Monday 31 October 2011

A Fine Mess and No Mistake

It came as no great surprise when Ken Clarke announced last week the government's intention to abolish the hugely damaging and ill-thought out IPP sentence introduced by Tony Blair. It was all part of that government's 'tough on crime; tough on the causes of crime' agenda designed to curry favour with the voters and has had the result of stuffing our prisons with upwards of an additional 7,000 or so extra 'lifers.'

Imprisonment for Public Protection sentences are indeterminate sentences and so are indeed akin to a life sentence because release only comes when someone is deemed safe to release by the Parole Board. Sadly however, that's where the similarity ends. Unlike most other kinds of life sentence, the typical 'tariff' or earliest date before release will be considered is normally very short and averages about 3 years. This makes IPP prisoners a very unusual and difficult group for the system to deal with. It could be said they are neither fish nor fowl - not 'proper' lifers, which the prison service is well-geared up to deal with - but actually medium to short term prisoners by any other name. But we are now several years down the line since their introduction and vast numbers of IPP prisoners are languishing in prison well over their tariff dates. 

Even before the last government lost the election, concern was growing in relation to the huge and growing problem IPP was becoming. Never intended to be used in that many instances, it has nevertheless proved hugely popular with Judges who add to the total on a very regular basis. Unfortunately very little thought was ever given as to how this group would be dealt with within the prison system.

In order to assist the Parole Board in reaching a conclusion regarding risk, various accredited courses have to be undertaken that are designed to address issues such as violence, sexual offending, thinking skills, drugs and alcohol. These courses do not run in all prisons and places are somewhat limited. Added to this is the fact that the Parole Board has become increasingly risk-averse in recent years, no doubt partly in response to negative public opinion and political pressure as a result of some notorious cases. Unhappily this has coincided with cultural and professional changes within the Probation Service, who are the people charged with advising the Parole Board regarding release. I have written on many occasions regarding the unhelpful effect of OASys in only highlighting negative aspects of an offenders situation, thus leading typically to over-cautious or negative recommendations for release.

All this of course has proved the perfect recipe for a massive and growing problem. One might say another fine mess the politicians have got us into. And to be honest it's not exactly clear how Ken Clarke intends to get us out of it with his mix of further 'mandatory' life sentences and determinate sentences. It seems some IPP sentences will be converted to life sentences, but the criteria and rationale has yet to be spelt out.

Meanwhile, here we have an experienced commentator, Mr Raymond Peytors of TheOpinionSite.Org who clearly has a problem with probation:-

 "It looks now as if Mr. Clarke has been forced to abandon the idea of a formalised test and means that probation officers will be allowed to go on getting things hopelessly wrong and to continue to introduce their own bias and prejudice into release procedures."

"Mr. Clarke has also not made it clear as to who will determine whether or not an IPP prisoner has his sentence converted to a determinate sentence or, if the case is serious enough, a mandatory life sentence. One may presume that this procedure would be carried out by the Parole Board, no doubt with all possible interference from the Probation Service who are already fearful that their overbearing and unjust influence over release decisions may be under attack."

"We can expect too a howl of anguish from all those involved with any form of public protection and whose jobs and considerable income rely on maintaining the myth that everyone convicted of certain types of offences must be “dangerous” and incapable of change."

I'm not sure it's worth dignifying such comments with a response, but merely leave readers to form their own opinion.


Sunday 30 October 2011

Community or Custody?

According to their website, "Make Justice Work is a campaign which aims to boost public support for a change in how Britain deals with minor offenders." In order to further this aim they've had a panel of 'the great and the good' conducting an enquiry over the last year or so.

Chaired by Daily Telegraph journalist Peter Osborne, not particularly known for being a bleeding heart liberal, it had the commendable aim of trying to inject some sense into that tired old political game of reducing all argument about sentencing to being either soft or tough on crime.

