Friday, 20 May 2016

Guest Blog 56

On the "Prison Works" and Courts Bill

So prison reform is on the agenda and The Queen has spoken. The rhetoric is on the use of imprisonment in the creation of "Reform Prisons", driving a revolution in education, training, healthcare and security for prisoners. Have they already forgotten the problems with overcrowding, staffing, resources and privatisation, and what about the alternatives to custody? The Probation Service wasn't mentioned either despite its 100+ years rehabilitating and supporting released prisoners and offenders serving community sentences. There was no praising the work of Probation Officers, no expansion of the use of community sentences and no announcement of the reversal of the Chris Grayling's failed "rehabilitation revolution" and the associated Offender Management (Probation Privatisation) Act.

It's a regressive approach that this government intends to improve the life chances of the most disadvantaged individuals in the country by continuing to send them to prison. The Queen, the politicians, the NOMS non-effectives, how many of "them" have been inside a prison? I mean serving time as a prisoner, or maybe having a parent, partner, sibling or child serve time? I had this pleasure via Her Majesty once upon a time, long before I even dreamed of becoming a Probation Officer. It doesn't really matter what the crime or sentence was, the outcome was spending too long in a juvenile hellhole full of people I never wanted to meet. Fellow justice professionals would have heard similar stories a hundred times and more. The moral of the story is usually the same, that prison doesn't work.

This is my story

Scratched into the wall of the Crown Court cell was "yea as I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, because I am the most evil bastard in the valley". I knew right then I was in trouble and before I could let loose the tears building up another convicted unfortunate appeared and passed me a lit joint. During the ride to prison in the tiny sweat-box compartment we stopped off at a holding centre full of at least 50-100 other prisoners. I remember trying not to notice the few poor souls being manipulated, robbed and beaten up. At least it wasn't happening to me.

I'd never seen a prison before. The induction was a conveyor belt, the search and shower intrusive and the clothes didn't fit. The cell was clean enough, although some of the cells that followed were filthy, infested and had mixes of naive, sophisticated, overbearing, depressed, addicted and absolutely crazy, inhabitants to call cell-mates. Everyone believed they were innocent, some even became good friends. We talked, reasoned, debated, I read letters for some prisoners, usually the travellers who were all called 'Paddy', and shared my phone-cards, usually with foreign nationals who didn't have much and were mostly called 'Yardie'. The officers weren't bad but I quickly learnt which ones to avoid. I remember my first personal officer started a few days after I arrived and was forever telling me "we started our time together". We didn't because he wasn't doing time, he went home at the end of the day.

The first night was the worst but after a few days, maybe weeks, I found my mojo and got on with it. There was the bad porridge in the morning and the rabbit food on weekends, but I had money sent in to buy extras. I didn't use or get addicted to hard drugs, but I did smoke a lot of tobacco which took years to quit. I didn't get raped in the showers (or greenhouse if there was one) as my mum feared I would after watching Scum, but I did get beaten black and blue on one occasion. I can tell you that getting hit in the face with a PP9 battery wrapped in a pillowcase really hurts. If you're wondering, no it wasn't possible to block it while being rushed by the violent version of Laurel and Hardy. It's hard to avoid fighting in there, there's so much testosterone and aggression floating around it doesn't take much to make anybody lash out. It was commonplace to witness fights, bullying, assaults, self harm, mental illness, drug use and every now and then you'd hear of a suicide, murder or escape. Most of the time it was okay though, you got by. There was no TV's, phones or Playstation's in cells back then, time dragged and despite my books, cards and press-ups it was still very boring.

I learnt not to trust, borrow or seek or accept help or favours from prisoners or officers, and this follows you into the outside. During the first few weeks I reacquainted with those I'd known on the outside and others I was meeting for the first time. Fast forward a few months and the gym training, arrogance and frustration had set in and after a few trips to the block I was shipped up North with a few others. The prison was newer and cleaner, but the regime was harsh and the officers were bastards to begin with. My first few months were spent on the top landing where most of the cells had broken glass in the windows. Blankets and plastic bags blocked the draught but it was still freezing in winter. I tried to keep my head down, got to know the officers who turned out to be mostly okay, avoided conflict, provocation and retaliation except on the sports pitch, and got to my release date.

Throughout my time there wasn't any interventions or services available. They assessed me as too smart for education and it's only afterwards someone told me I should have answered all the question incorrectly. I went to a few art classes but there were too many craft knives around for my liking and nobody actually did any art. I was okay spending my time on the wing playing darts, pool and table tennis, I'm still quite good. I gained enhanced, got a job as a cleaner and then on the servery and held it to my release date. When the date came I put on my now slightly smaller clothes stored from when I arrived and walked out the gate, and it was over.

