence). This report was well received at point of sentence by the Crown Court judge, who also had a detailed psychiatric assessment which drew attention to the volatile cocktail of drugs that Bernie had consumed ('enough to have proved fatal to a racehorse'), prior to a fight that he had with his close friend and roommate. This resulted in what was described as a 'frenzied' altercation, and the untimely and avoidable death of his friend from head injuries. Any references to this offence – following my allocation as Bernie's home probation officer – in our correspondence was at best muted and although he acknowledged his role in the death, Bernie expressed the view that he felt he had been 'therapied up' enough during his sentence and wanted to try to move on with his life upon his release. On his day release, I met Bernie at the prison gate and drove him to the police station which covered this part of London, so that we could pick up the detective sergeant who had investigated the killing and had access to what had been the crime scene.
It was agreed that Bernie would collect his personal effects from the house and we would then transport them by car to a storage depot in another part of London. On arrival at the address, I felt a creeping apprehension at what I might experience, in light of the fact that the house had remained unoccupied since the fatal night some 18 months earlier. This apprehension was amplified when the keys that the police officer had in his possession failed to secure entry, and he consequently had to climb in through a rear window. Having opened the front door, Bernie went to collect his personal effects and I followed him into the semi-darkened room that had been his home prior to the offence. I was wholly ill-prepared for the shocking visceral aspects of what still resembled a crime scene; scattered objects and personal items that had belonged to the victim mixed with some of Bernie's own property. The house had remained unoccupied and as such, the human reminders of a violent and frenzied assault assailed the senses. Blood spattered walls, now discoloured by the passage of time, that I could barely imagine were routinely alluded to by the hardboiled detective watching impatiently as clothes and paraphernalia were hurriedly gathered up. Bernie collected what he could and we left the premises with some alacrity. I tried to fathom from him his emotional responses to re-visiting this distressing scene during our journey to the storage depot, and he offered fragmentary insights into the kind of person the victim was and the equivocal impact this experience had engendered for him.
I recall that when I dropped him off, he planned to visit the benefits office before his return to prison, having placed his meagre belongings in storage; he had left 'other stuff' behind as it was just too painful to collect. I reminded him that he had to be back at the prison by early evening. He subsequently returned to the prison as agreed and observed the terms of his day release. I did not have the opportunity of post-release supervision on licence as Bernie had secured accommodation in another part of London, so case responsibility had been passed to another probation colleague. He did send me a final letter in which he accepted that he would struggle to fully come to terms with the enormity of his offence. He also opined that my retaining optimism and hopefulness in the face of what he expressed was the tragedy of holding responsibility for the death of his close friend, had helped him cope in a more resilient way with the stress of what he had done. 'I hope we meet again' he penned. I did not see Bernie again, but I never forgot the sadness which gripped me whenever I recalled the trauma of witnessing the aftermath of a life lost.
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'!
Napo’s centenary AGM is being held this year. The union, formed in 1912, is famously captured in a contemporary monocrome photograph taken on the footsteps of Croydon Town Hall after its inaugural AGM. In 2007 Napo, together with kindred organisations connected to the Probation Service, celebrated 100 years since the seminal 1907 Probation of Offenders Act which laid the foundations for the modern service. An oral history of probation was published by Napo to mark the earlier centenary suitably entitled 'Changing Lives' and contains some wonderfully vivid recollections from former practitioners of working at the front line.
But the most piquant insights into what, for me, remains the core concern of probation work are contained in some of the telling oral histories unearthed in the 2007 anthology. One story worth recollecting in particular, penned by the late Mark Harris, encapsulated many of the historic tensions and challenges presented when working with clients euphemistically described as 'hard to reach'! It brought to mind a number of occasions when I was called upon to undertake the duties of a court probation officer (Magistrates’) and realised to my dismay that I had at least nominal case work responsibility for a defendant whose name regularly featured on what was dubbed by court officials as the 'overnight list'.
Billy (not his real name) was one such individual. His modus operandi was depressingly familiar and caused the magistracy no end of headaches in deciding how best to deal with him by way of sentence. Billy spent most of his time on the streets and when he was infrequently sober, he could evince a most pleasant demeanour. Sadly his sobriety was short-lived and he would invariably resort to smashing shop windows to secure a bed for the night in the local police station. He was considered all but incorrigible even by the local 'Spike' (DSS Hostel) with its Dickensian echo, whose gritty staff would ring to say that Billy could be accommodated, but with the familiar caveat: if he remains sober and desists from breaking windows!