I've written on this topic myself a number of times and in particular highlighted how disastrous it has been to allow politicians to use criminal justice policy as a political football over recent years. For too long policy has been dictated by pandering to public opinion in the hope of gaining some short-term political advantage. The Probation Service has been one major casualty of this absurd and uninformed meddling and blame for the mess we now find ourself in should be placed firmly at the politicians door.

When first announced, I must admit I did not feel it was a particularly good omen that it was not felt appropriate to include a panel member with extensive probation experience. Now that the final report has been published, sadly I feel somewhat vindicated in this view, having had the opportunity of absorbing the analysis and conclusions. In a sense I don't think the report has come up with anything remotely surprising in saying that community sentences would be preferable to custody for many offenders. But what I do find startling is some of the analysis.

The panel visited four projects, each working in a particular field; Intensive Supervision for 18-25 year old men; women; drug and alcohol and mental health diversion. Clearly the Intensive Supervision scheme 'did what it said on the tin' and involved electronic tagging and what is described as an out of hours 'community outreach' service. It lasted from between 12 and 24 months and occupied offenders five days a week. Now this is just the sort of onerous community sentence that would be likely to get support from the likes of the right-wing press and it's clear the panel were mightily impressed.

However the report did identify one small problem that will not come as any great surprise to seasoned probation officers. I love this bit:-

"The panel were concerned to hear that the tough nature of these orders can sometimes lead to unintended consequences. Offenders have sometimes been known to breach the terms of their sentences so that they are sent to prison instead. Providers of effective community sentences need to find ways to work with offenders to understand the order and see it as an opportunity to reform."

Who would have thought that then? The sentence did indeed prove extremely onerous for some participants: so much so that some were either breached or just opted for custody instead. It's all very well designing an intensive punishment as an alternative to custody, but if the balance is tipped too far towards stick with not enough carrot content, the aim becomes self-defeating.

Many a time I have discussed with clients at PSR stage, often in custody, the relative merits of various sentences and for significant numbers their problems are so numerous and seemingly so intractable, that a period in prison is seen as a blessed relief and often allows release with a relatively 'clean slate.' The panel seem to have completely missed the point that this issue is absolutely key to the success or not of intensive supervision schemes. 

In relation to offenders with drug or alcohol problems, the panel fails completely to address whether current drug treatment models are working and just concerns itself with lamenting that alcohol treatment is very much the poor relation. I am mystified by these two statements:-

"Diversion from custody to residential drug treatment produces a lifetime cost saving to society of approximately £200,000 per offender."

"£980 million would have been saved if those offenders given custodial sentence of twelve months or less in 2007 had instead been diverted to residential drug treatment."

Clearly the panel are not aware that 'residential drug treatment' is a facility akin to hens teeth in terms of availability. I suspect they might mean 'community' drug treatment. But how can you get the terminology wrong in a supposed high-powered report like this? Residential drug treatment, ie in a purpose-built facility, would be an enormous step forward for certain people with long-standing drug problems. But it simply isn't available nowadays, due to the cost of course. Pretty much all that is on offer is methadone while a person continues to live in the same often drug-riddled community whence they developed their dependency in the first place. Or they're homeless of course.

In the section about diversion from custody of persons suffering from mental health problems, there is no mention at all of learning disability or those suffering emotional distress or from psychological problems. Instead they seem to put great store on the abilities of early mental health assessments - no doubt by Community Psychiatric Nurses or equivalent - being able to  obviate the need for 'expensive and time-consuming' psychiatric reports. Indeed they trumpet this as a significant improvement and cost-saving measure.

Sadly my experience tells me that what is proposed is unlikely to be adequate and encouraging less specialist medical reports, ultimately counter-productive. If anything I believe there is a greater need for expert medical opinion in far more cases because of the failings of the National Health Service generally. I have always been amazed that it is often only at court stage that long-established mental health, learning disability and psychological problems can be properly diagnosed, but only when expert reports are commissioned. It's a disgrace, but a situation that this report seems to want to compound on the grounds of cost and expediency. 

