Life on Licence
Some months ago I finished the licence portion of my sentence after a three year prison term. The licence started in 2014 so it spanned the changes between the old system and the new supposedly shinier, all singing, all dancing privatised probation service brought in by Chris Grayling in his term as SSJ. This post is about my experiences of probation over that time.
Purple Futures aka Interserve took over from the former probation trust in my area in February 2015. This was lauded as “a really good thing”, or so I was told by my OM, because allegedly Interserve had been incredibly sensible and had hired former probation staff to run the new CRC. So, in contrast to what was happening in other areas under other providers who hadn’t been as foresighted, this was going to be THE model on how to run a privatised probation service. Imagine a drum roll at this point, followed by a marching band playing hail the conquering heroes.
I was highly sceptical of these claims given Interserve’s chequered history of running anything, anywhere, as a quick Google search makes abundantly clear. But the OM had the fervour of the recently converted religious acolyte and could only spout endlessly about how absolutely marvellously things were going to work out under the new corporate overlords. Maybe I’m just cynical, but detail on exactly how they were going to do this wonderful thing seemed to be conspicuously absent. Apparently one was just supposed to believe in fairies and unicorns etc.
Privatisation of public services in the UK, despite being lauded as the panacea to all ills for politicians from Thatcher onwards, has pretty much been a uniform failure as the privatisation of rail services to utility companies to private prisons etc. has made abundantly clear. So it was highly unlikely the privatisation of probation was going to be a rousing success. And let’s face it; Chris Grayling’s track record ain’t exactly stellar. But to be fair, all of those I knew in prison released around the same time I was decided to give probation the benefit of the doubt and approach things with an open mind and to judge what happened next on our personal experiences.
I’d pretty much served a year of the licence under the old system before it became the new all singing all dancing one. Additionally I had also had contact with the pre TR system whilst still in custody. In other words, I had a pretty good basis of comparison upon which to judge both the old and new systems.
To be blunt: probation pre TR, in my opinion, was pretty dysfunctional and this mainly seemed to be due to both quality of staff and the attitude of staff and management towards clients. By the time of release I was on OM number 4. Numbers 1 and 2 did little more than send out the obligatory yearly letter and failed to answer any letters I sent to them (apparently far too busy to answer correspondence from prisoners even before staffing numbers were decimated by TR according to a response to a complaint I filed about their rudeness in not answering my letters). This astounded me as professional courtesy should at the very least dictate you send a response to all correspondence received. But apparently the old probation system didn’t believe in such things.
Number three seemed to delight in needlessly causing complications for some unknown reason and her decisions ended up being struck down in a judicial review for having breached my legal rights as well as breaking a number of legal obligations under several Probation Instructions. She vanished shortly thereafter on maternity leave and as far as I’m aware never resurfaced. So not exactly the most productive working relationship.
Number four showed up some time after this and this is the one I was stuck with until the end of the licence. I’ve never quite been able to come up with an appropriate label for Number 4 who veered between jobsworth, ragingly incompetent, completely disinterested and spiteful. But I’ve always been struck throughout every single interaction I had with her, how completely unsuited to the job she was. Every interaction we had was about her and not me and on the odd occasion when things were about me it was always about her, if you get what I mean. She had absolutely no interest in any developments happening in the world or the criminal justice system that may have an impact on her job or me; she refused to look at any documents such as court papers I had that would have corrected the many many instances of incorrect information in my probation records and her decision making seemed to be lacking in both rigour and care. She got really pissed off if I complained about her to management no matter how justified the complaint might have been (interestingly every one was found in my favour). My philosophy was, if you’re going to hold me to account for my failings then it is not unreasonable for me to do the same to you, especially when those failings can impact hugely on me. The whole do unto others thing. But apparently people get really upset when you treat them as they treat you.
