Tuesday, 16 April 2013

The Prisoners

Television producers seem to feel there's still plenty of mileage to be had from prison documentaries and this episode of BBC1's 'The Prisoners' didn't disappoint. Centred on HMP Pentonville,  one of the massive London 'local' prisons, pretty much all of the sadly familiar issues of homelessness, drink, drugs, mental health, relationships and emotional damage were highlighted through the experiences of the guys who agreed to take part.

Along with many probation officers who no doubt tuned in out of professional curiosity, I sincerely hope we were joined by representatives of all those organisations currently hatching plans to grab our work. The task of trying to turn these guys situations around and help repair their damaged lives is enormous and frankly not for the feint-hearted or impatient. 

Given the current pressures on accommodation and high levels of unemployment, do some people seriously think that effecting a 'rehabilitation revolution' will be achieved by privatising the work because failure has somehow been probation's fault? Are the likes of G4S really going to be prepared to enter into Payment by Results contracts when programmes like this show in graphic detail the sheer scale and nature of the challenges? No, of course not. For all the political hype, they will want a system with as little PbR in it as possible. They may be crap, but they're not stupid.

For me this programme once more served to highlight that this kind of work is not so much about process as it is about relationships. I'm always astonished that this obvious fact is not appreciated by everyone. Each of the men featured had a need to talk, a yearning to have their situation understood. They needed empathy and love like we all do. 

People 'kick off' and smash cells, self harm or turn violent when they feel they are not being listened to and are frightened. When a relationship has been established, whether it be with probation officer, prison officer, family member or tv crew even, a person begins to listen and respond to suggestions designed to offer help and support. If there's no meaningful dialogue or relationship, there can be no progress.

As an aside, I was always taught that having a desk between officer and client was not a helpful signal to be putting out - very 'defensive', hierarchical and intimidatory. London Probation Service - you need to rearrange the furniture dare I suggest.  

I know it's politically unacceptable, but I struggle with this whole IOM or Integrated Offender Management stuff with the police. I think they have far more important and useful tasks to be engaged in than doing joint visits with a probation officer. What's that all about? We don't need a 'minder' to help ensure compliance and are fully able to initiate recall if felt appropriate. The job of the police is to merely execute the warrant. It's our job and if probation was properly resourced we could get on with it. The trouble is IOM is beloved by management and very much flavour of the month as demonstrating the virtues of 'partnership working.'  

There's another two episodes in the series, one focusing on women and I'm sure they will prove just as riveting for all those having an interest in prison matters.  

Don't forget to sign the No10 petition here.       


  1. Just to give you a bit of perspective here Jim:

    about the same number of people care about privatising probation as care about the fact that Cambridge University will no longer offer a full degree course in Modern Greek language.


    Being an old school probation officer with 'social work values' is a minority interest (I used to be one). The public care little about criminals, and probably even less about people who choose to work with them. I thought the programme was interesting and would have given a realistic glimpse into what life can be like for prolific offenders. I don't think it will make much difference to what the public think. Probably have even less impact on the money men who run private sector companies who are sizing up the opportunities.

    1. Thanks for that and yes you are absolutely right about the general public having little knowledge or interest in our field of endeavour. However they are also blissfully ignorant of many other aspects of government, like security and public safety - isn't that why we elect people to handle all this stuff on our collective behalf?

      Surely we are entitled be able to feel confident that they make wise and considered decisions that are not based upon ideological or party political lines? Ok maybe I'm naive, but it's what I believe.

      If truth be known I'm not that keen on the public being allowed to make sensible decisions - we know they'd vote for a return of capital punishment for instance. What electorate would vote to keep Income Tax if given the chance? Didn't Icelanders decline to repay us for bailing out their banks?

      Democracy and public opinion are problematic concepts in my view and I'm an old-fashioned paternalist. I think writing this blog has confirmed my view that politics is a dirty business where pretty much any tactic is fair game. I also believe that the course of history is dictated as much by luck and cock-up as it is by plotting and aspiration - indeed it really is the art of the possible.

  2. Can I just nitpick on your anti-demoratic argument. It is unclear whether the populace would vote for a return to capital punishment - although at one time 70% favoured return, in 2006 a YouGov poll found – for the first time – that there was a slight majority against capital punishment. Polls, too, often find that the public will actually support increases in income tax if it pays for public services. And on the Icelandic banks, they won a European court case on the payment of compensation – so it was not a case of them refusing outright to pay.

    I think the problem is not a reactionary public but a patrician political class and concentrated media ownership. If there was less yellow journalism, we would have a better informed electorate. The problem is the public can be lied to, minorities can be scapegoated, incidents can be contrived – Suez. But attitudes can still change significantly, because the truth gets through and it gets through by increasing democratic accountability – think how attiudes and behaviours have changed in respect of racism, homophobia, domestic violence, child abuse...

    I would trust myself as a benovolent dictator – but I would not trust anyone else!

    1. Thanks for that. One does get carried away sometimes and as you so accurately observe, we'd only trust ourselves to be a benevolent dictator!