Monday, 15 August 2016

Guest Blog 59

The last time a Probation Officer offered a client a cuppa?

There has been a few posts by 'old lags' on this blog over the past week. I originally started writing this post in response and titled it "don't do the crime if you can't do the time!" I think I have good reason for having mixed thoughts over what I've read, which includes Ben Gunn's experiences after 3 decades behind bars and his relationship with his probation officer.

I think it's fair to say that most experiences of imprisonment will be unique to each and every prisoner/ex-prisoner. I've written briefly about my time in prison on this blog before too. Looking back I wish I had been sent into the Army instead, even running away to join the Foreign Legion would have been better. Maybe things would have been different if there had been more investment at a school age, which is the best time to divert youngsters away from offending whether it be for one-off mistakes or emerging criminal careers. 

Going to prison was one of the worst things things that happened to me; both on remand and following sentence, it was a hostile environment, a shock to the system and the stigma of having a criminal record still affects me today. I always encourage myself and others to not dwell on that one bad life-changing decision, while knowing that it will never fully be left in the past. Sometimes we all feel like Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando);

"You don't understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it".

The prison conditions all those decades ago were just as bad as they are now. I didn't expect prison to be nice and the first and last time I moaned about my sentence another prisoner said "you did the crime, now do the time". There is no better rationale that can be applied to a prison sentence and I've studied the theories on crime, punishment, imprisonment, rehabilitation and desistance. Good conditions, bad conditions, nothing works, prison works and what works; being locked up in prison with hundreds of (aggressive, addicted and mentally ill) prisoners and a handful of low paid (brutish) staff has never and is never going to work until the entire direction of penal policy shifts away from incapacitation. Until then, well, don't do the crime if you can't do the time.

The problem is that many people can do the time despite the conditions, and because living like a caged animal is not a healthy position, many will continue to 'do the crime' too. It is hard to find any meaning or purpose in the wasted time spent in rotten prison environments that offer very little in terms of rehabilitation or personal development. If we think about the current prison overcrowding crisis, the privatisation of the probation service, the cuts in welfare, the lack of social housing, rising unemployment and the looming post-Brexit recession, the future doesn't look bright for prisoners and released prisoners. 

It doesn't help that re-entry into society is viewed as such a negative event, and resettlement is further hindered by the 'ex-prisoner' brand and the criminal record noose that is never removed. For prisoners and ex-prisoners to change there has to be support and opportunities, mainly with addictions, accommodation and employment. The use of imprisonment as a punishment comes with a huge responsibility, and part of this means helping to rebuild better futures for the lives that imprisonment took away.

Prisons have always been a place of degradation and despair, but we used to have a system of supporting the vulnerable, the needy and the destitute. We were once world leaders in rehabilitation and justice but this changed as our penal policies increasingly followed America, as our justice system has become overrun by civil servants and non-legally trained justice ministers, and prisoners and offenders have become commodities for private probation companies and charities seeking huge revenues to provide services that are worse than doing nothing. 

In this climate we hear the stories of the community and welfare organisations that have reorganised to hinder rather than help, the prisons and detention centres that are riddled with abuse and corruption, and the new breed of justice professionals, the probation officers, offender managers, offender supervisors, responsible officers and even social workers that are trained to tick boxes, be tough on offenders and hide behind the disproportionate and discriminating decisions that are made under the guise of security, risk management and public protection.

It is a sorry state of affairs, but against all the odds many prisoners and released prisoners do change. I do know many probation officers, social workers and professionals that still hold the old values and are committed to getting and keeping people out of prison. It's impossible to count how many times I've known probation officers to help with accommodation, employment and all the other needs they are presented with. This is even after all the in-house probation-trained accommodation, employment and addiction advisors were taken away. There are still many gems amongst probation officers and they should be given a chance because many 'on probation' find that "my probation officer" can be a much needed supporter, advisor and friend.

A recent commenter on this blog wrote "I recall the days when I used to bring half a dozen problems to my PO on appointment days with the hope of getting some help with maybe 2 or 3 of them. You'd sit and discuss them quite often with a cup of tea". I was so pleased to read this comment because this is what much of us still do every day. Despite the huge changes ongoing in the probation NPS and CRC's, there is hope that the government has not changed probation beyond recognition or whitewashed it out of history just yet. Probation clients will be lucky to get a cup of water though, as budget cuts and health and safety means that a hot cuppa in a probation office has long been a thing of the past.

Probation Officer
15+ years to retire


  1. I'm a firm believer in that for most crimes, the moment your licence is up you should not have to declare the conviction: it should automatically become spent because you've done the time. This would help immeasurably to people being able to turn their lives around. Probation should be more about helping people to get their lives back on track after prison that managing some imagined risk which is counterproductive to turning your life around. The system we have at the moment simply does not work. America has been slowly realising that their system does not work so the question to be asked is why our politicians still have their heads stuck in the sand on this one?

    1. Two Words



      Being "tough" plays to their voting core, being effective would involve a bit of TLC, TLC does not play well with their voters. When the most common response to saying that prison does not work is to say "well lock them up longer and take their play stations away" there is not a lot you can do.

      We have leaders who follow and policy in so many areas predicated on how it will "play" in the media.

      Bit more than two words but there you go

      Pina Colada

  2. If the probation services state in court that they no longer have any thing to offer the accused, who's homeless and in breach of their ASBO, and the Judge imposes a 12 week custodial sentence, which means the accused serves 6 weeks and becomes subject to a 12mth supervision order and gets supervised by the same probation service that's already said in court they have nothing more to offer them.
    I'm not quite sure what to think about that situation, but gut feeling tells me it's not right.

