Thursday, 28 April 2011

Invisible Probation

It's always interesting to see what other people are blogging about and I notice that recently the Justice of the Peace blog picked up on a case going through York Magistrates Court and the fact that the Bench refused to impose reporting restrictions. I don't find that at all surprising in a shoplifting case, but I do find it astonishing that the probation service is not mentioned once in three newspaper reports by the York Press.

Actually there are a number of unusual aspects to this story as in my experience the local paper gave up routinely attending court some time ago. Obviously they turn up if they get wind of a notorious case or a tip off about a strange or unusual angle, but in this instance it appears that the middle-aged defendant deliberately approached the local press. It seems that such was her desperation and possibly vulnerable emotional state on being released from prison homeless that she poured her heart out to a local journalist 'in a cry for help.' 

"The 51-year-old, who was jailed after pleading with a policeman to arrest her for shoplifting, claimed she had no choice but to steal because it could be up to six weeks before she received any benefits after coming out. “I wouldn’t survive otherwise,” she said. “I know that admitting this to The Press means I am at risk of being arrested and jailed yet again, but I have nothing to lose. I have been to jail perhaps 25 to 35 times. I hate it there, it is absolutely vile, and it’s costing the taxpayer almost £1,000 a week to keep me there, but sometimes when it’s freezing, it’s better than on the streets."

Apparently during the course of her time in prison the woman had been in contact with a local parish priest begging for help and the congregation were in the process of assisting. This, together with the newspaper article and some competent mitigation, seems to have led the court to decide on a six week deferment. When she duly appeared for sentencing, she was given a Conditional Discharge  and sent on her way.

What I find astonishing in all this is the complete absence of any mention of the Probation Service. All courts have access to probation Court Duty Officers and having served as a CDO in recent time, I can say that I could not imagine not being involved in a case like this at some stage. I would have made it my business to start enquiries in a pro-active way and if it had not come to my attention, the usher, solicitor or reporter would all have been keen to make me aware, even before the case was called. It would be blindingly obvious to everyone that this woman had a whole host of problems and needed some help.  
Now I know it's unwise to report on any case without having access to all the information and it's just possible that the probation service was involved, but even if they were, sadly I'm beginning to feel they were of little use. I can almost hear someone saying 'there is nothing we can do; we're not a welfare agency; she's low risk of harm; she's not suitable for a programme; etc etc. It makes me very depressed about the direction in which we are going as here we have a woman in her 50's, homeless, probably with some mental health issues and regularly going to prison for shop thefts. How come this is not part of the remit of the modern Probation Service? She needs to be on Probation supervision and in my court I think she would have been, whatever the mealy-mouthed management guidelines had to say about it.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

The Prison Restaurant

Generally speaking I think it's extremely beneficial that HM Prison Service seem to be much more relaxed nowadays about allowing tv cameras into prison. I think it's important that the public get a chance to see more of what goes on behind the high walls and security fences of what are essentially quite closed and secretive institutions. In particular that they get a feel for exactly what kind of person we are locking up in greater numbers proportionally than virtually any other European state and the challenges these people pose the staff on a daily basis.

HMP High Down is home to a remarkable and so far unique experiment in offering prisoners essentially a route to redemption through learning to become accomplished chefs. In this BBC1 tv programme 'The Prison Restaurant' we see that the hard-nosed and pragmatic Catering Manager has succeeded in persuading the prison hierarchy to allow charitable funding of a posh training restaurant and kitchen within the establishment, with selected prisoners being given the chance of gaining an NVQ and chance of employment upon release.

It sounds a brilliant idea and indeed it is, but the failure rate is a sobering reminder of just how many seriously damaged, immature and emotionally unstable people are behind bars. As the story unfolds and we follow the fortunes of several new recruits to 'The Clink' training restaurant, we begin to get some insight into the all-too-familiar phenomenon whereby significant numbers of offenders have a behavioural default setting that can only be described as 'self-destruct'.

The reasons can be complex, but undoubtedly connected to early life experiences. For example the young, immature black lad who had to learn self preservation in a succession of childrens homes and now can't resist playing up to the camera's by nicking the bottle of Fanta, smoking and not realising that he wouldn't get away with threatening another inmate. My guess is that he has never known the continuity and unconditional love and support of any parent and now finds it difficult to respond to substitutes in the form of the motherly prison support officer. He always was high risk and the Manager knew this, but it was worth giving him a chance. Hopefully he will learn the connection between cause and effect and will mature sufficiently to be able to take positive advantage of the next opportunity when it comes along. 

It was interesting that the older and initially very promising waiter could not avoid that 'self-destruct' setting either and childishly got into the computer system to alter the wording on the till receipts. In the process he amply demonstrated a degree of arrested development that meant he couldn't resist testing the boundaries, indeed just like a naughty child. I was amazed when quick as a flash he almost automatically asked 'how he could redeem himself' and didn't really seem to be too bothered when he was told he'd simply 'blown it'. It's a sad fact that many of our damaged offenders with arrested developmental histories find it very difficult being able to respond to trust. It takes time and repeated skill and effort.

For me the most disturbing part of this excellent look behind the scenes was the man found in the process of 'slashing'. Some clients are so badly damaged by early life experiences that the only way they feel able to deal with the hate and anger is to direct it at themselves. The default 'self-destruct' setting is set almost on maximum and they attack their own body in a horrifying manner. It was obvious from the brief glimpse the camera gave us that this man had done this many times previously and had scars all over his arms. It reminded me of a very dangerous and damaged man I helped to supervise some years ago who had slashed every accessible part of his body whilst serving several long prison sentences. The experience taught me many things, not least that redemption is possible for most people. It can take a very long time, a great deal of patience and some skill, but above all I believe it's worth it for all our sakes.  

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

What's in a Name?