I cannot over-emphasise the benefit to society - not to mention the individual - that can accrue just from obtaining a definitive diagnosis that would give insight into a persons offending and map out a suitable treatment plan. This cannot be done 'on the cheap' and requires the skill and expertise of a forensic psychiatrist or psychologist, not a CPN. Once again we seem to have a report that is completely unable to differentiate between the disciplines of psychiatry and psychology and the appropriate role boundaries of CPN's. 

In short I found this report disappointing. It reaffirmed much of the blindingly obvious, came up with nothing new, but in the process managed to miss some key issues along the way. 

Friday 28 October 2011

Some Observations 9

Fate has a habit of throwing up some unkind and unfortunate situations, none more so than the former social worker selected by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Plymouth to investigate allegations of sexual abuse. Unbelievably, Christoper Jarvis turns out to have had paedophile interests and has just been sentenced to 12 months imprisonment for possessing seriously indecent sexual images of children on his computer. 

This news is so disturbing on a whole range of levels, but particularly that of being a breach of trust. Writing as a qualified male social worker, but one that chose a career in probation, it serves to underline the very uneasy feeling I suspect many of us have from time to time about being in the presence of children and how we might be perceived by others. It's a dreadful state of affairs, not spoken of much I suspect, but my instinct tells me it's probably a significant factor in relatively few men choosing childcare, especially residential childcare, as a career path. It's this aspect that so depresses me when I hear of men in particular who occupy positions of trust and are subsequently discovered to have been offending. It so harms us all. 

I'm grateful to the person who brought to my attention this apparent scoop by the BBC about Armley Gaol in Leeds, West Yorkshire. Apparently it has been selected as the first pilot scheme involving Payment by Results in a state-run prison. I've written somewhat enthusiastically about this idea previously and particularly in relation to the pilot scheme at privatised HMP Peterborough involving those inmates serving 12 months or less.

Somewhat astonishingly, despite the complete absence of any evidence that the idea of rewarding agencies if they succeed in reducing reoffending actually works, the Ministry of Justice nevertheless feel it's worth rolling the idea out to other establishments. But I must say I'm somewhat mystified as to how the idea will work at a state-run prison that is not working to a contract containing a profit motive. No doubt all will become clear over the coming weeks - or can someone enlighten me? Economics has never been my strong point.  

Meanwhile G4S have indeed had to replace all locks at HMP Birmingham - a very costly process indeed amounting to somewhere in the region of between £250,000 and £1million. It must rank as one of the very worst nightmares of every Number 1 Governor and the blame for the absence of a set of pass keys has indeed been put down to a disgruntled member of staff unhappy at the prison having recently been privatised. Although I've never worked in a prison, I'm sufficiently aware of basic security to know that all keys are tracked with an identity tag that has to be exchanged at the gate. I wonder how on earth someone seems to have got away with it?      

Wednesday 26 October 2011

What Does a Probation Officer Do? 3


Having conducted the interviews and made an assessment, it's time to try and influence the criminal justice process and this is most often by means of a Pre Sentence Report either to the Magistrates or Crown Court. Having spent many years preparing such reports, I can say that some of my best work has been as a result of being able to influence a court to take a certain course of action that both satisfies the requirement for punishment and that encourages rehabilitation. It's at this point that issues such as Learning Disability, past emotional damage or mental health can be explored and highlighted. This is to name but a few of the vast ranges of factors that serve to contribute to someone's offending and should in my view be considered by a court before passing sentence. 

Traditionally it's been a priviledged position occupied by probation in being able to address sentencers directly. However, regular readers will be aware that I've been highly critical of recent changes in this vital area of our work and especially the extent to which OASys has had a detrimental effect both on the quality and effectiveness of PSR's. I believe this vital process of providing courts with good quality assessments and recommendations pre-sentence has been damaged significantly by OASys.

