“Go ahead and judge me, just remember to be perfect for the rest of your life”
At the invitation of Jim, I am writing a guest blog for the site looking at the experience of probation from the client’s point of view and touching on some of the points made in various recent posts about the probation service.
I wish I could say that my experience of probation has been a positive one but it has, unfortunately been anything but. This applies to probation both inside prisons and outside in the community. To date I have had five different offender supervisors and four offender managers in four and a half years. Just one of those individuals, an offender supervisor, was what I would deem even competent at the job and who treated me as a human being and did anything to help. The rest have left a lot to be desired on a professional level. This, to me is a shocking indictment that lays bare a crisis in the probation service that seems not to be touched on at all by anything I’ve read in the media or on blogs and goes far beyond the current reorganisations and the chaos thereby caused. The attitude of a large percentage of probation staff towards clients appears to be, at best, unproductive and, at worst, offensive and potentially a breach of legal rights.
At the end of the day, all of the OM’s and OS’s, bar the one mentioned, have treated me as nothing more than a crime statistic; an attitude everyone who has been in prison gets heartily sick of because it appears to be the default setting of the majority of prison staff, that is when they aren’t treating you as a really really stupid child.
Absolutely none of my OM’s and OS’s have bothered getting to know me as a human being or have attempted to find out what my background is (no PSR was done so there is nothing in my file about my background). I apparently came into being the moment I was imprisoned and everything that went before is completely irrelevant according to these various OM’s and OS’s simply because it is not in the file. If it’s not in the file apparently it doesn’t exist. Quite how I managed to get through life to my late 40’s apparently not existing is perplexing.
On a personal level, I find this attitude highly offensive, not the least of which is that a crime statistic didn’t commit any crime, a human being did. I am the sum of my experiences and if you do not understand where I come from you will not be able to understand what I did or where I am going or what I need to get there.
On a more esoteric level this complete lack of interest in me as a human being is really disturbing. How can anyone possibly help me to lead a law abiding life, help me reduce my risk of committing crime and help me turn my life around if they have not the slightest understanding of me as an individual, as a human being or even any interest in getting to know that human being? All the assessment tools in the world will fail to accurately predict my actual risk or my actual needs if you do not engage with me and ask those very basic questions that for some really bizarre reason simply do not get asked. Ever. These are:
What caused you to offend in the first place?
And what would stop you from reoffending in the future?
I know the answers to those central questions. Absolutely no probation officer does because they simply haven’t bothered to ask these questions. Therefore every single OASys or other assessment that has ever been done of me is a waste of paper because these central and essential questions have not been asked. This is clearly a major failing in the system and appears to be directly due to a total lack of interest in the offender as a person.
“But we have no time to get to know clients” I hear many voices wail. Really? You don’t have the time or the interest in making the time to get to know the client? Just consider that there may well be a lot less breaches of licence and community sentences and a lot less offences committed by people on licence if you did.
If you really did have a genuine interest in getting to know your client and this attitude was built into all interactions with a client this would raise your ability to accurately predict risk and identify needs and problems as assessments would be based on actual fact and accurate information rather than guesswork, assumption and personal bias. You’d also build up a relationship based on trust and mutual respect which could only be beneficial for everyone involved. On a personal level I’m far more likely to be open and honest and forthcoming if I believe that that person has a genuine interest in me and is someone I can trust to act in my best interests and who works with me not against me. I can’t see that this would be any different for anyone else.
I would suspect that any offender if asked would be able to tell you, based on their actual experience of probation, what they understand the role of a probation officer is. We also understand what it SHOULD be and the huge gulf that exists between the two. Theory and practice simply do not meet.
Shouldn’t one of the central tenets of a probation officer’s role be to get to know and understand the client and what their needs actually are (as opposed to what their perceived needs are) so that you are able to tailor any challenges and interventions to the actual, real, tangible needs of the client? If you don’t bother to engage the human being and get to know the human being and only go by what is in a file (which is quite often completely inaccurate with incomplete information and in some cases information that is so wildly wrong as to verge on defamatory) how can anything you do possibly be argued to be of any use, relevance or applicable?
What follows on from this is absolutely no probation officer actually understands what my needs are and makes decisions based on an assessment of what they think my needs are which bears zero relation to what the needs are. They certainly don’t understand my needs better than I do - after all I am the one living my life and not my PO. I live my life every day; they see me once a month for 20 – 30 minutes and an awful lot less than that when I was in custody. I am not stupid (in fact I have more qualifications and a much higher IQ than my current OM). I am perfectly capable of analyzing my behaviour accurately especially after having undergone several years of very productive counselling both in and out of custody. I know myself and my needs far better than my current OM who has never made the slightest effort to get to know me as a human being in the two years she has had my file. She wields enormous power over me and clearly relishes being able to wield such power over people leading to what I can only describe as the most dysfunctional relationship I have ever had with anyone to the extent that I feel physically sick with stress and worry in the 48 hours before each monthly meeting.