The relatively new chief of the London Probation Trust Heather Munro decided to put her head above the parapet a week or so ago and agreed to an interview with the Guardian. I wasn't sure what to make of it, but it seems the Daily Mail did and particularly took her to task over the use of the word 'customer'. I must admit I agree and have always regarded it as extremely cynical when the term was introduced by the old DHSS in place of the strictly accurate term 'claimant'. You will recall that British Rail substituted 'customer' for 'passenger' some time ago and this still rankles with me.

I suppose in trying to be generous, in each case the organisation involved felt there was an image problem and that by changing the name things could be improved. Hence Windscale became Sellafield and the Police Force became the Police Service. Ever since I can recall, the probation service has used the term 'client' but has never seemed that comfortable with it. This became more of an acute issue with the evolution towards us becoming a Law Enforcement Agency with the result that there have been a number of attempts to come up with an alternative, but it is not easy.

I guess way back the term 'probationer' was used for people being supervised in the community, alongside the more obvious 'prisoner' for those who were not. But there was a need for a neutral term in order to recognise our dual role as Divorce Court Welfare Officers, hence 'client' was universally adopted. At the point we lost that role and were becoming more conscious of public opinion, we had a stab at calling people 'cases'. This didn't last long as the absurdity of talking about inanimate objects having arrived at reception for their interview eventually dawned, so we tried 'offender' instead and I guess this is where we sort of are currently. Of course regular readers will not be surprised to hear that I and many like-minded colleagues have stuck resolutely to 'client' and still proudly sign letters as a 'probation officer' and definitely not as an 'offender manager'. 

So where does this leave us in relation to 'customer'? Maybe Heather Munro was just 'flying a kite' in order to test reaction? I agree entirely with the sentiment she was expressing about according everyone respect and reference to 'customer' seems to have been purely illustrative. In my view the job simply cannot be done in any other way. According to a spokesperson, this was indeed her main message and there is no intention to introduce the term. Surely common sense says that calling people 'customers' when they have no choice in their contact with us is cynical in the extreme?    

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

A Few Observations 3

This is the point where I'm reminded of an elderly lady who, having died and the house was being cleared out, her relatives discovered that she had meticulously kept and stored everything for future use. In amongst piles of stuff there were three boxes of string, one labelled 'string 4 feet to 8 feet' another said 'string 2 feet to 4 feet' and the third said 'string too short to keep'. These are the bits too short to deserve a post of their own.

According to the Sunday Times of 17th April, but sadly hidden behind the Murdoch paywall, Ken Clarke and the Ministry of Justice are intent on getting prisoners to construct their own jails. It explains that "construction companies are to be encouraged to train inmates in trades such as bricklaying, plumbing and electrical work while they build secure accommodation for themselves." I haven't seen this reported elsewhere, but sounds a very good idea. It is however not new or novel as I have previously posted about HMP North Sea Camp which was constructed by Borstal boys in 1935. The lads were marched to the site from Stafford and lived in tents until their permanent accommodation was completed. Now wouldn't that be an idea! Every time the classic war film 'Dirty Dozen' comes on TV it reminds me of this.

Another very interesting prison innovation is described in this article from the Guardian about HMP High Down and their pioneering training restaurant developed with charitable funding. An absolutely brilliant concept and a clear demonstration of how prison Governors have succeeded in hanging onto the freedom to innovate in stark contrast to the Probation Service. I notice from the charity website that the BBC have made a documentary 'The Prison Restaurant' and it's due to be screened on BBC1 at 10.35pm 26th April. I suspect it will be well worth watching and help show best practice within the Prison Service.

Unfortunately the Prison Service in Birmingham is heading into very stormy waters with the Prison Officers Association decision to ballot members on industrial action following the announcement to privatise the jail from October. This is not that surprising as Birmingham will be the first state-run prison to go private as opposed to new-build prisons. It is widely reported that up to 3,000 troops have received rudimentary training in prison operation, but I can't help feeling this decision by Ken Clarke to deliberately take on the POA will inevitably end in tears. It will be very unsettling for many prisoners and it is to be hoped we do not have a long hot summer that encourages inmate indiscipline.

Finally, it's depressing to see from Jonathan Ledger's NAPO blog that some Probation Trusts have started breaking ranks and cosying up to the 'big boys' in the bidding process for the Unpaid Work Contracts. Nottinghamshire are going into partnership with Serco and are now joined by Essex teaming up with Sodexo. This may ultimately prove to be a pragmatic decision, but it will all get a bit nasty if one Trust finds itself bidding against other Trusts. The trouble is it probably makes Ken Clarke smile.   

Monday, 18 April 2011

Unemployed or Unemployable?

I can't help noticing that Inspector Gadget and Bystander of Magistrates Blog fame are somewhat unusually of one voice recently in highlighting the issue of structural unemployment on certain estates at a time when there appear to be lots of unskilled jobs available locally. The thesis is that the predominantly white indigenous population are lazy, workshy and quite happy to lounge around on benefit and typically allow the hard-working Eastern European population to take the jobs. Now I wouldn't particularly disagree with this analysis, but would suggest it is essentially because sadly many of these people are unemployable

This situation has arisen for a variety of reasons but will be all too recognisable to probation officers. We know that due to the restructuring of many heavy industries, there are simply no longer the large amount of unskilled jobs available. Many people in the category we are talking about are possibly second or third generation who have not known employment. Previous governments positively encouraged a 'disability culture' and as a consequence significant numbers have been used to classifying themselves as medically unfit to work. Many will have failed state education and have literacy and numeracy problems. Virtually all will have little or no motivation due to extremely low self esteem and absolutely no work record. Just ask yourself this question - would you employ someone like this? 

Of course this is not a new phenomenon and successive governments have tried to alleviate the problem by giving assistance towards the transition from long-term unemployment to work. Remember the old Youth Training Schemes and Job Creation Programmes? The last Labour government spent a small fortune on New Deal by paying third sector providers to prepare such people for the world of work and they had a degree of success, but it is not easy. The coalition government intends to do the same thing with the new Work Programme, but eligibility has increased to 9 months for the 18-24 year old age group and for those 24 and above, 12 months. I'm sure that all probation services are like mine in having direct links to agencies specifically tasked with assisting people into employment.