Prison doesn't work

So what was the point, apart from to lock me up and imprint an unforgettable prison number into my brain? I had already decided pre-sentence I wouldn't become involved in a crime ever again, and I didn't, so being imprisoned didn't help or change me. I honestly can't identify a single thing from being in prison that helped me, except that it made me a stronger person in the long term, physically and mentally. Weekend prisons, reform prisons, tagging, it would have made no difference, apart from learning how to scrub a floor quite well and learnt a few tips for keeping sinks and toilets clean, prolonging battery life, redirecting electricity from lights, lighting a wick, finding alternatives for Blu-Tac and blocking a swinging PP9. Other than this I think I was released no better than when I went in, possibly worse as I had learned to live in a hostile environment so bad that a term of National Service would have been better. I think I felt a bit like Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption on release, lost and out of place, but without the friend to give me a new start. The community didn't particularly accept or provide and I didn't expect it to. It was down to me and I struggled for the next few years to keep my head above water, and opportunities disappear and mud tends to stick when you've got a criminal record. I was one of the lucky ones because I had a home, I got into training course, then college and later onto university, and I had good people around me. Over time I learned to believe in myself and to not dwell on the past because I couldn't change it.

I see parts of my journey in every person I meet in the course of my work. Most prisoners I ask what would keep them from reoffending describe what they need post-release rather than pre-release. Most that have not been to prison simply describe not going to prison. The prison reforms I've read about today I do not welcome. Prison does not work, "reform prisons" or otherwise, and makes people worse. There is no rehabilitation or reform in locking up wayward, damaged and sometimes deranged people in the cesspits of the justice system. To further spend resources to attempt to improve what is already long broken is a waste, especially when there are better alternatives. I say this from personal and professional experience, and because the evidence against prisons outweighs the evidence for it because punishments do not work.

Probation purgatory

"The [probation] service – which for a century was the envy of other countries because of its rehabilitative success, but whose ethos now begins with punishment – was better off when it was an operational service with its own professional head. It is time that this ill-thought through venture was ended or, not only will there be more similar cases [Sonnex], but there will be no one left in the probation service to manage them." (David Ramsbotham, 2009.)

We need to stop following the 'American experiment' because America's view has long been that locking up people for as long as possible is the answer to crime prevention. We've increasingly used a similar method for the past 50 years and it's not worked for us either. It's about time we stop this perverse preoccupation with prisons, programmes, privatisation and "public protection" and instead develop a system of rehabilitation, re-entry and resettlement that only needs to reserve a handful of well resourced prisons for the grave offenders and the critical few.

There is much scope for improving services to those serving custodial and community sentences with the right help and support from probation officers, social workers, prison officers, support workers mentors and more. The evidence is that community sentences are cheaper and can better reduce reoffending, and this is where a progressive government would spend our money and ensure that access to housing, training, employment, health, addiction and counselling services are available, all under the banner of advising, assisting, befriending and supervision. We can successfully do this and a progressive government would be forging progressive policy and legislation, and investing in the probation service who can provide all of the above and put strategies in place to ensure the quality of training, practice and professionalism is upheld.

Final thought

If the obsession with prison and punishment is put on hold it would be so easy to devise a new strategy to crime prevention and rehabilitation, a new approach using justice professionals, sentencers, teachers, academics, local councillors, community leaders, business leaders, ex-offenders and others for reoffending to be reduced. Instead the political non-effectives at the Ministry of Justice rule the roost and current whitewashing of the probation service from history continues. I doubt we will witness the necessary realignment of probation with social work training and values, or the end of the private control of prisons and probation, or that we see a progressive justice policy with probation officers and rehabilitation professionals at the helm

Probation Officer
15 years to retire

30 comments:

  1. Thank you, you have reminded me of why I trained to do what I do at a time when I have begun to seriously question why I stay. So, again, thank you.

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    1. If they just let us do what we trained to do!