There were a number of specific areas that came up as particularly unsatisfactory during the term of the licence. These were:
Despite being offered suitable (and free) accommodation by a friend which would have allowed me a secure roof over my head whilst I got my life back on track after release and the other probation trust agreeing in writing to accept me if the OM put in a request, my OM refused point blank to even entertain the idea. So I got released back to an area I had no connection to but was merely where I got arrested with nowhere to live and no support network. She did, grudgingly refer me to the local homeless hostel where I spent a truly awful four months living in a worse environment than prison (more drug addicts openly using, more crime etc) with the only advantages being better food and the fact you could come and go as you pleased. I also ended up with less money than I’d had in prison as the hostel took over half of my weekly benefit amount.
It’s not just me who has had these issues regarding accommodation on release. I regularly talk to a homeless guy in our town centre who spent time in jail and ended up on the streets on release despite being offered accommodation with his family in another area of the country (his OM also refused to let him move away from the area he was arrested in). His view of probation is about as positive as mine. He has had even less help or support from his OM than I have, which is saying something. Despite there being a number of emergency beds in the homeless shelters in town available every night the OM didn’t even bestir herself to refer him to any of them or even to the local homeless team when he got out and without a referral you can’t get in to them and you can’t self refer. She has done absolutely nothing for him since his release seemingly quite happy that he is living on the street, regularly beaten up by drunks on the weekend, begging for money for food and with his mental and physical health visibly deteriorating week by week
Many grants available to people in desperate need of money, such as ex prisoners, can often only be accessed through a third party such as probation or a social worker. Some of the easiest to get funding for, for ex prisoners, is only through probation submitting an application on behalf of the ex prisoner.
Probation, prior to TR, was reluctant to do even the simplest of grants for even the most basic necessities. Post TR, there was an absolute refusal to even consider this despite it being clearly explained, with supporting documents, how important it was for probation to help because it may often have been the only source of funds available to meet basic needs.
Charities and grant funding trusts would be more than likely unaware that probation were now refusing to help needy applicants apply for funds so would have been very unlikely to change the application terms so another referrer could be sought and utilised such as the CAB (not every ex prisoner has or is eligible for a social worker for example). This refusal by probation was deliberately and knowingly cutting vulnerable people off from accessing funds that could help them get their lives back on track. I’d also add that these grant applications were simple and straightforward so would have taken little time to complete.
The major thing that really struck me about how dysfunctional probation was, was in relation to working or volunteering after release from prison. Study after study has shown that getting a job after prison is one of the main things that helps reduce the possibility of reoffending. So you’d think that probation would be only too supportive of someone wanting to get a job and having the skills and experience to do so and who was a very low risk offender unlikely to reoffend. But the reality is weirdly quite different.
I wanted to get a decent job that would allow me to use my skills and experience and give me a liveable income or at least do some volunteering until I could secure a reasonable job after a being unemployed for three years languishing at Her Majesty’s pleasure. There was nothing in my licence that would have prevented me from working or even volunteering but oddly, obstacle after obstacle was put in my way. At one point I was threatened with recall for even enquiring about volunteering placements.
In fact the only thing she would let me apply for was Timpsons’ training programme for ex cons (and this only after I filed a complaint about her refusal to let me work or volunteer). But as I have never had the slightest desire to do shoe repairs, would be unlikely to be considered for any such role being vastly over qualified (i.e. Timpsons would consider I wouldn’t stay so it would be a waste of time and money training me) and had a medical condition that affected my manual dexterity so wouldn’t have been able to actually do the job, this was a non starter.
I wasn’t allowed to go down the self employed route either. Apparently this was a sure fire way for me to start prolifically reoffending despite a total lack of evidence to support this assertion (my offence had nothing to do with my previous employment for example).
I wasn’t even allowed to do any voluntary work which would have polished up my skill set and given me a good reference for when I was allowed to work again. From what I was able to dig out of an alternate and fifth OM who subbed for number 4 when she was away on holiday or off sick, it boiled down to the fact that the OM simply couldn’t be bothered to do the necessary paperwork for volunteer or paid employment and routinely refused permission for anyone she was supervising to do either.
