'The job used to have integrity': readers on Britain's probation services
An official review into the failing performance of the government’s privatisation of the probation service, has been called for by justice secretary Liz Truss. The probation service was split in 2014 into 21 private community rehabilitation companies (CRCs) and a public National Probation Service (NPS), replacing the former 35 probation trusts.
Truss told MPs on Tuesday that the review into the performance of the privatised probation companies would be finished by April and would include measures to improve the service. The announcement came after highly critical reports by the chief inspector of probation, Dame Glenys Stacey, found companies struggled to deliver the supervision of 250,000 offenders a year.
We asked people working in probation services in the UK for their views and experiences. From low morale among staff to excessive case loads, and unsuitable risk assessments, here’s what some of them said.
Working for the publicly owned NPS: ‘Staff have no faith in leadership’
The probation trusts we used to have were rooted in localism and worked closely with partner organisations such as the police, social care and the health service. But all those relationships have been put under strain by the arrogant attitude emanating from Whitehall. Staff still believe in the job they do but have no faith in leadership.
The recent staff survey information indicated that just 3% thought that the NPS had made improvements - I think that says it all. As we’re such a small organisation we won’t get the headlines that problems in the prison service get but if things go wrong with us, the consequences for the public could be even greater.
Neil, East Midlands
‘I suffered burnout and am now on unpaid leave’
Nobody is receiving the service they should and it has become too difficult to do a good job. People are leaving and sickness levels due to stress and depression are high - it is not uncommon for people to cry at their desks.
I have been qualified as an officer for 11 years and have a range of experience, from prison work to managing a team of probation officers. However, I had a period of sick leave due to depression and am now on unpaid leave. Direct line managers and colleagues were generally supportive but despite that I have suffered burnout. I am now travelling around Europe in a motorhome with my children!
Public protection within the NPS: ‘Staff are inexperienced, inadequately trained and very poorly paid’
We’re supposed to offer a service where high risk offenders (while on licence) are directed to reside in places where they can be monitored before being released into the community, but it’s staffed with people who are inexperienced, inadequately trained and very poorly paid. How does that facilitate public protection?
It’s been awful from the word go but I wanted to stick it out and learn something new. I’d never worked in probation before. However after almost ten years I handed in my resignation on Monday. I’ve learnt a great deal. I’ve really enjoyed the work and helping people change their lives is great. Human behaviour is very interesting and although the public might not understand probation and what it does (which is probation’s fault) all of these offenders have been victims at one time too. Society is very ill. A philosopher once said: ‘Society gets the criminals it deserves,’ and that it does.
Working for London CRC which is privately owned by MTCnovo: ‘Excessive case loads are putting public protection at risk’
I have been a probation officer for 11 years and supervise male offenders predominately for domestic violence offences. Before privatisation I worked in a team of 11 and had a case load of between 40-50 offenders. Now I am in a team of 7 and have a caseload of 70.
I am supposed to assess their risk and compile a community sentence plan (this is where we look at the needs of the offender and work to improve their situation whilst reducing their risk. For example someone who becomes violent when drunk will need alcohol intervention as well as help addressing the reasoning behind violence such as power and control, or anger management). In the current political climate many offenders have mental health issues and there is no longer any provision for this issue as London CRC have disbanded the mental health cohort. We also find many of our clients have housing issues and benefit sanctions.
Before privatisation we used to see offenders weekly for a minimum of 16 weeks and each session would last at least a minimum of an hour. In doing so we would build a positive rapport and a thorough analysis of the offender, their needs and their risk. Now we have too many offenders and not enough time. I see my offenders on average for 20 minutes once a month. There is no minimum requirement and our managers encourage us constantly to see them less and sign post them more which is a false fallacy as community services are scarce and stretched.
Public protection is at risk here with excessive case loads but no one is monitoring this and managers do not care. We are robustly managed to hit targets but are totally missing the point. I want to resign. My job has become a tick box exercise. The people I see are damaged and often dangerous, with violent backgrounds or mental health issues and need support.
Custody within a CRC: ‘There have been a number of totally inaccurate and inappropriate risk assessments’
I’m a custody probation officer and my job is effectively the ‘motto’ of probation: protect the public, rehabilitate the offender, and enforce the law. Public protection means assessing the risks (of harm and re-offender) of any particular prisoner. Rehabilitate the offender (ideally) means ensuring they receive the most appropriate work to address their offending. Enforce the law means ensuring an offender (whether on a community order or on a prison licence) abided to his or her conditions.
Prison officers are few and far between, so we have to find one who has time, energy and the inclination, to unlock a prisoner so we can do some work. In the past, a prisoner making a request would have it dealt with appropriately. These days, I could receive umpteen emails, phone calls or being collared while out and about the prison, to tell me a prisoner needed to speak to me.