All this would not be necessary of course if our education system was doing it's job right and preparing young people for the world of work. I have said it before and I say it again. In my experience the vast majority of people that I come into contact with do not decide that a life of idleness is preferable - they want a job. Remember employment is the means by which most human beings define themselves and it's absence can be extremely damaging in terms of emotional well-being. There is a consequential high risk of destructive behaviours such as drug and alcohol addiction, self harm, violence and mental illness. 

Despite the image sometimes portrayed, a life on benefit is very, very depressing. Many feel they are utterly trapped and gave up all hope of looking for work ages ago. Unless and until we can sort out our education system, this group are always going to need a great deal of support and attention in order to get them productive. Yes it will require a degree of stick and carrot, but lets not just call them lazy and feckless without looking a bit further into the background.   

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Louise Casey's Legacy

Once again an item on the BBC Radio 4 programme 'Sunday' has pointed me in the direction of todays post. It seems that Westminster City Council are having another attempt at trying to implement former homelessness czar Louise Casey's answer to the problem of homelessness by criminalising it. The tory-run local authority is in the process of trying to enact byelaws that not only would make sleeping rough in an area around Westminster Cathedral illegal, but would also make it unlawful to supply food and drink to such people. A rather neat twist on the Elizabethan poor law treatment of the homeless in not just moving them over the town boundary, but also  criminalising the people undertaking christian charity. It's not very 'Big Society' is it? 

This is the sort of issue that really makes my blood boil, especially when you hear statements from council housing officers saying things like 'there is no need for anyone to sleep rough on the streets, there is plenty of provision.' From the comfort of that persons secure employment and housing position, what that person is really saying is that all these hundreds of homeless people really would prefer to sleep on a few cardboard boxes in doorways or under bridges.  This is not just a disingenuous statement it is a downright lie as we all know the problem of homelessness is growing and there can sadly never be enough hostel or emergency accommodation for all those who need it. There will always be a need for some form of street provision of food and drink as part of outreach services and encouragement into shelter accommodation. What this is really about is shifting the problem somewhere else and attempting to drive it further underground and out of sight.

As all probation officers know full well, homelessness can happen to anyone who's circumstances suddenly change and it can be a frighteningly quick journey to the streets. So much more so in times of economic recession. If this new byelaw goes ahead it will trigger numerous similar applications for other parts of the capital and probably other British cities. Somewhat unusually this issue has wide political opposition with even the Daily Mail being critical. Lets hope we can sort this out soon and deal with this particular aspect of Miss Casey's legacy once and for all. 

Friday, 15 April 2011

We Don't Do Welfare

It's an extraordinary situation. Ask the average person on the street what they think probation is all about and most would say something along the lines of 'don't they help people in trouble with the law?' Those with a bit more knowledge will be aware that past legislation required us to 'advise, assist and befriend' offenders and that all probation officers had to be qualified social workers. That all changed when Paul Boetang famously rebranded us as a 'law enforcement agency' and we were set on the present punitive path where 'resources follow risk'.

I have blogged many times on the tensions this has caused between old and new-style officers. However, what is becoming more evident is that many newer colleagues are beginning to rail against what they increasingly see as a failed approach towards offenders. It shouldn't be that surprising of course because basically our everyday clientelle have remained pretty much the same with the same range of problems and deficits. What has changed is our method of interacting with them in the new spirit of just trying to deal with the 'offending behaviour' bit of things. 

Now eventually all bright new practitioners will realise this is just so much rubbish and that 'offending' cannot be looked at in isolation. Even NOMS realises this and identified some time ago what they term as the seven 'pathways' that need to be addressed in order to reduce re-offending. The following is copied from a prison education website, but exactly the same headings can be applied to clients in the community and none of it is rocket science, as they say.     

Accommodation and support. A third of prisoners do not have settled accommodation prior to custody and it is estimated that stable accommodation can reduce the likelihood of re-offending by more than a fifth. It also provides the vital building blocks for a range of other support services and gaining employment.

Education, training and employment. Having a job can reduce the risk of re-offending by between a third and a half. There is a strong correlation between offending, poor literacy, language and numeracy skills and low achievement. Many offenders have a poor experience of education and no experience of stable employment.

Health. Offenders are disproportionately more likely to suffer from mental and physical health problems than the general population and also have high rates of alcohol misuse. Not surprisingly, 31% of adult prisoners were found to have emotional well being issues linked to their offending behaviour.

Drugs and alcohol. Around two thirds of prisoners use illegal drugs in the year before imprisonment and intoxication by alcohol is linked to 30% of sexual offences, 33% of burglaries, 50% of street crime and about half of all violent crimes.

Finance, benefits and debt. Ensuring that ex-offenders have sufficient lawfully obtained money to live on is vital to their rehabilitation. Around 48% of prisoners report a history of debt, which gets worse for about a third of them during custody and about 81% of offenders claim benefit on release.

Children and families. Maintaining strong relationships with families and children can play a major role in helping prisoners to make and sustain changes that help them to avoid re-offending. This is difficult because custody places added strains on family relationships.

Attitudes, thinking & behaviour. Prisoners are more likely to have negative social attitudes and poor self-control. Successfully addressing their attitudes, thinking and behaviour during custody may reduce re-offending by up to 14%.

Now I'm struggling to see which, if any of the above, is not in some way connected to a human beings welfare. Contrary to belief in some quarters, probation is very much involved in welfare. 

Thursday, 14 April 2011

The Leaving

As anyone in the public sector knows full well, the end of March, beginning of April can be a strange, even surreal period. For years colleagues in HM Inland Revenue have traditionally enjoyed a New Year party as the old tax year draws to a close and ushers in a bright new one. In other parts of the public sector, probation included, in stark contrast to the exhortations all year to save money, there is typically an urgent phone call or e-mail from Head Office asking if we need any desks or filing cabinets? In fact anything, as long as it can be spent now and avoid the tragedy of losing unspent money left in capital budgets. In days gone it meant speedy visits to Argos or Dixons for a new pool table for the day centre or video equipment for groupwork. Nowadays it's more likely to be for a new fridge to keep the packed lunch in.

