Monday, 25 June 2018

A Remarkable Initiative

With the alarming rise in prison suicides, discussed here in January, I touched upon the groundbreaking work of a particular probation officer and with news of her passing I'm reminded of the many remarkable initiatives that have been spawned by our profession:-

I read with sadness the news of the passing of Kathy Baker (Biggar) - see Guardian obituary by Erwin Jones. I recall that my first encounter with Kathy was when she was working as a Senior Probation Officer in London in early 2000's. She had by then established a well earned reputation as an indefatigable advocate for better prisoner safety and improved suicide awareness through her Listener scheme. 

An ebullient and hard working colleague, whose management style could be brisk, her commitment to a more responsive and caring criminal justice system was always informed by humanity and warmth. I would often bump into her at outside conferences and lectures and she was always breathlessly engaged in her next project and her prescient outlook clearly foresaw some of the more damaging organisational changes that lay ahead for the Probation Service.

Mike Guilfoyle 

Kathy Baker obituary
Samaritans volunteer whose enduring legacy is the Listeners scheme to help prisoners in distress

A Samaritans volunteer for nearly 50 years, Kathy Baker, who has died aged 70, gave so much of her time to so many. But her enduring legacy will be the groundbreaking Samaritans Listener scheme which she founded in HMP Swansea in 1991 after a 15-year-old boy hanged himself in the prison.

The Listener scheme, whereby prisoners are trained to provide a patient and compassionate ear for fellow prisoners in distress, is one of the most innovative ventures introduced to the UK prison system and has saved countless lives. The governor of Swansea at the time, Jim Heyes, was a man of foresight who had been deeply affected by the death of the youngster and welcomed the Samaritans into his prison. He worked closely with Kathy to establish the Listeners as an integral part of his prison regime. Between them they created “a living organism”, as one governor described it, which has spread so that now every prison in the country is obliged to have such a scheme and to have a relationship with the Samaritans as part of their key performance indicators.

I first met Kathy when I was an early-years life prisoner. As deputy chair of Samaritans, she visited HMP Nottingham in 1992 to meet the new group of Listeners, of whom I was one. We were nervous, but she put us at ease and persuaded us that our voluntary roles would save lives. Fourteen years later and two years after my release, I met her again when I was asked to present her with the 2006 Perrie award, granted each year to the person who has done most to promote an understanding of the work of the Prison Service in England and Wales.

In 1994 Kathy was appointed MBE for services to prisoner welfare. As well as being a part of the service’s Safer Custody Group from the early 1990s, she was the suicide prevention adviser to high-security prisons from 2001 until 2007.

Born in Northwood, Middlesex, Kathy was the daughter of Frances (nee Weir) and Allan Biggar, who met during the second world war – her mother was in the Waaf, her father in the RAF. After the war, Frances became a full-time mother to Kathy and her sister Janet. Allan worked in the family publishing business, before going into journalism, writing for the Sporting Life and the annual Bloodstock Review.

Kathy was educated at Northwood college for girls. At 18 she went on an exchange trip to live with a French family for six months and during this time developed an interest in photography. On her return, she enrolled at Ealing School of Art, studying and qualifying in the subject and planning a photography career, which took her into the research department of Unilever. Soon afterwards she joined her local branch of Samaritans and became a stalwart of the Hillingdon branch throughout the 70s and 80s.

In the mid-70s Kathy was a co-founder of the festival branch – outreach tents at music festivals such as Knebworth and Reading – she and her colleagues arguing that the Samaritans were then seen as “too white and too middle-class” and that they needed to reach out to more diverse and younger people. Her colleague Phil Howes, another festival branch founder, remembered that “Kathy was like a mother hen and we were the chicks all running after her.”

Her Samaritan work at Hillingdon brought Kathy into contact with many prison leavers suffering mental health problems and other vulnerabilities and it was this experience that made her decide to change careers and join the Probation Service at Feltham in 1973. Several years later she became the prison probation officer in HMP Wandsworth. There she recruited prisoners who were coping well to “keep an eye” on those who were obviously not, and this was the starting point of what eventually became the Listeners. In 1991 Kathy was given the pivotal role of liaising between the Prison Service and Samaritans, travelling around the country persuading prison governors of the merits of the scheme.