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  2. I spent 3.5 yrs inside for a first time fraud offence of a relatively small amount (longer sentence than similar perps as I was a woman and judge declared I'd offended his idea of what women shld be (i.e. at home popping babies) so he was giving me a longer sentence than he wld a man). It was a total waste of time. I learned how to become a better criminal if I had been so inclined to follow that path but that was it. Did no OB course as none were suitable/available as funding had been cut for a lot of them. Got bored out of my skull with jobs that were a waste of time and didn't utilise the skills and education I had let alone provide new ones. It wld have been far more productive to do a community sentence and beneficial to me but this wasn't even considered by the judge. The public hardly needed protecting from me by anyone's definition. I can see the need to lock some people up but the vast majority simply do not need to be and despite the fact that non custodial sentences are cheaper and have better outcomes they still aren't being used by magistrates and judges. I find it odd that govt after govt fails to put evidence of what works into practice (here and in other countries) as it would save the taxpayer a lot of cash in both the short and long terms and cut the crime rates. Running scared of a few negative tabloid headlines seems a really stupid way to run a judicial system

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    1. I understand that no government wants to risk getting it wrong. Reputation is all that matters to them so they recycle the same trash ideas every few years. Nothing changes.

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  3. Thank you, just how feel! On the business of reformation, E3 - the new version of Probation. Bollocks, as expected but what really gets on my nerve, is the manner in which the job of ruining the Probation Service is delegated to us, POs. For example, they will use data from the rubbish nDelius system to regrade all cases, from the previous 4 tiers, to the new 7 tiers, allowing for PSOs to take up the less serious of the most serious (nps) cases. Remember, they miscalculated the numbers at the time of the split, and having created a worse than useless Risk Measurement tool - the RSR calculator, found the projected nps caseload of 25 was actually in excess of 45! So E3 devised to rescue the situation!

    Now, in order for this transition to be anything near accurate, the information in nDelius has to be correct! Yesterday, I was advised, not by my manager, but a colleague from another team, that we have until 3/6/2016to go through all the risk registers, and review them, ensuring the information marries up with what is on that other farce of a recording system, OASys! Today 20/6 I have only 5 working days to do this with my 55 complex cases.You could be forgiven for thinking this surely an administrative task, where information is taken from one system and merged with another, no, it's another job for me! Roll on retirement!

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    1. We've being doing this too. It's a way for them to reduce WMT weighting so they can give us more work. I hear the CRC staff have been asked to do a similar exercise with their caseloads. No doubt this is leading to a caseload shuffle. "More for less" is the mantra which also mean we provide less to service users!

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  4. My comment above-mentioned for the eagle eyed, I've not lost the ability to count, I only have 5 days, cos I've leave booked w.c.31/5!

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    1. E3 was devised because senior management didn't want to deal with the problems of resounding and under-staffing. Instead of dealing with it they moved the goalposts with E3. The result is that those in prison and on probation get even less support and the credibility of probation hits a new low.

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  5. A truly powerful and heartfelt account which I have just RT @Iangould5 . A very big thank you to its author, Over recent days, have thought long and hard about Andrews contribution . Far from there being any 'virtue' in my humble attempts to take Probations side, this long haul has been a simple, gracious, loving attempt to try to do right by a Vocation that still generates real depths of PASSION, inspite of everything TR has thrown at it , as todays blog reveals then, too read comments that evidence Probation Essence reaching/inspiring as they prepare to go into work today to serve others is remarkable . I do hope hope I still get round to sharing my thoughts on yesterday share from @Yorkhull/Probation Institute which I'm still very confused about but have been in my thoughts and prayers today . Take care everyone

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    1. Probation Officer20 May 2016 at 11:40

      Thanks Ian

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  6. If your being asked to manipulate the data so that the bosses can give away the work of a PO to a PSO, isnt that assisted suicide?
    Why continue to carry out task that you know is going to hurt you later?
    Nowhere in your job description is this mentioned. Just a thought.

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    1. This is the right approach. It's a management task so they can fudge the figures so let them check the data themselves.

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  7. Prison reform and the notion of giving governors new freedoms to innovate, will, like the 'rehabilitation revolution' and £46-in-your-pocket, be another mantra that the Tories will repeat ad nauseum to foster the impression of being progressive. But as Gove sees no need to link any reforms to reducing overcrowding, nothing will change.

    'The reform prisons proposal is by no stretch of the imagination a serious response to the deep problems affecting the prison system. It is an eye-catching, small-scale experiment that will form the backdrop for shiny ministerial photo-opportunities while doing nothing to address the underlying malaise.'

    http://www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/resources/reform-prisons-tragic-distraction

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  8. Interesting article by Jimmy Boylehttp://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/may/20/glasgow-gangster-jimmy-boyle-prisons-a-sense-of-freedom-1977-republished

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  9. pg 29 of today's 'The Journal - 'Jury's very much out on Gove's plans for prisons.' by Thomas Brook.

    Discussion of the potential for prisons to become 'academies', and the need to prepare prisoners for release, enabling them to gain employment etc.