But it's also a period when time-served colleagues decide it's time to pack it in or cave in to the thought that just maybe this might be the last year Early Retirement is on offer. I always find it sad when the inevitable notice comes round announcing the imminent departure of yet another colleague who seems to have been part of the fabric forever and whose wise counsel you know you are going to miss. Ever since I set out on this journey over 25 years ago, I have marvelled at the wit, wisdom and skill of many colleagues and in particular how they crafted the English language on a daily basis in order to convey ideas, passion and reason. It really is a skill that is sadly disappearing as anyone reading what passes for a PSR today will testify to.

Over the years it has been a bit of a probation tradition not to go quietly however, and one or two of us have hung on to particularly noteworthy 'final thoughts' as the author leaves the building. The following came into my possession several years ago via a colleague in another area, but is so good in my view that I feel it's worth disseminating a little further. As well-loved colleagues depart into well-earned retirement, I find myself dwelling on the sentiments so ably expressed and that are possibly even more valid today. Needless to say, I share them entirely. Should the person recognise their handiwork, I hope they forgive the impertinence, but my motive is one of simple admiration. 

"For most of the.....................I have been employed by.......................,I have enjoyed the pleasure and the privilege of working with predominantly dedicated, robustly compassionate and often highly creative colleagues. There are many aspects of what used to be the best job in the world which I will miss. However, there are other aspects which I will be glad to leave behind as the role and the organisation become increasingly procedural, defensive and, above all, tedious. 

I will not, for example, miss OASys, the cumbersome, time-consuming hindrance to coherent assessment as opposed to the aid which it purports to be.  I will not miss case management, an initiative so ill-defined and fragmented that most would not even recognise those whose risks we are supposedly managing if we fell over them in the street. I will not miss accredited programmes and the evermore ludicrous pretence that they are universally, rather than occasionally, effective. I will not miss sterile, open-plan offices in which we rarely look up from our computer monitors to talk to each other and in which we often seem to prefer the virtual reality of data input to client contact.  I will not miss the happy-clappy, hierarchical culture which pretends that all is well when clearly it is not and which sometimes patronises, sometimes vilifies, always disqualifies the ideas of all but those who have taken the corporate management shilling. I will not miss the madness and immorality of an organisation which promotes a disproportionate number of its staff to middle management positions only to supplement their already increased salaries with the proceeds of freelance 'flat-rate' PSR's, which mysteriously they have no time to prepare during the day-job but which, unsurprisingly, there are no longer sufficient main grade officers to complete. Least of all will I miss the bullying hypocrisy of certain managers who routinely label disagreement as resistance to change when their own idea of adventure and adaptability often amounts to no more than sitting at a different table for lunch in the head office canteen.

One facet of the Service which I will most definitely miss is the challenge of writing persuasive court reports within specific constraints and to tight deadlines. I will also miss the many gifted storytellers whose practice of this narrative art is about to be further undermined by the roll-out of a 'painting by numbers', short-form PSR. I will miss the collective spirit, generosity and gallows humour of a range of colleagues with whom, at various times over the years I have shared team meetings, awaydays, groupwork (including residentials), family therapy sessions, court welfare disputes, practice teaching and even, for a short time, Divisional Management Meetings. I will miss the many students, trainees and other fellow-learners in whose development I have had the good fortune to be involved, albeit that some of them will not necessarily miss me. I will miss, in particular, the unfailing kindness and quiet efficiency of clerical and administrative staff, whose insufficiently recognised contribution to the work of the Service is reflected in their scandalously low pay. Last, but by no means least, I will miss the clients who despite their many imperfections and sometimes horrific acts remain, lest we forget, the means by which we all pay our mortgages and put food on the table, as well as a reminder that "...there but for fortune go you and I."    

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

NAPO's View

With all the recent discussion about how to deal with 'Billy', I thought it was interesting to see what NAPO had to say about the subject in their response to Ken Clarke's sentencing Green Paper. Basically there has been a huge increase in the numbers of young people being locked up since YOT's were established with a staggering two-thirds of the entire Youth Justice Board budget being used to purchase custodial places. The whole document can be found here. 

The Probation Service does not have responsibility for supervising persons under the age of 18.  These functions were transferred to the Youth Offender Teams more than a decade ago.  Napo has expressed concern in the past that the number of young people entering the criminal justice system has risen sharply and that the Youth Justice Board uses a disproportionate amount of its funding to purchase young offender places from the prison service.

All available evidence suggests that early intervention is the best and most effective way of reducing the chances of a young person being involved in crime.  The vast majority of persistent young offenders come from the most dysfunctional families and poorest housing areas in the UK.  Young offenders are also highly likely to have been excluded from school and to be persistent truants.  Reconviction rates for the under-18s are very high.  Currently 75% are reconvicted within a year.

It is alarming that 22% of children aged between 12 and 14 received into custody are there because of a breach of a community intervention such as an ASBO.  Barnardos has also estimated that a third of 12 to 14-year-olds in custody did not appear to meet the custody thresholds as defined in the powers of the Criminal Courts Act 2000.  Nearly 5,000 a children a year, aged under 18, are remanded into custody.  We are concerned that the Prison Reform Trust (PRT) has estimated that 85% of children in prison show early signs of a personality disorder.  (Bromley Briefings, Prison Reform Trust 2010). Napo applauded the decision of the Scottish Parliament in February 2008 to end custodial remands for children aged under 16. It is crucial, therefore, that the successor to the Youth Justice Board spends the majority of its budget on prevention rather than incarceration (the latter currently attracts two-thirds of its spending).  At the end of September 2010 there were 10,114 18 to 20-year-olds in Young Offender Institutions.