It still remains a mystery to me that Crown Court Judges in particular have had very little to say about the changes in style and content and one wonders if they did indeed ever pay much heed to PSR's at all? The upshot of the dreadful 'pull-through' OASys-generated reports foisted upon us by our prison-dominated NOMS management has been a massive increase in the time required to complete full PSR's, which in turn has had the knock-on effect of requiring short format Fast Delivery Reports that do not require OASys preparation. It's been a double whammy for the Probation Service with OASys requiring more time to complete a report and delivering reduced quality in one fell swoop.

Now even as I write this I'm aware that hackles will be raised in certain quarters and if anyone can be bothered it might re-ignite old arguments. But I think I've almost got past caring anymore. It's as I see it and I think the proof is in the fact that PSR's are fast becoming irrelevant to the Criminal Justice process. We did that - our management made an absolute cornerstone of the system redundant through a complete inability to fully understand what the true effects of OASys would be. We are now rapidly moving towards the notion of Post Sentence Reports, thus completely ditching one of the key aspects of our work, namely providing courts with information and informed assessments that are independent of the prosecution and defence, in order to assist in the process of arriving at sentences that are fair and just.

I suppose somewhat understandably I've dwelt upon the PSR in terms of influencing, but there are other situations such as Parole Board reports, Recall Reports, Sentence Planning reports etc, etc. In each case the author is challenged to express in written form what the situation is, move towards an assessment with reasoned argument and come up with a conclusion and recommendation. It's without doubt a skliful process and if undertaken professionally should seek to influence decision-makers whilst taking due regard to public protection and rehabilitation. It's not an easy path to tread and does not always win friends. It also means we remain much misunderstood as a profession.       


Friday 21 October 2011

Some Observations 8

I know this is old news, but I really felt I couldn't pass up the opportunity of commenting on the seemingly inexorable rise of the dreadful Louise Casey. The Prime Minister no less announced last week that she was resigning as Victim Commissioner in order to head up the post mortem into the recent riots. She will have particular responsibility apparently for developing policy concerning the 120,000 or so troubled families felt to be responsible for the vast majority of crime and anti-social behaviour.

Seeing as she had been tipped to become a possible Labour Peer, to now have the full endorsement of the likes of Eric Pickles is quite remarkable to say the least, but possibly just serves to confirm her true right-wing credentials. Somehow I don't see any enlightened liberal policies resulting from her highly-paid endeavours, but it's just possible her track record on not fully engaging brain before speaking out may be her undoing.

It was good to see a piece about HMP North Sea Camp on last Sunday's edition of BBC Countryfile. I've written about this particular open prison before and it's interesting history having been constructed in the 1930's by Borstal boys who marched from HMP Stafford and spent many years not just building a hutted prison, but also reclaimed many square miles of agricultural land from the wild Lincolnshire coastline. Such open prisons are extremely important in being able to help long-term prisoners adapt to eventual release, providing as they do varied full-time employment opportunities.

The sad thing is that prisons like North Sea Camp are pretty dilapidated and there have been rumours that it may succumb to Ken Clarke's spending cuts. This would be a very unwise move in my view as there are now so few working farms connected to prisons and the therapeutic value of often seriously damaged individuals working with animals cannot be over emphasised. The programme is still on BBC i-player and well worth catching. Keen-eyed viewers may spot some narrow gauge railway lines as until fairly recently there was still a small working system, but I suspect it fell foul eventually of MoJ Health and Safety regulations. What a shame.

Finally, am I the only person pondering if there might be some connection between G4S taking over HMP Birmingham and the disappearance of a set of pass keys? This is about as serious as it gets in terms of prison security and may involve changing every lock in the jail at vast expense. G4S have announced a number of redundancies and staff morale is quite likely to be extremely low.    

Wednesday 19 October 2011

A Skewed View?