On the fateful day that I occupied the duty probation officer bench, when Billy appeared before the firm but decent stipendiary magistrate, he was as a bedraggled, mumbling individual unsteady on his feet and placed in the dock a safe distance from court staff (for olfactory reassurance!). The ever busy duty solicitor had conducted a brief cell interview and offered the court what was the standard default for minor criminal damage occasioned by 'habitual inebriates' - a day imprisonment in lieu. That is a day in the cells (having been arrested and kept overnight at the police station). The magistrate invited Billy to comment before sentence and then mused that he was minded to consider another option. He enquired that with Billy's troubling circumstances whether his 'welfare' might be something that the Probation Service could assist with. I dutifully agreed to speak to Billy and asked that the court adjourn his case until later in the day.
When I went to interview Billy in the cell area, a probation colleague piped up, ‘he is one of your voluntary clients’, (it appears that a hasty transfer process had occurred) and when I introduced myself to Billy as his probation officer, he harrumphed, ‘Oh, are you?’ and stomped off. I rang the outreach worker at the hostel and after some strained negotiations arranged for him to be seen later for an assessment. When Billy appeared for sentence, I updated the court on my contacts with the hostel and proposed a deferred sentence to enable him to re-engage with health care staff, and that I would remain his probation officer over the intervening period. He marched off after sentence, uttering some profanity, but later to my utter amazement attended the appointment with me . His subsequent dealings with probation most likely merit a separate posting! The recent disturbing report commissioned by the Howard League for Penal Reform, Deaths on Probation, includes these telling comments....
‘care’ for people under supervision should have higher status in the priorities of probation trusts. A hundred years after the Probation Service was enjoined to 'advise, assist and befriend' is perhaps a good time to go back to basic principles?
When recently viewing the Justice Select Committee's call for evidence for the new Inquiry into women caught up in the criminal justice system and the extent their multiple and complex needs are addressed and integrated across government, I reflected on one of my earliest and most poignant experiences while working as a probation officer. My vivid recollection of supervising Susan (not her real name) was of a brash and obstreperous but extremely vulnerable woman, whose propensity to dishonesty in the furtherance of her offending appeared at the time to exceed anything that I had previously experienced. I sensed that her high risk drug use and multiple heath related problems mirrored the broader experiences of many women enmeshed in the criminal justice system and this offered a compelling reason for me to think more creatively about tailoring my interventions towards some longer term treatment options.
Over the time I got to know Susan, this pointed inexorably towards residential drug treatment. I struggled to fully comprehend many of the pressures and complex needs that she often alluded to (a leitmotif picked up by the Corston Report) but felt a keen desire to assist her in a practical and proactive way. The fact that I aimed to adopt an open, empathic and 'easy to talk ' to approach meant that my efforts appeared to be valued. The fact was that her pattern of acquisitive crime (mainly shoplifting but also burglary) was directly attributable to her drug usage. Her difficult and self destructive personal circumstances meant that her aims to assume greater control over her life, needed to be supported within a coordinated and holistic treatment option. The Crown Court Judge agreed to a further adjournment (this was at a point in time before the advent of better integrated drug treatment sentencing options), and as community drug agencies appeared unable to meet Susan's specific drug/needs profile, a residential treatment centre was mooted. Thus began a prolonged process of assessment and applications for funded treatment. A safe and suitable venue was identified and the court agreed a period of bail assessment, so that Susan's resolve to remain drug free for a month, as a motivator to admittance, could be tested.
Having developed a trusted and meaningful relationship and been persuaded that she was on the cusp of being able to access the assistance and support that she had so often talked about wistfully in our meetings, the crucial court appearance arrived. I was in attendance (it was more commonplace at the time for probation officers to attend court in person on such occasions) and having addressed the court, a short adjournment was agreed as last minute administrative details needed to be clarified. To my utter chagrin and the courts’ dismay, Susan had left the precincts of the court and was thus in breach of her bail. To add to this unseemly embroglio, a wallet belonging to one of the court based probation officers had 'gone missing’! The Judge issued a No Bail warrant and I returned deeply disappointed and deflated to the probation office to wait what was only a matter of time before the Police located her.
I was stunned and saddened when some days later I received a phone call from a friend of Susan's informing me that she had been found dead in what was described as a 'drug den'. It seems she opted to return to a familiar, but tragically for her, lethal drug session. Her death hurt so much that I felt unable for a time to focus on my other probation duties. A somewhat case hardened 'manager colleague' blithely stated that she was ' just another druggie' and that I would have experience losing a client more than once in the years ahead. I did discus this loss in a subsequent team meeting which offered some measure of support to me in being better able to deal with my sense of grief.