As stated elsewhere in this response, 60% of young people in custody have difficulty with speech, language and communication, which affects their ability to participate in programmes in custody.  It is encouraging however that according to the PRT a third of sentenced young men say they gained a qualification whilst in prison. This should be encouraged and increased.  By contrast, the PRT has also pointed out that Young Offender Institutions have the highest assault rates of any prisons in England and Wales and that mental health problems and drug misuse are commonest amongst young people in prison.  It is also of concern that 69% of young women in custody have harmed themselves, according to the annual report of the Chief Inspector of Prisons in 2008. 
A report published in 2009 by the London Young People in Focus Group suggested that young people who were not in education or employment were 20 times more likely to commit a crime.  It adds that 53% of young aduIts aged between 17 and 24 were not in employment at the time of their arrest. It would seem therefore that the key to reducing the involvement of young people in the youth justice system is to invest in early intervention with their families, provide a decent education and ensure that they have the skills to allow them to gain paid employment. 

It would seem therefore that the key to reducing the involvement of young people in the youth justice system is to invest in early intervention with their families, provide a decent education and ensure that they have the skills to allow them to gain paid employment.

Fortunately I do believe this happens to be government policy, so on this issue at least, NAPO seem to be singing off the same hymn sheet.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Professional Dilemma 5

Unlike previous professional dilemma's this one does not relate to a specific incident but rather a series of observations I've made over the years. It's come about as a direct result of a conversation with two long standing friends and colleagues who have progressed to becoming managers. Over a drink and meal out, the conversation wandered onto the topic concerning the particular difficulties encountered by team managers in having to absorb all the crap from below, at the same time as getting it from above. As always, these conversations only ever serve to remind me how clever I have been in avoiding that particular elephant trap.

But then we got onto the serious bit about other colleagues we had known over the years and in particular the horror stories. I'm sure every field of endeavour has them. The people who are completely unsuited to the work; the lazy and bone idle; the dangerous and scary. I had sort of always assumed that management were aware of such people. After all, surely that was part of their job? It certainly never crossed my mind that it would have been in anyway appropriate to impart  concerns or negative observations about colleagues to the manager. After all, we were all professionals and it felt so much like 'telling tales out of school'. Surely it said more about the messenger than the subject? I suppose my own insecurity meant that I would have been horrified to learn that I might be the subject one day?

As the conversation developed, my thoughts went back to the colleague that got a 'buzz' out of bullying young male clients. I could still see the look of glee on her face when she had succeeded in scaring them witless. The colleague who made clients lives hell and as a result they demanded to go to prison rather than ever see her again. The colleague who regularly refused to see clients who arrived 5 minutes late. The colleague who just couldn't be bothered. Sadly there had been quite a few 'wrong 'uns' over the years in my opinion.

Having shared these thoughts with my two manager friends I was genuinely surprised by their reaction. In perfect harmony they both intoned 'Oh you should have definitely told the manager'. Until then it had never ocurred to me to do such a thing. It would have seemed so disloyal. Although I was fairly clear the behaviour was unprofessional and didn't meet my standards of behaviour, it didn't seem to fit into any clear-cut disciplinary category of say inappropriate sexual relations with a client. This or similar I would have reported without hesitation. It was just very poor professional behaviour in my view, but surely the team manager can see it if I can? 

I'm still not sure about this, even though I am acutely aware that some clients got a very raw deal indeed. Some went to prison who possibly shouldn't have done. Some have been turned off 'probation' for ever. But I would still find telling a manager a real professional dilemma.     

Sunday, 10 April 2011

The Inspector Writes

This time it's Inspector Gadget and he's back in the Daily Mail with a spirited piece about what he feels is going wrong in the police service. He is of course the long-standing author of the hugely popular police blog that bears his name and who was accorded the enormous honour of getting a mention on last Friday's BBC 1 tv programme 'Have I Got News For You'.

Well he didn't exactly get the mention, but the badgers did who he says are often identified as being responsible for breaking into garden sheds. You know, the sort of fairytale world of unreality that once identified a bus company that didn't pick up passengers 'because the buses needed to run on time.' Well it seems that in order to 'massage' crime statistics, the badgers are sometimes unjustly blamed for burgling sheds. All this is of course part of the Blair legacy where what is said is far more important than what is done.

I have to say I have always recognised much of what the Inspector describes and have a huge amount of sympathy with him and his colleagues. Yes a lot of the canteen culture displayed daily in the blog comment section is sometimes worrying, annoying and boorish, but it does us all a great service in probably painting a more accurate picture of British policing today than any HMI report, Police Authority comment or Chief Constables assertions. In many ways the police have suffered from more political interference than probation over the last twenty years or so, with more to come in the form of the ridiculous replacement of Police Authorities with elected Police Commissioners. I think it was hugely worrying when Chief Constables were appointed on fixed term contracts instead of on the same basis as Judges by indefinite Crown Appointment.

Actually mention of the Judiciary brings me on to an area where I have to part company with the Inspector. I guess it would be surprising if the probation view of the world were exactly the same as the police view because we clearly inhabit very different parts of the Criminal Justice System.  I always find it very disappointing and unhelpful when he has a regular 'pop' at the Courts for supposed inept or misguided sentencing, knowing very well that informed comment is notoriously difficult in the absence of full information. Sadly, just like politicians, the suspicion is often that the motive is to get attention from the right-wing press. 

But it's not just having a 'go' at the Courts that concerns me, not least because they can't answer back, it's also about a chap called 'Billy.'  This young man who is very well known to us all in the CJS is the source of much concern and heated debate. He has accumulated a vast number of previous convictions and whilst we bemoan him causing us enormous amounts of work and heartache, he is of course at the same time one of our best and most loyal customers. He might be reviled by the police, but paradoxically he helps to pay all our wages and ensures the mortgage is covered each month. 

Of course it could be said that it's just the job of the police to keep catching 'Billy' and hand him over to the Courts and probation service to try and stop him. True this is not a simple process and patently we only have limited success, but it is mainly our sphere of endeavour, not that of the police. We need to keep saying that the simplistic response of just locking 'Billy' up for ever-lengthening periods does not and will not work.

