Saturday, 19 May 2012

The Power of Listening

One of the snags associated with going away is that you always seem to miss something important. I'm grateful to a reader for pointing me in the direction of this recent BBC Radio 4 programme in the Archive on 4 series entitled 'The Grand Listener'. Broadcast last Saturday, sadly it's only available on i-player for a remaining few hours today, but hopefully there will be a repeat airing in the not too distant future.

The programme is dedicated to the pioneering work of author Tony Parker who died in 1996 and whom I'm embarrassed to say I was completely unaware of until this morning. Basically he was someone who undertook what we would now describe as oral histories of ordinary people, which he later transcribed into many books and plays. He is clearly someone long overdue for recognition and his work deserves re-visiting in my opinion. 

He started out interviewing offenders in the 1960's and although I recognise some similarities with my own modus operandi, I'm sure he was always able to get further towards the truth because he promised anonymity and of course was not a representative of authority. However, like Tony Parker, I've always rated the importance of just listening. I suspect this may have had something to do with my training in the Samaritans, long before I became a Probation Officer. To be honest I enjoy talking to people so much, I'm still amazed that I managed to find a job that paid me to do it.

For any budding sociologist or criminologist there is a wealth of material in Tony's work. I was particularly struck by a comment from a prisoner in the 60's who graphically described how "prison slowly destroyed you". I'm sure he's right. The longer or more often you go to prison, the more damage it inevitably does to you. 

This truism chimes with something that's been bugging me for ages and came up in the pub the other day. Basically officers of my generation have a habit of talking fondly of the innovative work undertaken with offenders in the 70's, 80's and even 90's. A colleague from the south coast talked of taking guys with pretty serious offences to their name off on a sailing boat for a week and this type of thing was quite routine back then. Impossible now for all kinds of reasons, not least the public perception of 'treats for naughty boys', nevertheless we still feel it was worthwhile and bemoan its demise.

However, in a world where measurement has largely replaced judgement and everything has to be 'evidence-based', what can be said to make a case for this kind of work? The difficulty is highlighted by my sailing colleague recounting the comment made by an offender sunning himself on deck in his swimming trunks 'it's funny ain't it - I hit a guy over the head with an iron bar - and here I am on holiday.' Another colleague chimes in with a story about young offenders on an outward bound course. The week included making printed T-shirts and they duly came up with 'Steal stuff - See Wales.' 

So, whilst pondering on the dilemma of how to prove that it was indeed A Good Thing by making up spurious re-offending rates, it made me smile to read about this open prison on an island in Norway. Looking and sounding every bit like a holiday camp, I notice that the Governor was reduced to claiming a 16% re-offending rate for released prisoners. It might be true, but hey, isn't it just a better way of dealing with offenders that doesn't just destroy them along the way? It just might make a difference and work too.     


1 comment:

  1. The world is complicated. People are complicated. What they wear on their t-shirts is not necessarily what they carry in their hearts and minds (otherwise, half the teenagers I know would be amongst The Walking Dead or at least worshipping the Devil over a flaming pentagram). What an offender says on the wing in a prison is rarely what they actually think when they are lying awake at night.

    When those with difficulties with their thinking skills are presented with opportunities to reevaluate their position, it is not remotely surprising that the process is not a straight route between process and results. Personalities, humour, egos, self image, context etc all play a part and we all know that something that you offer an offender today may not bear fruit for days, weeks, months or even years. It doesn't amtter how many times we say there is no magic bullet, society still searches for it. Send an offender to somewhere where he will experience 100 new sensations or ideas and he may walk away with 2 that change his life and 98 that were a 'bit of a laugh' or 'a waste ot time'. The superficial talk will always be about the 98 (as it is when these things are discussed and debated). The deep thinking will be about the 2. We are not treating broken bones, here. It is not easy to change a lifetime of dysfuntional coping strategies, especially when ther realisation is that the alternatives may not actually be that much better. Most people are reluctant to change things they have an investment in and offenders are no different. Give them something to think about, take them out of their comfort zones, whether that is up a tree, down a pothole or up to their necks in a river and, whilst they are not looking, build their trust.

    It was never about the sailing.