Kathy met her future husband, Bill Baker, in the early 80s when he was a computer programmer for ICI and a fellow Samaritan. Bill also later became a probation officer and the couple were married in 2001, bringing Kathy three stepchildren. Following their retirement in 2007, Kathy and Bill decided to go on a world sightseeing trip which was cut short when Bill was taken ill and then diagnosed with cancer. Kathy nursed Bill until his death in 2009.

Kathy, now a Samaritan at the central London branch, kept up her involvement with the Listener scheme and other initiatives to reduce suicide in prison, even after she, too, was diagnosed with cancer early in 2016.

In 2017, the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody (IAP) undertook a collaboration with the national newspaper for prisoners and detainees, Inside Time, National Prison Radio and Samaritans to reach out to those in custody, seeking their ideas for keeping people safe in prison. They received more than 200 detailed letters from prisoners, one of whom wrote: “I’m just one of many who have been saved by the Listeners.” Kathy responded personally to every letter.

“Through her professionalism and humanity, Kathy not only saved countless lives, she enabled people in prison to see that they too could save lives and help fellow prisoners in extreme distress,’” said Juliet Lyon, chair of the IAP.

“She had presence,” said Berny, a former long-term prisoner and Listener who after her release became a close friend of Kathy. “Wherever Kathy was, there was a sense of incredible kindness, love and acceptance.”

Kathy rarely spoke about why she did what she did, although she once said: “Enabling people to talk about how they feel is a real gift.” People from all walks of life, and in particular people in custody, will be eternally grateful that she shared that gift.

She is survived by her sister and her mother.

Kathy Mabel Baker, probation officer and Samaritan, born 10 June 1947; died 7 June 2018


  1. Suicide is a terrible thing, and any initiative to prevent it happening must be championed.
    Suicide somehow seems much worse when carried out by someone who's locked in a grotty cell and all alone.
    The Listeners scheme deserves credit for its achievements, and I feel it must also afford a huge sense of self worth to those that volunteer to be Listeners whilst serving their own sentences.
    But todays blog reminds me of a report published last year on the shocking numbers of people who commit suicide while subject to probation supervision.
    However stressful or frightening people may find imprisonment, it must be just as terrifying for some when faced with release back into a world where there's no access to services, no housing, and £46 for a platform to build the rest of your life on.
    I just wonder if there's not some similar initiative to the Listeners scheme that probation services could provide?
    I know you can contact Samarathians, but you can do that from prison too.


    1. I know it's not what you're saying but I give those released on Life Licence and from long sentences my mobile number. Have never had a dodgy or ill timed call yet but plenty when they needed reassurance or info sharing(linked to anxiety; issues vary from to do with Licence/accom/ bank accounts/relationships etcetc)

  2. From The Financial Times: -

    Jonathan Ford yesterday

    "You know it’s a worrying time in your industry when the boss of one of the biggest companies draws explicit parallels between current events and what happened to the banks in 2008. Last week, Rupert Soames did just that, bemoaning the share-price collapse that has swept through the outsourcing sector — hitting companies that provide contracted services, often to public bodies. “Not long ago, Capita’s share price was over £10; it is now £1.50; Serco, now £1 was not long ago over £3; Interserve used to trade at over £6, and is now around 70p,” the chief executive of Serco said. The falls, he observed, had affected all the main outsourcing companies, wiping nearly £10bn from their collective market capitalisation. “These are destructions of a sector’s value not seen since the global financial crisis,” Mr Soames added."

    Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

    1. Boo-fucking-hoo, Mr Grandson-of-Churchill-never-had-to-struggle Soames. What about those who have had to face loss of liberty, loss of accommodation, loss of employment, LOSS OF LIFE & other assorted tragedies as a direct consequence of franchising (aka handing over) public services including probation to money-orientated asset-stripping bullies like Serco, Capita, Interserve, etc.




    4. A prison outsourcing giant has paid back the government more than £4million in damages for its performance since 2010.

      Serco handed the huge sum to the Ministry of Justice after failing to meet standards dozens of times.

      The firm holds £3.6billion worth of lucrative contracts with the taxpayer-funded MOJ - including PFI deals and the Prisoner Escort and Custody Services (PECS).

      But Serco was issued 37 ‘performance improvement notices’ on its PECS contract since April 2010 - and paid back £3.16million in “financial remedies” over the same contract.

      Serco paid a further £1.01million related to its prison contracts, and £3,240 in relation to Hassockfield Secure Training Centre, which shut in 2014.

      Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgon, who obtained the figures, said: “Once again we see how the failed model of privatisation and outsourcing is undermining the quality of our justice system.

      “Labour is determined to put an end to our justice system being run in the interest of private profit.”

      Justice minister Rory Stewart confirmed the payments, also called “liquidated damages”, all related to a “failure to meet contractual performance obligations”.

      Despite the payments Mr Stewart insisted: “We manage all of our contracts with Serco robustly and deal with any performance issues in accordance with the mechanisms of the contracts.

      “Overall our Serco contracts perform well and the performance management mechanisms in our contracts are effective in addressing any performance concerns.”

      The figures show Serco paid the MOJ a total of £193,000 damages in 2010/11, £361,000 in 2011/12 and £249,000 in 2012/13.

      Since then the total has risen each year to £612,000 in 2013/14, £644,000 in 2014/15, £890,000 in 2015/16 and £955,000 in 2016/17 - the most recent year for which complete figures were available.

      Despite the rise, a Serco spokesman said: “As the Minister said, Serco contracts are performing well and the issues referred to are several years old.”

      The spokesman added: “Today, our prisons and custodial services are some of the best rated in the country and provide good value for money for the taxpayer.”

      Serco was also issued a notice over “performance concerns” in HMP Doncaster in 2015, but it was removed in July 2017 after improvements.

      The figures emerged days after Tory MP Edward Argar, who was Serco’s Head of UK and Europe Public Affars until 2014, was appointed a justice minister.

      Mr Burgon added: “While the private sector plays such a major role, the public must have confidence that Ministers can hold these huge corporations to account.

      “That it why the government must urgently clarify if the new Justice Minister will play any role overseeing Serco’s justice contracts, given he once held a senior post there.”

      MOJ sources previously insisted the department would benefit from Mr Argar’s experience, and stressed: “There is no conflict of interest”.

  3. Legal reforms to ensure that public service contracts go to organisations creating 'social value’ rather than simply to the lowest bidder were promised today in the government’s response to a series of outsourcing fiascoes.

    In a widely trailed speech to thinktank Reform, Minister for the Cabinet Office David Lidington said he would strengthen the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 in order to rebuild trust after the colklapse of construction giant Carillion earlier this year. At present, the act requires central government bodies planning to procure services from a private contractor to 'consider’ how procurement could improve the area’s 'social, economic and environmental well-being’. In future it will require all major procurements to evaluate social value.

    The changes will create a more level playing field for mutuals, cooperatives and social enterprises bidding to win government contracts, Lidington said, saying the aim is to create a ‘diverse, vibrant marketplace of different suppliers’. The Ministry of Justice is one of several Whitehall departments to have come under fire for drawing up contracts in such a way that only established large businesses can meet the terms.

    Lidington also promised to develop proposals for the government’s biggest suppliers to publish data and provide action plans for how they plan to address 'key social issues and disparities - such as ethnic minority representation, gender pay, and what they are doing to tackle the scourge of modern slavery’.

    Key suppliers will also have to draw up ‘living wills’ to enable contingency plans to be rapidly put into place if needed.

  4. Reverting back to GS elections I note back in May this year Ian Lawrence's email was's now Is this semi-Freudian attempts to confirm to us his "real" identity or what's known as clutching at straws? Have certainly heard more from him over this election period via blogs than usual. That suggests anxiety to me. I hope the anxiety is justified in a yes vote for Mike but this could be seeing life through rose coloured spectacles as MR has certainly had a restricted platform to reach members and member response to GS elections is typically low. I also noted Il has sprouted a WhatsApp contact. Certainly wanting to feel contactable but does anyone use it I wonder... do speak up.

    1. Ian L has been spouting off more crap but here is another gem of his foolhardy approach

      "to seek to work with all political parties to find a way out of the TR shambles. It will also require us to firm up on our thinking over the summer Parliamentary recess so that we are in a good position to seek the input into the MoJ review that has been asked for by the JSC." There is no guarantee the MOJ will review anything and no chance they want to hear from him. Besides I would not want him loos helping that lot he is broke for talent. The Job is to defend members rights not collude for an honour award by helping the government. No we don't pay for you do what you want either is anyone managing this cowboy? Back to the election then I doubt Rolfe could win and given his misleading ignorance of the terms of the GS terms and then backtracking is such a major disaster in an election campaign. Next take don't take advice from M Mouse.