    Quote -'Cue ministers gushing over how much we do need to improve the skills and employability of offenders to improve their transition into society'.

    Not once in the whole page article did the word 'probation' come up.

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    1. I saw something on the news about this. The criticism is that there is no money, staffing or resources for employment opportunities in prisons and on release. What this really means is that CRC privateers running 'Through The Gate' will continue to claim £thousands for each prisoner they compile a CV for but with no actual employment or training offered. And as I keep telling TTG, an 'outcome' is not telling me that somebody is unemployed, and what's the point of a CV for somebody that's never had a job!

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    2. Prison reform will fail without extra funds, says former jails chief

      http://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/may/18/uk-prison-reform-programme-fail-phil-wheatley-director-general

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    3. Part-time prison pilot dismissed by head of Bedford penal reform charity as 'puff'

      http://m.bedfordshire-news.co.uk/Just-puff-time-prison-pilot-dismissed-head/story-29292868-detail/story.html


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    4. ML, academies have been rejected by schools so shouldn't be applied to prisons. Reform schools didn't work so Reform prisons won't work either. These proposals are nothing short of bringing back the Workhouse!!

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    5. 13 12 - yep, that was said,tongue in cheek, that they could be called workhouses, 'cos they are advocating that they learn skills of work, so they can come out and get a job!

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  10. I can still feel a tear coming - when I read such a brilliant exposition.

    This merits wide exposure, thank you.

    I am ashamed I did not do more to campaign against the split of social work and probation training and did nothing to campaign against the probation order becoming a sentence of the criminal courts of England and Wales in its own right (Will a reader please remind me of the date and the legislation that changed the status of the Pbn Order please?)

    Did that change of status effectively change the status of probation officers from being "officers of the court" please, if not how exactly did that happen?

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    1. CJA 1991 = probation became a sentence in its own right, rather than an alternative to a sentence. This was also the end opf having to consent to being placed on probation (so long as there were no treatment requirements).

      This was the time of 'just desserts' where every sentence had to be considered in terms of its appropriate punitiveness.

      I don't think this changed the status of POs as officers of the court as such.

      Arguably the move away from Probation Committees to Probation Boards, and perhaps the splitting off of 'civil work' to CAFCASS were more significant, but I can't think of any particular piece of legislation that changed that officer of the court status. Arguably NPS still are......

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    2. Or if you want to go way back:

      1907: The Probation of Offenders Act gives LCPM missionaries official status as "officers of the court", later known as probation officers. The act allows courts to suspend punishment and discharge offenders if they enter into a recognisance of between one and three years, one condition of which was supervision by a person named in the "probation order".

      On 8 May 1907, the Liberal Home Office Minister Herbert Samuel moving the short second reading debate in the House of Commons told MPs that the measure was needed so that offenders whom the courts did not think fit to imprison on account of their age, character or antecedents might be placed on probation under the supervision of these officers whose duty would be to, ‘advise’, ‘assist’ and ‘befriend’ them.

      There's a date when PO qualifying training became a mandatory requirement and regulated, I think some time in the 1950's.

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    3. Thanks - I had thought it was as early as 1991 but in some other place someone said differently & if my memory is correct I got in a muddle trying to read the Act of parliament more recently - I guess that is why solicitors are important - when working - if stuck latterly I would phone my local court and ask the duty court clerk to give a definitive answer to whatever my query was that day!

      I think the training issue is a bit more convoluted than in the 1950s as there were Direct Entrant Probation Officers untrained on commencement until at least the mid 1970s - the CQSW was first awarded in 1974 - I got mine in year two, but there were also colleagues going through the Home Office Direct Entry Training scheme at what, seemed by the way the spoke of it almost a Spiritual Place, Rainer House, I think in Eccleston Square. West London, where the HMIP was based.

      I am not however sure that all Probation Officer recruits onwards from the 1950s before the coming of the ultimately compulsory CQSW, were required to go through the Direct Entry Training Scheme.

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    4. I was a Home Office trained PO in 1973. Graduated in sociology in 1970, worked as generic social worker then undertook Dip in App Soc Studies sponsored by Home Office 1972-73 with Probation option.

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    5. Same route as me.I have returned to social work
      ANON ex SPO no 2

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  11. The initial assessment at Court is the most important stage of our involvement. If mistakes are made here, the consequences in terms of hurried short format reports, insufficient time to make safeguarding, dv enquiries, can result in serious risks to staff and members of the public.

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    1. And this is the stage they're undermining the most. Now anybody can write a PSR and on a tick box form that requires little thought, assessment or information.

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