Mind you, talking to other people who I was inside with who were on licence at the same time as me or who still are, this is very common amongst OM’s as only one of us has actually been permitted to work during their licence period. Everyone else was, let’s say, “strongly discouraged” from doing so. Give that we’re all in different areas under different CRC’s or different bits of the NPS it’s clearly an issue across the board and not just limited to one OM in one CRC. It seems that consigning those released from prison to a life on benefits whilst on licence is much preferred by a substantial number of probation practitioners in all areas simply because it’s less work for the OM. The fact that it’s potentially very detrimental to the ex prisoner and counter to the stated goals of rehabilitation and probation seems completely irrelevant.
So basically I was stuck on benefits for the entire licence which was just so much fun though at least the DWP couldn’t sanction me because it was probation preventing me from working and not anything I was or was not doing. Now I’m off licence, I’ve been out of the work place for so long, I’m verging on unemployable. Trying to get more up to date qualifications has proven to be a non starter as you simply can’t get funding if you already have a degree qualification and having been on benefits for over three years and losing absolutely everything I owned whilst inside, I cannot self fund. I’ve started doing some volunteer work in a local charity shop just to get myself out of the house as much as possible and back into the real world. All of this could have been so easily avoided and makes me wonder why probation is allowed to get away with doing things like this.
One thing that did noticeably change was that reporting went from face to face meetings to phone calls immediately after February 2015. I’d gone from weekly meetings to fortnightly meetings after three months to monthly meetings after 6 months. But the moment things got handed over to the privateers the monthly face to face went to monthly phone calls with face to face meetings scheduled only once in a blue moon. This is true for all of those on licence I know no matter what our risk level. I’m not sure how you can properly supervise anyone over the phone especially in this day and age of mobile phones because the supervisee could literally be anywhere doing anything but as long as they answer the phone at the scheduled time that’s apparently fine.
Every single reporting session was a complete waste of time. I learned very quickly, as did just about everyone else I knew on licence, that it was simply not a good idea to talk about anything personal, good or bad with your OM because it only led to trouble. You got in and out as quickly as possible, said as little as possible and never discussed anything personal. One of the few people I know who didn’t stick to this rule got recalled for bursting into tears in front of their OM after getting some bad news about a death in the family and was promptly recalled as apparently crying means you’re emotionally unstable and immediately going to run out and commit a crime (she wasn’t, she just had a perfectly normal reaction to some bad news).
Supervision suggests an active involvement with the offender and working with them to help them understand what caused them to commit the crime in the first place and what would stop them reoffending in the future and providing the help necessary to facilitate that. What you get in practice these days is a tick box exercise of a monthly phone call lasting no more than five minutes and zero help. In most cases, not even a leaflet.
The legal stuff
One thing that has always struck me about both prison and probation is the sheer disregard for the law most prison and probation staff have. Trampling over inmates’ or those on licence’s legal rights happens on a regular basis and with seeming endorsement by management who consistently fail to either provide proper training to prevent it or police those breaking the law in their organisations. This always strikes me as completely hypocritical. Surely both prison and probation staff have a moral and ethical, if not legal, obligation to set a good example for those they supervise to help those convicted of crime lead a law abiding life? It really doesn’t inspire anyone trying to go straight to constantly see people regularly and with seeming impunity break the law. The law, it would seem, to a casual observer of such things, only applies to those society have deemed to be on the receiving end of it.
I was lucky enough to have sufficient education, intelligence and strength of character (which no doubt some would label “bloody mindedness”) to be able to inform myself of my legal rights and to tackle a dysfunctional system that ran roughshod over those rights on a regular basis. I was also not what one would deem vulnerable having no mental health issues, no drug or alcohol issues and had not been exploited by anyone and forced to commit crime. If I had been vulnerable, as so many are who end up in prison, I would have received no help or support from a system that is supposed to provide such things and would probably have ended up back inside as no doubt many who I knew inside did simply because they failed to get the help and support they needed to turn their lives around. Probation, in my experience, never really seemed to care about those it supervised and now simply doesn’t give a toss about anything other than ticking all the boxes to collect all the money.
