I've always felt that a bit of self-analysis is no bad thing. Indeed I would say it's an absolutely vital trait for any aspiring probation officer and it's certainly something we would wish to encourage many of our clients to embrace. Trying to understand why we do things is almost certainly a healthy pre-requisite for trying to understand why other people do things. Uncomfortable though it may sometimes be, in order to aid this process it can often be helpful to hear what others feel about us. In this context I have recently drawn readers attention to the Prisoners Families Views website which often contains worrying and uncomplimentary examples of probation involvement.
On the Prisoner Ben website there has been some wide-ranging and healthy discussion about various issues, including the role, responsibilities and effectiveness of probation. I have taken the liberty of quoting some comments and views from a recent post entitled 'World's Apart' in order to give a flavour of the discourse.
"These guys give every indication of believing that they help us, supports us, try to get us out.
Prisoners believe that they are inept, dishonest and look for any excuse to keep us in."
"The word Probation officer is red rag to a bull to me. I have only ever met one decent one ........... I dare say there may be one or two well meaning ones, but on the whole, most of them have got my back up. It is like dealing with nethanderals, they are so terminally stupid, they can't even write acurate notes in your file. Which is a worry if your liberty depends on it. They are not to be trusted, anyone with any sense should just tell them what they want to hear. God help the poor people who could really use a helping hand when they get out. By the way, if anyone reading this thinks the problem is me, i would understand why you would think that, but no-one else on this earth has made my blood boil like my old probation officer. Prison staff, some good ones, some bad. like everywhere, (except probation, all with micky mouse degrees from some third rate college."
"Its the new generation probation officers, or, in my case social workers who I am more worried about. What they get taught in college these days especially psychology is closer to victim blaming than anything. They then come to the 'profession', maybe with huge financial debts due to the high cost of education or supported by their parents, but know little and want to do as they are told which is to put the blame squarely back onto those who they are supposed to be helping.
These days the gap between social workers (as I have more experience of them than prison staff or probation) is even bigger and from what I can gather, nobody is happy, not the 'clients' nor the staff. Only those reaping in the dollars from costs cuts and privatisation, they are the ones sporting big cheshire cat got the cream smiles, while we suffer."
Many would agree that much of this, whilst making for uncomfortable reading, is not particularly surprising given the position we occupy in the criminal justice system. After all a prisoner is unlikely to agree or be happy with an officer making a negative recommendation for early release on Parole Licence. Or if recommending release, for suggesting conditions that might include hostel residence, exclusion zones, programme attendance or curfews. But even back in 'the good old days', public protection has always been part of the job when we were all social workers and 'helping' people. Being a probation officer never has been about winning a popularity contest with clients, but even I can see that things may have gone a bit too far.
From all the quotes above it's this one that seems to sum the issue up:-
"They are not to be trusted, anyone with any sense should just tell them what they want to hear."
Obviously there is only one way in which trust can be achieved and that is by earning it. I well remember many years ago and being the 'new boy' in the team, listening to my senior in supervision telling me that the best thing to do was not to listen to my colleagues, but go to him instead as he 'could be trusted.' I remember thinking 'not bloody likely mate - I decide if you can be trusted or not.' Similarly I wouldn't necessarily expect a client to trust me from day one, but rather it would be my aim to build trust and mutual respect as time went on, both when we agreed on things and hopefully when there were differences of opinion.
A very long-term lifer of mine illustrates the issues raised in this quote perfectly. He has spent many years denying the index offence, whilst blaming his co-accused. I always made it plain that I didn't believe him and regularly reminded him that neither did the Jury or Appeal Court. He would regularly say to me 'just tell me what you want to hear.' To which I would reply 'just tell me the truth.' He would say 'how will you know it's the truth?' and I would reply 'just try me.' This impasse has not assisted with his sentence progression.
I've seen this sentiment expressed quite a few times on various internet sites 'just tell the probation officer what they want to hear', seemingly in the naive belief that we can't tell fact from fiction or bullshit from sincerity. Trading insults is never attractive or useful but I can honestly say probation officers are not stupid. Indeed it could be argued that if there is any stupidity at all it is often evident on the other side of the desk because the one thing all our customers have in common is that they got caught.
All probation officers only want to hear the truth or honestly held opinions. Getting to the truth means reading the evidence, observing behaviour, listening carefully, investigating sources, questioning, challenging, assessing. It really is nonsense to think that our views or opinions can be swayed by simply 'telling us what we want to hear.' It's nonsense for all sorts of reasons, not least because it should surprise no one that many people facing criminal proceedings quite often lie a lot. It's often an automatic default position - just watch a few real-life police programmes on tv if you don't believe me.
One of the real skills of a probation officer is to try and build trust with a client and get them to consider options other than this automatic default position. It often takes time, but in the end enables the officer to try and help them sort out their life. It means that court reports or parole reports can be written with real conviction on the part of the officer trying to make positive recommendations. It means that the officer's integrity has to be of the highest order and sometimes that officer will be faced with professional dilemma's that are not easily resolved.
Trust is a two-way street and has to be earned, but I believe remains the cornerstone of our work if we are to be helpful and effective.