With regards to CRCs - half the time we don’t have up-to-date contact information, so cannot phone or email an outside officer for whatever reason. There have been a number of totally inaccurate and inappropriate risk assessments. One I saw involved a man who had committed GBH three times in a drunken pub fight. The CRC assessed him as a low risk of harm because he did not know any of the victims before pushing a beer glass in their faces.
Lots of people who do front-line work are having long periods of sick leave. If these stressed people stay in their jobs, they’re not going to be as effective as they should be, or once were. The whole system is collapsing and we’re just letting it happen.
Enforcement within a CRC: ‘I have given up trying to defend the indefensible’
We have lost experienced enforcement officers who would rather take redundancy than work in a job they are now ashamed of. I prosecute breaches - when anyone bothers to take any action - and am constantly having to try and explain to the courts why offenders have not been seen for months. I have given up trying to defend the indefensible. If victims of crime knew that even the paltry sentences handed down are not even carried out, how do you think they would feel? The government tells us crime is going down (which is nonsense), people just do not even bother to report it.
Working in a senior attendance centre for a CRC: ‘I was transferred in 2014 and am yet to have any job specific training’
I have been in my current role for 12 years but directly under government bodies, and was transferred to a CRC in August 2014. My role is predominantly working face to face with low to medium risk service users and ensuring they report regularly to the centre. Myself and other colleagues have yet to have any job specific training other then a few hours being shown a few key things on their database. I have received no training in relation to health and safety. I have very little contact with supervising officers to find out how their service users are complying with their orders, and there are so many probation officers with unsafe case levels to manage.
As for the companies interest or obligation for my welfare, it is practically nonexistent. I have had one appraisal six months after I transferred, and three different line managers! I have now been told that redundancy for me is very likely, as they are attempting to make what was once a thriving sentencing option into a skeleton service.
Victim services within a CRC: ‘Victims are lost in the system and the reason why offenders are on probation is forgotten’
If you are a victim of crime you would like to believe that the offender will be held to account and required to complete the sentence set out at court. This is not the case - because we work in a target driven culture. The emphasis is to get the offender through the order so it can be viewed as a successful completion - and to achieve this probation officers are expected to do whatever they can. So in reality there are no national standards, you cannot breach anyone and you can’t recall anyone - offenders rule the service.
Previously an offender could have two missed appointments before they would be in breach and taken back to court now offenders get through their orders hardly setting foot in an office. Telephone calls are now classed as appointments, and any requirements such as programmes are overlooked, if they don’t want to do it then on the whole they don’t have to. We are expected to do anything and overlook everything in order to get a successful completion. The word public protection used to be the core of probation but now it’s not even considered.
The job used to have integrity, but now we are at the mercy of people who don’t actually care about victims or potential victims. Instead they are lost in the system and the very reason why offenders are on probation is forgotten.
Emmy, West Yorkshire
Working in resettlement in a CRC: ‘Before privatisation I would have been supervised by managers’
I am a probation practitioner which involves risk assessment, and going out to prison wings to interview prisoners for accommodation, benefits, finances, relationships, health and wellbeing, and behaviour. We then action the issues they have, always bearing in mind the risk posed to the public. As you can imagine some prisoners have a multitude of issues. We then have to try and find the allocated officer in the community, which is difficult now as splitting the service has made this a very tiring and arduous task.
Before the split I would have had the support of managers including supervision. Now it is nonexistent and we are expected to run innumerable caseloads. We have to offer the above support services knowing they are not working. We have been de-skilled as officers due to not having support with what we are supposed to be delivering in custody, such as interventions. We are not coping with the changes that the government have imposed and hand-in-hand with the current state of the prison, police and our service, I am fearful of the future. I am afraid for the public given that prisoners are leaving without appropriate services in place, with one of the worst hit areas being mental health. I am very aware of people leaving custody with no support because there is none.
Support from the courts: ‘Clients are released with nothing and appear back in court for food theft’
I work in a Midlands court team. I write sentencing reports, cover criminal sentencing courts and provide information to the courts about any current cases. I interview individuals and then provide a proposal for sentence. I am supposed to look at risk levels and ways to reduce reoffending, ways to rehabilitate and ways to keep known persons and the public safe. This is nigh on impossible when we don’t even know what privately run companies are actually providing. Our team has had seven different managers over the last two years. Staff moral is at an all time low.
We basically lie when proposing sentences in our reports. We tell judges and magistrates that particular lines of work will be done when in reality, clients are never seen and go weeks without appointments. Drug and alcohol services are nigh on useless and it takes weeks to set up any type of prescription for them. Clients are released with literally nothing and nowhere to go and then appear back in court for shop theft of food - what a surprise.