Another thing that changed noticeably between pre and post TR was the whole data protection thing which, as anyone who has read Inside Time on a regular basis will know, is a major issue for prisoners due to their records being riddled with inaccuracies which cause huge problems with progression and release. Pre TR you got a copy of your records for free under a data subject access request and it was pretty straightforward to get inaccuracies amended. After TR you had to cough up a tenner despite the fact they are basically the same records written by the same people. Which if you’re on benefits is a lot of money and would put most people off asking for them no matter how badly they were needed. Another clear sign that the CRC’s are not providing a service for the benefit of anyone.
My OASys reports were consistently done late and, for the most part inaccurately completed (wrong offence, wrong date of birth, incorrect name spellings to name just a few issues). It turned out these issues weren’t just limited to the OASys but were also throughout every record held by the Trust/CRC. This is despite the fact that the Data Protection Act 1998 is very clear that anyone putting any personal data about you into their organisation’s records has a legal obligation to ensure that what they are entering is factually accurate. With any data received from third parties there is also a legal obligation to verify it for accuracy before it is entered into your records. You also have to record the source of the third party data. Professional opinions are allowed to be included in your data BUT they must be clearly shown to be just that and cannot be presented as fact.
Unfortunately my OM was blithely unaware of her legal obligations re the DPA until I tackled her about why she was stating so many factually inaccurate things in my records and passing off her professional opinion of me as fact. Not only was she unaware of her legal obligations, it also turned out she simply didn’t care. She even stated on a significant number of occasions that it “was not her job” when the law states it is. This is a massive failing in training staff by management especially where companies and organisations can end up with some pretty hefty fines for data protection failings. It is not enough to appoint a Data Controller in head office and assume your legal obligations are done and dusted; you have to thoroughly train staff in their legal obligations as well in this area. I can only assume it’s because management assumes all offenders are stupid and/or uneducated with no interest in or understanding of their legal rights so they can get away with it.
My OM seemed to also be blithely unaware of my licence conditions despite the fact she’d actually written them. She’d stuck me with some special licence conditions which were ludicrous and completely unnecessary as the standard conditions would have easily covered things and I was about the lowest risk offender going (according to all analyses). But even though she had actually drafted these conditions, she seemed to be completely unaware of what they actually said and on several occasions she alleged I’d breached the terms of my licence when I hadn’t simply because she had misinterpreted what she herself had actually written. It took a formal complaint to the Chief Executive to resolve the matter which seemed a ridiculous way to have to resolve things.
So what have I learned from my time on licence? I cannot in all conscience say that I learned anything from being in prison or on licence except that the entire system is completely dysfunctional and not fit for purpose. There is absolutely no benefit whatsoever for most people of being supervised by probation as it currently stands. In fact, for most people, probation seems to be a horrendous waste of time and money that could be better invested in things that might actually work to help reduce reoffending.
It’s also clear that an awful lot of people employed in the service are, like a lot of prison officers, simply not suited to the job. I have no idea if my OM is typical or not of the average probation officer in the current system – she may well be to some degree from what I have gathered from talking to others on licence. But it seems from the experience of all these people that the average OM leaves a lot to be desired. This cannot all be down to a flawed system that has decimated any help there was back in the good old days but must have something to do with those working in probation at all levels. You do hear the odd encouraging story of a decent OM but sadly they seem to be in the minority. The best things I’ve heard from people about their OM was that they kept out of the way whilst people got on with their lives and they didn’t impose stupid shit on their supervisees. In other words, they were better than most simply by being pretty much absent from the equation.
I struggle to see how things can be fixed without throwing the entire current system out and installing a completely new one based on a system that actually does what it says on the tin like the Nordic or Dutch systems. Though there is unfortunately zero appetite from government for such things as has become increasingly clear over the past decade or so. It might help if the SSJ was someone who had courage, convictions and actually had a clue but no Tory seems to possess such qualities.
There also needs to be root and branch wholesale look at the entire criminal justice system in the UK. If other countries can get it right, or at least do a lot better than the UK is, why are those in charge in this country so reluctant to introduce practice that actually works? It needs to start in the police station after someone has been arrested and proceed through the entire court system, into prison or probation.
I suspect that practitioners who still have pride in their profession will strongly disagree with what I have said but this is my experience of life on licence and not so very different to experiences of others on licence during the same time period.