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.
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