Last nights Channel 4 documentary 'Lifers' in HMP Gartree was fascinating for a whole host of reasons, not least the ability of the film maker to tackle such a vast and important topic without reference to probation once. Any unsuspecting member of the public could be excused for believing that probation has no role at all in the ongoing management of people serving life sentences in prison and that as one inmate put it 'it's psychology that pulls all the strings - if you don't agree with 'em you don't get out'. What bollocks.
Every single person serving a life sentence, even the man identified as having a 'whole life term' and thus will die behind bars, has an allocated external or home probation officer throughout their entire sentence. This arrangement continues following release and until such time as the Parole Board deem supervision is no longer required in relation to their Life Licence. In addition, every prison including and especially a lifer centre like Gartree has a probation department, but they were conspicuously absent in this film.
What we did see was a glimpse of the psychology department which typically within HM Prison Service nowadays is almost exclusively staffed by young female trainees. There's nothing wrong with this per se, but I do often wonder why there never seem to be any young men, and what the hell do these trainees do when they qualify? They never seem to be taken on by HMP, no doubt because once they qualify they become far too expensive. In short I have had concerns about the experience and quality of psychology input within the prison system in recent years, relying heavily as it does on a seemingly endless supply of trainees. Dealing with such dangerous and often severely damaged individuals surely requires some very senior and well qualified staff?
To be blunt this brings me onto the notion, given weight by this film, that it's the psychology department that basically decides if people are fit to progress towards release or not. In reality it's the F75 Parole Reports prepared both by internal and external probation officers that carry significant weight with the Parole Board. You wouldn't know it, but almost certainly the external probation officer would have been present at the Oral Hearing and would have given evidence directly to the three Parole Board panel members and in support of their written report.
It should be borne in mind that prisoners move around the prison system fairly frequently and thus the home probation officers involvement in a case will often represent a degree of continuity and thus expertise. The Lifer File gets ever bigger with the passage of time and accumulates numerous reports from each Establishment, but it's often only the home PO that can spot changes in an inmates demeanour, attitude or story that will assist in the making of accurate and fair assessments. In my experience this involvement over time makes the home PO the 'expert' on a case and thus able to argue effectively at sentence planning meetings from a position of authority. From an inmates point of view, this can either be viewed positively or negatively of course.
Which brings me on finally to the interesting choice of inmates who made up the bulk of the footage. Although eminently 'recognisable' to me in their various ways, they are far from being typical and I think it's important that viewers know this. In all my career I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of lifers that have displayed similar degrees of candour and openness in relation to their index offence. Much more common is denial, minimisation, justification, obfuscation and just plain cussedness. I guarantee a brief conversation with any of the officers at Gartree will confirm this. There will be whole wings of 'innocent' men and tackling this degree of denial is extremely wearing I can tell you. Sadly we never got a glimpse of that, far more 'normal 'side of things, from this film. But then 50 minutes to cover such a huge subject was a bit ambitious.