Challenging me, which Jim has said is the role of probation (whatever happened to befriend and advise?), is a fruitless exercise because the challenge is being made without the proper knowledge behind it. I have already identified the problems, the needs and yes, the wants, which to be frank are often completely indistinguishable from the needs. I know what needs to be put in place to help me get back on an even keel and lead a law abiding life. My PO doesn't because she has never bothered to get to know me in any way in the past two years. Our “conversations” degenerate into total farce as a result.
In fact, nothing any PO has ever said to me has been in any way helpful, reasonable, viable or useful in terms of either analyzing my behaviour, challenging it or providing help and support as to the way forwards because they have pretty much zero knowledge of me as a human being, of the way I think and how I view the offence. Of course this may be down to PO's who are simply bad at their jobs and who really shouldn't be working in probation just as there are a significant number of prison officers who took the job so that they can legitimately bully people and shouldn't therefore be in the job.
Ironically considering challenge is supposed to be a central feature of the probation relationship, I've noticed that PO's don't like to be challenged by clients over anything even when the client is wholly justified such as when a PO breaches a client’s legal right. Why? It’s a very hypocritical stance to take. If someone is able to challenge me about my failings, I am certain able to and will turn round to judge them for their failings whether that be a failure to do the job properly and in accordance with the law or whether that is an actual breach of my legal rights. If I am expected to take responsibility for my actions so is the PO. It’s hardly unreasonable to expect that a PO does their job in accordance with the law and the provisions laid out in the various PI’s at the very least, leaving aside anything else and I very much doubt anyone would disagree with me on that. Yet simply because someone is a probation officer this apparently gives them leave to never accept responsibility for any of their actions. Being a PO does not mean that you have some magical get out of jail free card that excuses and are absolved of any failure of responsibility. Stones and glass houses and all that.
I agree with Jim that the relationship between client and PO shouldn't be about winning popularity contests but there is a huge difference between winning a popularity contest and actually treating clients as human beings who have a brain and use it. What the probation relationship should be about is building a genuine meaningful relationship where there is trust and respect on both sides. Where the PO has a genuine interest in the client and in helping them with their actual (as opposed to perceived) needs and the client genuinely does their best to comply with their licence and lead a law abiding life you will have a meaningful, productive and beneficial relationship. It’s not rocket science but it does require that both parties in that relationship invest the same level of commitment into making the relationship work and it isn’t left to just one party to do so. Which appears in the minds of the PO’s and also management to be the sole responsibility of the client.
I’ve had some interaction with management due to being forced to file a complaint about my PO. I was very patronisingly informed by a senior manager that it was MY responsibility and mine alone to build a productive relationship with my OM. Excuse me? Any relationship is a two way street and both parties in the relationship need to put in the effort to build a productive working relationship not just one party. We’ve all had at least one relationship in our lives where we did all the giving and the other party did all the taking and know how destructive that relationship was. But apparently management does not consider it part of a PO’s role to make any effort to build a productive relationship with a client because they have made it abundantly clear that my OM has no responsibility at all to make any effort to build a productive working relationship with me. No wonder there is no interest from the OM in doing this.
Unfortunately my experience is far from unusual. During the time I was inside and since release I have talked to hundreds of people who have firsthand experience of the probation service. Sadly, very few of them have had positive experiences of probation because of the way probation officers both inside and outside of prison treat their clients. Oh the client may tell you to your face when they leave supervision that you’ve helped them and no doubt some of them will genuinely mean it. But far from all of them.
Most of them are probably telling you what you want to hear. Just as 99% of those going on offender behaviour courses tell the course facilitators what they want to hear. Sorry if this comes as a surprise. I’ve seen so many offenders literally blow sunshine up the ass of the course facilitator and their probation officer simply to be able to progress/get parole/get probation off their back and not mean a single word of what they are saying.
They are simply playing the game because that is what the system is all about at the end of the day. Just like the judicial system is not about finding out the truth of what happened but about which side plays the game the best, progression through prison or probation in the community is not based on understanding why you committed an offence and putting in place concrete and productive steps to ensure you don’t reoffend, it’s about keeping probation happy with your answers by telling them what they want to hear and fulfilling the tick box mentality that appears to exist throughout the sector even if you don’t mean a word of it. This also strikes me as a wholly dishonest way of running anything. Ticking boxes, fulfilling criteria, hearing what you want to hear seems to be more important than building productive working relationships with human beings. Absolute madness.
Prisons do not work in cutting or reducing crime no matter what Michael Howard and Chris Grayling like to think. Probation does not work either. Sorry to burst the bubble. I’m pretty sure that the recent statistical reduction in people reoffending whilst on probation has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the probation service but is more likely to be a direct result of people doing what needs to be done themselves to get their lives straightened out.
Until the whole ethos of probation changes, probation is going to fail as a service. I honestly can’t see how reporting to a kiosk once a month is going to be any less advantageous to either client or service provider than the current system is because the current system is failing clients for the most part. In fact for a lot of people it may well be more productive. I’m aware that politics and political rhetoric and agendas have overtaken probation and changed it from its original goals and ways of working but that does not excuse the change in attitude of either probation management or probation staff towards clients which has apparently occurred over time.
I do not know what the answer is nor whether the changes that are occurring in the system will make it better or worse but I can categorically state that probation will continue to fail clients for as long as the majority of PO’s fail to see or treat clients as human beings.