One of the saddest aspects of Susan's foreshortened life was taking possession of some of her property held at the prison. It arrived in a cardboard box and one of her letters read...'I think I have the strength to make it....’
One of the most moving experiences I can recall as an audience member was listening to the painfully eloquent words of Tricia Bernal (her daughter Clare was murdered in 2005 by a stalker) at the 2011 National Napo AGM. She described the traumatic impact of her only child's untimely death shot by a male employee who had stalked her beforehand. Her tireless campaigning led to a Parliamentary Enquiry into stalking law reform and setting up Protecting against Stalking.
A few years before, whilst working as a probation officer, I supervised a young man who had been convicted of criminal damage to property belonging to the ex-partner of a woman he had become overly attached to. The 1997 Protection from Harassment Act came into force about the same time I became Peter's (not his real name) probation officer.
I became increasingly perturbed by the manner and behaviour he exhibited when reporting to the probation office, and at times I became hopelessly stuck in knowing how best to respond to the perceived incremental/decremental risks which Peter presented. This was before the introduction of the now all pervasive Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA) and I relied heavily on the support of the senior probation officer.
I aimed to provide an anchor for Peter in our weekly meetings so that he could, if needed, take the clinical risk of really looking at some of the personal and anxiety provoking experiences that were psychologically meaningful for him and seemed to point at other times towards some disabling psychotic state. This was compounded by Peter’s utter hostility to any need for the services of the psy-professionals ('Mind Doctors'). In particular his loathing for what he claimed were the hubristic claims of psychiatry, for which he attributed his failure to achieve his goals in life and blamed for his involuntary detention (whilst living abroad). Therefore, other avenues of professional support were regularly rejected. Indeed recognising the importance of using ordinary language in order to see the person behind the 'disorder' and answering to the challenge of social context in contributing to his evident distress was equally important.
Since then there have been significant and well documented cultural shifts in the way protecting the public is construed between the Police and Probation. At the point at which supervisory contact ceased with Peter when his probation order expired what had as noted been the embryonic public protection framework above has now become embedded in daily practice. My subsequent practical experience as a probation officer dealing with the vexing issues of risk and safety, often against a backdrop where the agenda is often set by extreme crimes and public anxiety never abates when it comes to framing media-led stories of dangerousness. Yet as the campaign to foster a greater awareness of the harms occasioned by stalking, probation staff (and others) still have to try to grasp the nettle of dangerousness and by so doing ensure that its impact is lessened.
But as I experienced when working with Peter, this threat of harm to others is often very elusive and difficult to pin down. At the final three-way meeting that Peter requested (with the helpful attendance of my manager colleague) it was clear that he had dutifully reported and broadly complied with the terms of his order. He did not favour the bio-medical model which at the outset of supervision in some very dark meetings had threatened to unravel in a frighteningly unpredictable way, but he spoke positively of the value of the 'good relationship' we had.
Maybe good relationships are a universal therapeutic good as the single most important ingredient in effective psychiatric care?
And maybe Peter had at last begun to find a way forward to work towards his life goals without causing harm to others.
I recently attended a meeting at the Fabian Society to mark the publication of Punishment and Reform: How our Justice System can help to cut crime. The event was intended to presage one of the many policy reviews currently being undertaken by the Labour Party, and the criminal justice system was the focus of a lively and informed debate with Sadiq Khan MP, the Shadow Justice Secretary, as the keynote speaker. Having alluded in my question to the likely adverse impact on the Probation Service of impending organisational changes and financial cuts, the evening was further enlivened by a brisk and somewhat shrill exchange from another interlocutor and Mr Khan on whether a future Labour Justice Secretary would reform IPP sentences, described as 'one of the least carefully planned and implemented pieces of legislation in the history of sentencing'.
This exchange elicited from me more than a passing nod of recognition as it resonated with an unsettling telephone conversation I had with a serving prisoner, just prior to my leaving the Probation Service who was subject to an IPP. I had known John (not his real name) for many years as his erstwhile probation officer. I often pondering how John, with such a deeply troubled emotional persona, compounded with unspecific personality difficulties that at times resulted in explosive rages, would cope when presented with some of the well documented resource and organisational deficits, 'bureaucratic limbo' in how IPP prisoners negotiated their safe release, often beyond their tariff, back into the community. In John's case it was being referred to the prison based CALM programme which unfortunately was not at that time currently on offer at the prison he was serving his sentence at.