    1. Probation Officer15 August 2016 at 13:51

      Happens all the time. The Court added a £115 fine which she obviously cannot pay. Nobody is beyond help and I remember a time when women offenders would receive additional support to stop this type of scenario. Instead it seems she's been let down, after release will probably be recalled until end of licence and then breached on post sentence supervision. These are the problems with the new Offender Rehabilitation Act.

    2. Jailed 'Asbo lady' beyond help, says probation service.

      SWINDON'S self-proclaimed 'Asbo lady' has found herself back behind bars once again after the probation service said there was nothing more they could do to help her.

      Homeless Deborah Morris was brought from custody before Swindon magistrates yesterday. She faced two charges of breaching her anti-social behaviour order (Asbo) less than a week after she was given a suspended prison sentence for assaulting two police officers and breaching the Asbo.

      Morris, 52, pleaded guilty to both offences dating from July 20 and August 4 when she was found in Swindon town centre, where she is banned from going due to the Asbo. She further admitted breaching her suspended prison sentence order imposed on July 14 for the offences dating from the previous day.

      Having been presented to the bench from custody the magistrates told her they would be returning her to custody again as the probation service was unable to offer her any further support.

      Sentencing her, chairman of the bench Jane Flew said: "We note from your record of previous convictions that you have breached this Asbo, I have lost count how many times, but repeatedly. We note that there was no particular aggravating feature of the breaches, but nevertheless you were in breach of the order and you understood what that order was about. We are going to impose a period of custody of three weeks for each breach which will be served consecutively. We have given you full credit for your early guilty pleas. For breaching your suspended sentence order, for the repeated offending, the fact we feel there is no alternative to custody and probation has said there is nothing further they can do for you there is no alternative but custody. We are activating that in full which will run consecutively to the periods of custody today, making a total of 12 weeks."

      Morris is expected to serve half of her sentence behind bars and upon release will be subject to a further 12 months of supervision within the community once her period of licence comes to an end. She must also pay a victim surcharge of £115 which the bench consolidated with her outstanding court fines. They made no order for court costs due to her means.

  3. I’m one of the ‘old lags’ who began posted here a couple of days ago, and the phrase “can’t do the time, don’t do the time” is something I also subscribe to. My least favourite inmate type was the ‘moaner’ – the guy who never seemed to understand that every other prisoner endures lukewarm showers, lumpy custard, underwear which has been masturbated into by several thousand previous owners etc without complaint, mainly because we are (mostly) guilty and all in the same boat. Jeffrey Archer wrote three volumes of similar banal HMP self-pity and made millions though, so perhaps I missed a trick.

    I agree with pretty much everything written in the post regarding resettlement. A phrase I’ve commonly heard in HMP was something along the lines of “I can do the jail, it’s the licence which is the hard bit”. I don’t doubt that on many occasions the individual concerned was greatly responsible for making his own licence period more difficult than it needed to be, but I can also attest from experience that rebuilding a life outside is very difficult and utterly dispiriting in a way which is completely different from the structured, systematic debilitation involved with the custodial element of a sentence. HMP still carries a bizarre form of hope – we look forward to getting out, we toughen ourselves up to survive the ‘regime’ and most of us try and make the best of it and find ways to fill our time constructively. There is always that prospect of release to keep us going, and we generally know where we stand. Then we get out, we hit the pavement with ill-conceived optimism but little in the way of a concrete plan, and after that it generally goes downhill. Every single person I’ve had to disclose my history to has treated me very differently because of it, and I’m regularly asked for an explanation of how I ended up in prison in the first place, and I suspect this is expected to be delivered in a remorseful and apologetic way to appease professional people who are essentially just a bit nosey and want gory detail. I don’t expect to be given a high-powered job and live in a swanky apartment, or even that there should be a greater deal of ‘help’ provided exclusively to the offender base, but there is a general air of “this is all you’re getting, and be fucking grateful for that. Now sod off”, whenever I put myself forward for anything. I look forward to my licence ending, for the simple reason that I’ll no longer have to disclose anything about my history unless directly requested. I still have a date to look forward to, just as I did when inside, but this does not apply to the ISP population, and I dread to think of how difficult it will be for those people upon release.

    1. Probation Officer15 August 2016 at 13:18

      Yes the Jeffery Archer factor! Every now and then I think about writing a book too as I could probably do a much better job. It'd be a better chance of making millions then writing anonymous blogs. I hold out on the basis that I'm doing good work in the day job, so maybe I'll save it until it's time for my memoirs.

      I'm glad we seem to agree on our postings. I've always thought that with a good probation officer /social worker the licence is much less of a chore.

  4. I am a crc manager's nightmare, because I do make tea, I spend time with the service users discussing the issues and looking for a way forward with them. I allow them to use the phone to make calls to other agencies in order to improve their chances of settling in the community, and if needed I will advocate. All time consuming stuff. Leaving little or no time for the endless round of tick boxing accountability exercises and yes, the risk assessments and sentence plans. Pre split I viewed the bureaucracy as a price I had to pay to be able to practice. Now I have to choose. I can't do both. How am I still working? I will be caught up with I know. Managers appear to have a big drive on one thing for a few weeks, then abandon one issue in favour of another. If I can keep up with the "concern of the moment " I can just about get by without crashing too obviously. But I am sure I am on borrowed time.

    1. Probation Officer15 August 2016 at 13:38

      Glad to hear it and yes your card is marked! We are pitted in a battle against the tick boxing, streamlined, process driven culture they've long been trying to create. The direction of travel seems to be that they don't want probation practitioners doing proper probation work any more.


    1. I doubt Peter Sutcliffe will make it back to prison. If he does he'll be returned to hospital within weeks.

  6. I still give cups of tea, not routinely but for those in crisis. I will also give food. I do these things, not because I am a Probation Officer, but because I am human and I work with other humans. I want people to engage with me and for that I need to also show respect.