Friday, 13 September 2013

HMI's - A Word in your Ear

We've been moaning for weeks that the media never mentions probation, but yesterday we were all over TV, radio, press and the internet. Sadly not about privatisation, despite Ian Lawrence valiantly trying to steer John Humphrys on the BBC Today programme around to the topic, but a negative report by Liz Calderbank and Nick Hardwick, respective HMI's for Probation and Prisons. 

Now if I were cynical I'd say the timing was suspect to say the least, providing as it does lots of negative publicity about the emotive topic of 'lifers' being released either on a temporary basis (ROTL) or Parole Licence, but with inadequate risk assessments having been carried out. 

This is a big topic, but I want to try and keep it simple. First a bit of history.

1) Lifers used to be a relatively small part of the total prison population, but Tony Blair's government ensured that the number rocketed by introducing the dreaded IPP sentence. The Indeterminate Public Protection sentence is very similar to a Life Sentence, but usually with a much shorter tariff, ie the minimum period that must be served for punishment purposes and before the parole process can start.

2) Lifers used to be treated 'specially' - prison Governors chaired sentence planning meetings and typically home probation officers were 'paired' and kept their lifers for many years, even if moving office or role.

3) Any application for release would involve a visit and report by the so-called 'Independent' - a member of the Parole Board, but not part of the decision-making panel.

4) Resources were always available to ensure that each lifer was visited in prison at least once a year, no matter how far-flung the prison was.

5) Every prison had sufficient seconded Probation Officers to enable every lifer to be seen and assessed in prison, and hence by a suitably-qualified person

6) OASys had not been invented and assessments were written as real documents that could be read and understood. 

Nowadays some prison officers are designated 'offender supervisers', they complete OASys assessments and chair sentence planning meetings. There's no money for probation officers to visit regularly and you are expected to interview by video link. OASys is so crap, naturally ways are found to avoid the bloody thing at all cost. 'Ownership' of the OASys changes regularly between prison and community and when extra text is added by other authors the result is akin to a dogs breakfast. This report is a complete indictment of the uselessness of OASys, and yet both authors, the MoJ, Noms, PA, PCA et al all pretend it's a vital and useful offender assessment tool. No it isn't!    

If it wasn't so serious it would be quite funny how much space is taken up in the report discussing OASys and how there is confusion as to who's job it is to fill it in, how poorly it's filled in, whether it's filled in and how often it's filled in. I want to let both HMI's into a secret about OASys that might just help them understand why there's a problem OASys is a complete and utter pile of shite and whoever was responsible for commissioning it and designing it should be compelled to complete one every day until they beg for mercy!

One of the most startling findings from this inspection concerned arrangements for the completion of OASys assessments on individual prisoners while in custody. We were surprised to find that so many different models had evolved and that staff had varying degrees of understanding about what was required, of whom, and when. Phase III of the offender management model, launched in January 2008, sought to clarify arrangements for the offender management of indeterminate sentence prisoners. Under this phase of the offender management model, the community based offender manager was clearly at the heart of the assessment, sentence planning, supervision and release arrangements for those given an IPP sentence. For life sentence prisoners, by contrast, the model dictated that prison service designated staff, known as offender supervisors, would complete prison based offender management tasks, with probation staff providing the community element, including supervision post-release. This distinction between the arrangements for managing life sentence prisoners and IPP prisoners seemed illogical to us and may have contributed to the confusion we found.

Yes remember that? 'Seamless end-to-end offender management'? The same daft people who dreamt up OASys felt that the home probation officer was the ideal person to be in charge of the prisoner's progression through their sentence and chair sentence planning meetings. Oh, and preferably chair it by video link. It was a totally fanciful idea and hence has been ignored by both prison and probation. The same people are of course the architects currently trying to make the Transforming Rehabilitation omnishambles work. 

Without hesitation I can categorically say that I have never come across anything invented by man that wastes more time, for absolutely no purpose. Believe me, filling in a complete OASys induces an irresistible desire to beat ones head upon the desk, cry uncontrollably and either reach for valium or huge quantities of alcohol. Will someone, somewhere please rid us of this nightmare and let us get on with the bloody job?!

Now at this point no doubt some people will be thinking it can't be that bad, and to them I'd say this. No contractor thinking of getting involved in the Transforming Rehabilitation omnishambes will have anything to do with it - they've got a business to run and it will be lean and mean with no room for timewasting useless stuff like OASys. No one ever reads a complete OASys from beginning to end, unless they are an HMI or investigating officer on an SFO enquiry. Not even the Parole Board feel its any use. When I was at an Oral Hearing recently, the Chair pushed the file to one side and simply said 'now, what do you really think?'     

Risk assessment is not a science, but a skill that can be honed by well-trained and experienced staff. It can never guarantee 100% accuracy because a lot of our clients are accomplished liars and manipulators well-versed in the art of obstruction or obfuscation. We try to do our best and are successful in the vast majority of cases, but SFO's will occur. Lets not blame the PO, but the perpetrator instead and recognise that good assessments require adequate resources.               


  1. Well said, from someone who last worked as a probation officer in 2003(started training in 1973), supervised many serious criminals, never had a parolee seriously reoffend whilst on licence to me and never was required to complete an OAsys assessment.

    Thanks for telling it how it is from the front line and leaving it open for folk to come along - who have worked OAsys and find it useful and can say so here - anonymously.