Politicians like Ken Clarke have now dared to say this and face down the 'lock 'em up and throw away the key' brigade and usher in some different thinking along the lines of addressing the underlying issues. It will be hugely controversial and there are dark forces within his own party who are still campaigning to get Ken Clarke 'reshuffled', but the tide has turned due to the pragmatic need to save money. I would have preferred to have won the battle on the basis of professional argument, but that's politics for you.  

Friday, 8 April 2011

The Inspector Speaks

I'm grateful to Mike for pointing me in the direction of the House of Commons Justice Select Committee and the oral evidence given to it on March 29th by HM Chief Inspector of Probation Andrew Bridges. This in effect is his swansong as he is retiring in May and although his performance could be described as somewhat pedestrian, his measured tones deliver quite a lot and is worthy of taking a look at.

Even though we all know it, I still felt shocked when almost his opening remark concerning the creation of NOMS was the throwaway line that 'we might as well admit that probation was taken over by the prison service.' He said it had been a great sadness, he wouldn't have done it, but he wouldn't reverse it now either. He made the point that all the changes that probation had suffered meant that senior management had been too concerned with managing upwards at the expense of effectively managing downwards. In effect that all change has a cost. He felt that overall prison management had been better at financial management, but that the move to Trust status had been beneficial for the Probation Service in preparing it for the new environment of contestability.

I found it encouraging to hear the Inspector confirming that it is the one-to-one relationship between officer and client that remains key to the effectiveness of the work, although he was critical of cases where it seemed like the client was running things and not the officer. Now I think I would say that it has been an awfully long time since Mr Bridges was a main grade officer and to be honest the exponential growth in drug addiction has changed the whole landscape of probation work beyond recognition since his day. It is nigh on impossible in my view to have any kind of effective control over a chaotic drug user.

It was interesting to hear the Inspector discussing the three core aims of the Service and just how difficult it is to measure effectiveness sensibly, especially as we move towards an environment of Payment by Results. We had to deliver the sentence of the court, try and deliver a non-offending outcome and protect the public, but as he pointed out, results might not be felt for quite some time and were therefore difficult to measure. He went on to say it was possibly better to concentrate on 'interim outcomes' and at this point I found my mind wandering back to the days of Geoffrey Parkinson who famously got into serious trouble for suggesting he tried to persuade a bank robber to do some benefit fraud instead.

In essence the Inspector said that he felt that future for Probation was positive, but I have to say he didn't really sound that convincing. He did say however that he could see no problem in Probation Trusts being able to commission services as well as provide them. The more I think about this, the more I'm of the view this might be the very key to our survival. I notice that the Probation Association have been quite emphatic about this in their response to Ken Clarke's Green Paper. 

In order to ensure local accountability, commissioning must be by Trusts and not by NOMS centralised management. I can see quite an internal fight over this, but possibly the dismantling of the NOMS regional structure will help win the argument. I think it's worth bearing in mind that Local Authorities have been in this situation for years and they both commission and provide services.   

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Having a Laugh

When I started out as a probation officer you sort of just learnt on the job. All new recruits were issued with a copy of 'The Probation Officers Handbook' by a chap called Jarvis and I well remember my placement supervisor telling that he looked at his copy daily. I never did find out if he was being ironic or not, but my one and only glance at Jarvis confirmed that it was well out of date and I consigned my copy to the history section of my bookcase.

I soon found out that more useful information could be gleaned from the 'Practice Handbook' handily provided in ring binder form so you never knew if you had the up-to-date version or not. It really didn't seem to matter though as we just got on with the job in hand. But then in the new age of managerialism things began to change. I think the first bad omen was a document entitled Statement of National Objectives and Priorities. Things went down hill from then on, until reaching the absolute pits as enshrined in 'National Standards'.

If memory serves me correctly this was quite a hefty ring-bound tome stretching to several hundred pages of closely typed instructions for just about any situation. Colleagues roughly divided into two groups at the point the damned thing was introduced; those that consigned it quietly unopened to the top or rear of their filing cabinet and those that avidly consumed its content on a daily basis. I've even seen some, newer colleagues it has to be said, taking the damned thing in with them to interview clients. I even once saw a copy under someones arm on a prison visit for goodness sake. Without doubt many, including managers, found the document a safe haven, a reliable friend and a comfort when all around appeared to be chaos. No matter what the problem was, for some colleagues the oft-heard refrain became 'lets see what does national standards say?'

Well, a lot of people are going to be very uncomfortable indeed when they catch up with the latest version of 'National Standards' effective from 5th April and to be found here on the Ministry of Justice website. When I first had a glance I assumed it was a spoof issued on 1st April, but no it is completely genuine and runs to a whole three pages. As to content, whoever wrote it must have been under the influence of some kind of mind-altering substance. They were having a laugh, surely? 

Lets quote an example, say in relation to Unpaid Work. According to the new National Standards "The offender is prepared for the unpaid work requirement" it goes on to say "The offender undertakes the unpaid work requirement"  Simples!

Now you might think I've been selective in quoting, but take a look yourself and pretty much each section says the same - you could write it yourself it's that easy - under supervision the document states "The offender is prepared for the supervision requirement" and then says "The offender undertakes the supervision requirement" 

It all serves to illustrate just what a cultural change is going on in government at the behest of the private sector. The big boys made it plain they were not interested in bidding for work if they were expected to abide by all the micro-management nonsense contained in National Standards, so government obliged and tore it up. There will be little problem complying with the new version. Whilst old-style officers will sigh with relief and say 'I told you so', newer colleagues are going to have to learn how to use a bit more judgement and discretion in the way they manage their cases from now on. 

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Justice Liverpool Style

I had very mixed feelings when I initially heard about 'Justice' the new Liverpool-based daytime drama series on BBC1, but set the video recorder anyway (remember VCR's?) It's based on the real life experimental North Liverpool Community Justice Centre set up in 2005 by Lord Falconer and the last Labour government. Supposedly the idea came from government visits to a community court in Red Hook Brooklyn. All criminal justice agencies are co-located in the one building with the court room, together with community groups and charitable bodies that might be able to assist offenders. 