When I visited John after his release on licence from an earlier prison sentence, I strongly sensed that he was sincere in wanting to 'sort his life out' and put some of the distressing aspects of recent grief experiences behind him. I remained of the view that, until he was able to more safely integrate and address some of the deeply held anger he harboured towards his abusive past, any sustained period of harm free living would be too challenging for him. When I received a very emotionally charged telephone from John, I knew immediately that my worst fears about his potential for harm either against others or himself had again come to pass. He explained that he intended to kill himself and wanted me to know that I should respect this decision.
Prior to this call I had spoken to the Police, who wanted to arrest him when he next reported to the Probation Office and an armed response unit would be on standby. I found the few days when John was 'on the run' extremely upsetting, fearing that he would most probably be shot by police or harm himself. John pre-empted this by taking a non-lethal overdose before being arrested at a local hospital. It transpired that he had attacked a relative and the nature of the assault qualified as serious enough to fall within the ambit of the IPP framework.
There are pending changes to IPPs and the compelling need to ensure that those released back into the community (supervised on licence in the first instance by the Probation Service) are given every opportunity to work towards a crime free lifestyle. A system of sentencing that seems arbitrary and capricious to the sentenced population will not, in the long term, secure compliance – and indeed may generate defiance among serving prisoners. Certainly the time for reform of IPPs is overdue. I do hope that John makes good on his decision conveyed to me from prison on his plans for eventual release to put his past behind him and that the opportunity so far denied him to undertake the CALM programme will be offered to him for all our sakes.
It was with wry amusement that I read the hortatory announcement recently from Crispin Blunt (Probation and Prisons Minister) that he wanted front line probation staff to move away from what he described as the 'defensive tick-box approach' to supervising those on statutory orders and he was introducing a revised version of National Standards. Since the introduction of National Standards, the Probation Service has prescribed an ever tighter, iterative and standardised set of rules and mandatory guidelines into the practice arena for staff working with those under probation supervision.
I had a particularly piquant experience (amongst many I should add) whilst working as a probation officer that had precipitated my decision to consider leaving my post which encapsulated the peculiar tensions around the vexed issue of securing compliance, whilst at the same time ensuring that procedures for breach (taking an order back to court) remained just. This critical juncture in my probation career occurred whilst working with a disaffected young man, whose engagement with probation had been at best fitful and who viewed all types of authority through a very negative lens.
After a hesitant start to his new order (which overlapped with an unexpired period on licence as someone released from a Young Offender Institution) the pattern of contact via weekly reporting to the probation office (he did not want me to visit him at home due to family stresses) began to evince tell tale signs of disengagement. I worried that, if I could not provide a more realistic and constructive opening for training leading to potential employment, the order would falter and custody would follow fast. I found that the Prince's Trust was seeking to enrol applicants aged between 18-24 years old for one of its employment/peer support programmes in the locality. After much brokerage, I managed to persuade this client that the ten week commitment, whilst a significant challenge to his notions of time management, could offer a real platform for widening his employment options. To my immense relief he participated and completed the course and after convening a post-group meeting with the course leader, I recognised that this opportunity had been transformative for him, whilst acting as a staging post to full time employment. It had changed the way that he viewed his engagment with probation and offered a positive pathway to potential employability.
However, although he successfully completed the ten week course and recorded a very positive rating by the dedicated staff members (including a seconded police officer) his reporting over this time to the Probation Office had been erratic. The supervisory focus I had pursued was to enable maximum participation with the Prince's Trust and regular liaison with support staff as an adjunct to this. It was manifestly clear to me at the time that this was an anti-criminogenic approach to be applauded! I was instructed to take out a breach and subsequent attempts to meliorate this fact appeared to place my 'intransigence' as indicative of what was colloquially refered to in probation service parlance as an 'Old School' ideological resistance to taking enforcement action! Maybe there was a barely sublimated desire to ensure that the straitjacket of National Standards was in the best sense of the word subverted. Especially when nagging doubts arose that skilled professional judgement and the exercise of discretion should so easily be subsumed for bureaucratic convenience. The Probation Service has put its staff and the way it works into boxes, yet those like this young man whose positive behaviour did not fit so neatly into any box had proved that he had the capacity to change. I was always stronger on relationship building than process management when working as a probation officer. Mr Blunt now wants front line probation staff to become 'empowered to lead the Rehabilitation Revolution'.
When I informed my young client breach action was to be instigated, he shrugged his shoulders and mumbled 'I told ya so'!