    Andrew Hatton

    PS The one parolee I supervised who did reoffend, was a young man, who had been in a gang who held rural post office staff up at knife point and got 6 years but was released after 2 years. He lived in a country town about 12 miles from work - started about 6 am, and on his way to work was seen, taking a bottle of milk from some one's door step, I don't think the case got to court, but in the rural area where I then worked, the police involved - made sure I knew.

  2. A good description of the futility of the endless, pointless, unreadable OASys. Dreamt up no doubt by a committee of clueless prison staff and seconded probation staff who went to NOMS as they could not function properly in the probation community proper. They need to justify their existence so dream up an assessment tool that gets longer and longer rendering it completely useless. These are the same half wits over seeing the Omni shambles no doubt.
    I have also been told by parole board members that OASys is of no use to them. What a waste of our time always has been how much more would we be able to do with a short crisp relevant assessment tool?

  3. I cannot understand why Anon at 07.59 denigrates her seconded prison colleagues.

    I had a training placement in a Cheshire Open Prison in 1974 and worked as a neighbourhood Borstal PO in 81/2 and London local from '97-02. I saw the same level of commitment from colleagues working inside to those on the outside and I am almost certain OAsys was not "dreamt up" by them.

    I think the origin of the OAsys scheme is the old Home Office Research Project's Offender Group Reconviction Scale (OGRS). When one was sent a request for a parole assessment from the Parole Unit it came as percentage score - and was considered as an indicator of what people who had committed a similar offence and had similar (basic) personal characteristics - age, pre-cons - and not much else - might be likely to reoffend. Similar to OAsys.

    The three times in my career I attended Parole Board hearings as an observer (is it still possible to get an invite - I just asked - when a learned a colleague had been?) - it was disregarded by the Board members.

    Ben Gunn the Tweeter and Lifer who spent 30 yrs inside was on ITV yesterday morning with Liz Calderbank and said the same thing.

    I hope a link follows - they start about 20 minutes into the programme.

    Andrew Hatton

  4. I also agree with the posts description of how we are told to use the OASys document. Over the years I have found it to be sometimes, wait for it, helpful...but not because I have filled it in on time, with the relevant sections cross referenced etc etc -but because it is somewhere, I can record my 'thinking out loud'. I try to keep them succinct and focussed on what I consider to be key issues and complete it in such a way as to support me in my task - of improving lives and reducing offending. Now that might sound fanciful but it works for me. However, I resent it when people, usually Managers and Mappa people, constantly harp on about ' defensible decisions and if it is not written down it didn't happen shite' and what if???there is an SFO. If I make a decision, I expect to be able to defend it.....and if there is an SFO, so be it - short of having a crystal ball, none of us are that good. We should however, have courage and confidence in our convictions and stand by them....and not stun ourselves into inactivity fearful we might make an error; or an individual blessed with free will declines to live his or her life, as prescribed by Oasys.

    As it happens, was at an Oral Hearing yesterday - attended for 10am, was notified it was scheduled for 12.30; so had brunch in a very nice little garden center, and returned for 12.30; the first hearing had not finished and the Panel had not had lunch - so commenced at 2pm and we were virtually chucked out at 5.20pm - as we know HMP doesn't like civilian staff knocking about after 5pm. Why so long, because the Panel were presented with a 25 page report from a defense paid for Psychologist, stating on all 4 or was it 5 risk assessment scales the man involved could be said to be a low risk of harm and his 'offence pathway' would be easily recognized as he would be unemployed for a period of months, his depression would increase and he may cease taking his medication...sorted then! I mean no disrespect to my Psychologist colleague, for what it was it was a fine report, but it really said more about psychological assessment tools and prediction scales than it did about the individual. Hey ho!

  5. Jim,

    I have commented before on the E-servitude that blighted the workplace when working as a PO..& note the screeds of words from colleagues ( hope to see Andrew at AGM?)...on (de)merits of O....I recall with heavy heart the daily briefings in LP when it was aiming for trust status & the commissar like oversight on O-reviews which appeared on wall charts with hint of menace for ' heretical' non-completions..

    I once spent 40 mins on phone trying to dissuade suicidal client from ending his life...when I shared this info' with my then ' old school' manager.. he suggested that I make sure my O was up to date!!



    you might recall research on 0-

    Mair, G, Burke, L & Taylor, S (2006) “The worst Tax Form you’ve ever see”: Probation Officers’ views on OASys Probation Service Journal Vol. 53, No. 1, 7-23...

    1. I used that very journal article when discussing the pros and cons of assessment tools for a tpo essay!

  6. I wish Liz Calderbank would read your article Jim because as usual you are spot on the money!

  7. Essexandrew the post at 7.59 was not aimed at seconded prison colleagues but the probation staff people who have gone to NOMS HQ and then sold us up the river

  8. Thanks to Anon for making that clear at 18.13

  9. Make no mistake about it, whatever the topic (lifers/risk assessments/offending rates); this is nothing more than a systematic campaign of briefing against the probation service by the MoJ, being carried out thru the media, in order to hasten it's demise without too much interference from Joe Public.

  10. I have to say that I wasn't that impressed by Ian Lawrence - he didn't seem to have a grip on the lifer issue and it was obvious he wasn't a PO at any time.