Goodness knows what the public at large will make of the court room scenes as this series progresses over 50 episodes because as far as I know it is an absolutely unique situation. In real life the full time incumbent is His Honour Judge David Fletcher who sits five days a week alone, unrobed and convening as either a Youth, Magistrates or Crown Court. A further experimental innovation involves so called 'problem-solving' meetings following a guilty plea. In essence it seems to be a mechanism for the Judge to be able to tease out the information that would normally be contained in a probation pre-sentence report before passing sentence. Yet more innovation involves the ability to order progress reports during the course of community sentences and either vary or revoke them.

Strangely enough just as this BBC drama series starts, there is doubt over the future of the experiment that it's based on due to spending cuts at the Ministry of Justice. Even the last government showed no signs of replicating the idea because they said it 'cost too much'. A piece of recent research entitled 'Doing Justice Locally' by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies concludes that there seems to be insufficient data to be able to adequately evaluate the effectiveness of the centre. This seems a great shame because from what I've seen it's an experiment worth persevering with for awhile yet. It strikes me that in such a set up a pro-active probation service input could have dramatic results, but I don't see much mention of probation in the report at all.

I almost forgot the programme. Based on two episodes so far it all seems sadly too far-fetched to be believable I'm afraid. A Judge 'rolling his own', wearing a pork-pie hat, roaming around the community sticking his nose into all sorts of matters that would surely prejudice any court hearing? I don't think so, unless I hadn't noticed he's been given Investigating Magistrate powers French-style as well. It's sad really as this silly aspect of the drama will inevitably distract from the inevitable powerful story lines such as child exploitation, prostitution, drug addiction, etc, etc. I can't help feeling this should really have been a probation drama, because as we know probation can legitimately go snooping around asking questions, but we'll just have to keep waiting for that.  

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Thoughts on a Difficult Case

Following on from my recent piece about Jon Venables, it would seem that the news item was  merely the curtain raiser for the subsequent main article in the Sunday Times Magazine last Sunday 3rd April. Written by David James Smith, the author of The Sleep of Reason : The James Bulger Case, one cannot help but feel the timing is designed to try and influence the Parole process later this year. 

Reading the article with dismay, I was particularly concerned at the level of information the journalist has supposedly amassed and I couldn't help but speculate how he seems to be able to quote verbatim from confidential running sheets, contact logs and internal reports? I find this quite shocking and a serious breach of confidentiality and professional practice by someone very close to a current case. So yet more information is now out in the public domain thus sadly serving to make a difficult case even more so. The main thesis of this article - which is behind the Murdoch paywall of course - is that the whole rehabilitation process has been chaotic. Of course not being involved it's very difficult if not impossible to say, but several things struck me as I read the article.

This case serves to highlight the complete separation of services between child and adult, between Social Services and Probation, between YOI and adult Prison. With hindsight it was extremely unfortunate that, having on the one hand successfully had the earlier 15 year tariff set aside in order to try and avoid the trauma of transfer to adult prison, the trauma of release came just at the point of the transfer of responsibility to the adult Probation Service. Now I can't be sure at what stage this occurred because this case has never been treated 'normally' at all. For instance there was never a transfer to YOI but very unusually Jon was kept at the Secure Unit instead. However, there will have been a transfer of responsibility and no doubt it will have been very unsettling for all concerned, not least Jon.

Of course all this confirms the absolute necessity of establishing and maintaining the 
relationship between client and supervising officer. In lifer cases it was always felt to be good practice that the officer had a 'pair', ideally of the opposite sex in order to bring a different perspective as well as to try and ensure continuity. This will have been even more important in a case like this involving issues of abnormal development, arrested adolescence and transition into adulthood. I would suggest that continuity of supervising officers would be absolutely vital not only in developing good professional and trusting relationships, but also in being able to more accurately assess risk.

It also reminds me as to exactly why it was felt appropriate that probation officers had a social work background. Like it or not, much of our 'offending behaviour' work with clients takes us into issues of welfare and emotional needs for which we are becoming increasingly ill-equipped.

Finally, I can't help noticing that the author continues to use the politically correct term of Offender Manager instead of Probation Officer. In a case like this I would have expected it to be handled by a very experienced pair of hands and not at all suitable for a Probation Services Officer. However you just never know nowadays and of course Offender Manager can mean either.   

Monday, 4 April 2011


As usual I tuned in to the Andrew Marr BBC 1 programme on Sunday morning but was surprised to hear the shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper uttering that phrase made famous by Tony Blair "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime." Now I have to admit I find her one of the most irritating of modern-day politicians and was very disappointed to see that only her husband featured in that days Sunday Times poll that unquestionably put Peter Mandelson at the top.

Anyway, it took me genuinely by surprise as I thought that particular mantra had recently been pronounced as officially dead by Sadiq Khan the Labour shadow justice secretary? As this article from the Daily Telegraph dated 7th March shows, Khan had plainly stated that "Labour had got it wrong in trying to be tough on crime."  The implication was that this was indeed the view of Ed Milliband and hence presumably the Shadow Cabinet. But according to this article in the Guardian dated three days later, Yvette Cooper has made it plain that Labour is still firmly behind Tony's rhetoric. I guess there's not really any great rush to clarify things anytime soon, but it would be good to know what HM Oppositions view actually is I suppose.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Doncaster in the Lead

Alongside the news that Ken Clarke has taken the decision to privatise the first state-run prison by giving the HMP Birmingham contract to G4S, he also decided to renew Serco's contract in respect of HMP and YOI Doncaster. This is now set to be the first and hence flagship project in testing if a Payment by Result scheme will work in terms of running a whole prison.

Since construction by the Prison Service in 1994, 'Doncatraz' as it is affectionately known locally has been operated by the multi-national private company Serco. They have just been awarded a further 15 year contract by the Ministry of Justice, but this time a proportion of their fee will be linked to a reduction in offending by prisoners following release. Although the contract is worth £250 million, £25 million of that will only be paid if the one year re-offending rate of offenders released falls by 5 per cent. But they will be in line for a bonus if the the reduction reaches 10 per cent. Judging by their stated aim of a "15 per cent reduction in crime by 2008"  it looks like they've been preparing for this type of contract for some time. 

Now Serco and the government must be feeling pretty confident to have agreed such a deal as clearly it is very much in both parties interest to see that it works. Despite having had quite a bad reputation for bullying, I notice that the Director John Biggin was named as Public Servant of the Year in 2010, partly in recognition of his efforts in improving performance. I think this is no mean achievement seeing that he works for a private company, the award is sponsored by Unison and arranged by the Guardian newspaper!  

It's interesting that Serco have chosen two new voluntary sector partners to work with them in trying to win this cash, Turning Point  the former purely drug treatment charity and Catch 22 another charity working with young people. These are two further examples of how charities are repositioning themselves in order to benefit from the developing market in contract offender work. Catch 22 is the result of an amalgamation and it's particularly ironic that one of their distant constituent bodies was the original London Police Court Mission. Of course in 1907 the staff that worked for them became none other than probation officers. The wheel of history takes another fascinating turn. 

Of course one of the major problems with this PbR idea is how the payment gets to the right agency that supposedly affected the change. A glance at the Doncaster prison website shows that they already have a well-established re-settlement programme running with partners like the Bridge Project. It will be fascinating to see how the bureaucracy will be developed so that payment gets apportioned fairly given the number of agencies involved. It should be noted that there is absolutely no mention of probation being involved in any of this.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Why Did He Do It?

It must be a huge relief to everyone living in South London that Delroy Grant, the so-called Night Stalker, has been convicted of several rapes and a number of burglaries. He always attacked at night and often targetted elderly women. It has subsequently emerged that he was responsible for 203 similar offences, but the total number of victims may exceed 500 as police strongly suspect that many victims of burglaries were too ashamed to reveal they had been sexually assaulted.

Grant decided to plead not guilty to all charges and in the eyes of many concocted a ridiculous defence saying his former estranged wife had stored his body fluids and planted them at all the crime scenes. After the conviction, Commander Foy, head of homicide and serious crime at Scotland Yard described Grant as “perverted, callous and violent”.

He said that his crimes were among the worst ever investigated by Scotland Yard and added:

“For a period between 1992 and 2009 he preyed on elderly people in south-east London, violating them and their homes, and causing deep distress and trauma to his victims and their families. He was also feared by many people living in the same communities and it is not too dramatic to say when he was caught thousands of people in south east London were able to switch out their lights and go to sleep without the dreadful thought they would be preyed upon by Grant. He is a perverted, callous and violent individual who is a sexual predator, rapist and nigh-time burgler who preyed on the elderly. There may be some speculation, even fascination, as to who he is, how he operated and what drove him to commit such crimes".

The judge in this case made it clear that he had considered imposing a 'whole life' tariff in relation to the four life sentences he handed down, but in the end specified a minimum term of 27 years before consideration of parole. Not unusually the judge adjourned over night before passing sentence, possibly to allow himself time to reflect. But, as the police officer said, 'who is he and what drove him to commit such crimes?' 

There are a whole range of sound reasons why that question needs to be answered but in my view the process has not been assisted by the judge deciding not to order psychiatric reports prior to announcing sentence. As I have explained previously, in cases such as this there is no probation pre sentence report, but rather a post life sentence report prepared a few weeks following sentence.

It may be that part of the answer to the question lies within the orbit of Personality Disorder  but in the absence of expert reports we are not going to know. It's just possible that reports had been prepared during his remand in custody and pre conviction, but there is no mention of this in press coverage and such reports may not have been agreed to by his defence team. As always in very serious cases like this, I worry about a lack of psychiatric assessment that could provide a medical diagnosis and indicate detention at a Special Hospital as being appropriate.

Friday, 1 April 2011

How Others See Us

According to their website, the Johnson Partnership describes itself "As the largest criminal firm in England and Wales, we cover the entire country and have lawyers specialising in every area of criminal law practice". They go on to say they "have teams of criminal defence solicitors in Nottingham, Derby, Mansfield and Chesterfield". Not quite the geographic spread I was expecting for a practice that covers the 'entire country' but then they seem to be an outfit that takes some pride in handling various aspects of Prison Law and especially Recall.

What particularly caught my attention and brought me up with a start is their view of the modern-day Probation Service

"The changing role of the Probation Service has meant that many prisoners released on Parole are faced with Probation Officers who feel more like the worst kind of Police Officer. More people than ever are being recalled to Prison for alleged breaches of licence. As some of the periods of recall are for no more than 4 weeks, it is hard for Prisoners to overturn a misguided decision for their recall to Prison.

At The Johnson Partnership our Prison Law team have successfully appealed a number of decisions to recall Prisoners on licence, either because there has in fact been no breach of licence conditions, or because a more appropriate course of action should have been taken by the Probation Service".

Trying to drum up business is fair enough, but surely it's going a bit too far to say that "many prisoners released on Parole are faced with Probation Officers who feel more like the worst kind of Police Officer".

Whilst rooting around on their website I was interested to read about their success in 'Cutting Parole Board red tape". They explain that

"Jessica Rogers, who joined The Johnson Partnership in March 2010, has had the unprecedented accolade of having an article published in “Inside Time”, the national newspaper for prisoners.  Jessica has been successful in short circuiting the customary process for moving IPP prisoners to open prison conditions.  By making representations directly to the Ministry of Justice, rather than pursuing the usual cumbersome Parole Board process, she has met with speedy and spectacular success".

For all those colleagues who have IPP cases on their caseload, the short piece is worth reading in full, especially as it concludes with the astounding statement that

"By actively pursuing the Ministry of Justice route, Jess has been able to achieve the best results in the shortest possible time.  The expensive, lengthy, frustrating bureaucratic Parole Board process could become a thing of the past for model prisoners with positive future plans".