Every now and then I find myself gasping at a piece of radio news and am left pondering 'did I hear that right?' The Welsh Rugby coach going public and saying that he considered cheating, but decided it was not morally right to do so. What on earth does that mean? What could the motivation be for saying something like that? Even more interesting is the response from his boss saying he should be congratulated for deciding not to cheat. WHAT?! 

I don't know about you, but I feel I could do with a pat on the back for deciding to pay for everything I needed from Tesco's the other day. For not doing a 'drive off' having filled the car up with petrol, or buying a ticket on a crowded train. The list is endless and the answer not just about weighing up the possibility of getting caught - the deterrent effect - surely it's also about responsibility?

I've written before about the the fact that for society to function well, citizens must all act responsibly, or the vast majority at least. The sad fact is that it just needs one person to be irresponsible to have a potentially devastating effect.  As you approach the brow of a blind hill, you have to believe that every driver coming the other way is acting responsibly and not on your side of the road. Maybe I'm of an unusually nervous disposition, but tall buildings always scare me regarding the possibility of something falling, having been carelessly left on a ledge or by a window. And then there's the possibility of malicious or reckless intent. I well remember one of the very first court reports I ever wrote was regarding a young man throwing bricks off a railway bridge at oncoming trains. 

Over the years my work as a probation officer has often involved cases where not acting responsibly has had tragic and profound consequences. Just one blow to the head can be terminal and the recent tragic death of an electrician working on Strictly Come Dancing serves to remind me of this. Of course the law is there to supposedly act as a deterrent and in deed this aspiration was very recently confirmed by the Appeal Court upholding four years imprisonment on two young men for inciting civil unrest by internet message. I said right from the beginning that such a sentence in no way surprised me, but I'm less sure as to whether deterrence really works.

Civilised society has always had the problem of how to encourage or ensure that everyone acts responsibly for the common good. Just one isolated act of irresponsibility can not only kill or maim, but can also be another small step towards impoverishing us all. Until one man threw a condom full of dye from the House of Commons public gallery at Tony Blair, it had been open to the chamber. Now the public are hermetically sealed behind glass screens. 

I suppose I've always tended to be a 'glass half empty' kind of a guy and should instead try to be more upbeat. Maybe I need to marvel and rejoice that most people decide to act like the Welsh rugby coach and not cheat. I try to tell myself that most of us are law-abiding for most of the time and it's only this line of work that gives me a skewed view of the world. Mmmmmm...          

Monday 10 October 2011

What Does a Probation Officer Do? 2

Make an Assessment

I was going to say that having completed the interview with the client either for the first or thirty first time, you move towards making an assessment, but actually it's a continuous process. In reality it's not that much different from what we all do unconsciously as human beings during every interaction. The only real difference is that it very much becomes a conscious process with a whole range of questions running through your mind. Just how open do I think this person is being? Does their story ring true? Are there discrepancies in the prosecution disclosures? Do they have a learning disability? Are they dangerous? What are the risk factors? Are they deteriorating? Do they have a mental illness? Are they psychologically damaged? Are they motivated? Do they have insight? Etc etc.  

Making as good an assessment as possible is probably the most important part of the job because everything else flows from it. In essence it's the diagnosis to use a medical analogy. Get it wrong, or miss something and it can have significant consequences not just for the client, but possibly a future victim or wider society. It's why training and experience are so necessary for the job, although I have always had doubts that the ability to make sound judgements can be taught. A bit like empathy, you either have it or you don't. I've known quite senior colleagues who, rather worryingly, were hopeless at assessing so it's certainly not to do with length of service or age. 

It's the making of assessments that probably lies at the root of much conflict and dissatisfaction between client and officer. In my experience this has increased significantly over recent years and is felt to be a function of the transition from social work agency to so-called law enforcement. I'm not entirely sure why because even when we were all social work trained, we still had highly dangerous and risky people to deal with. Possibly it's because probation officers only deal with this group nowadays and not the wide variety of general offenders we had on our books years ago. Certainly society has changed significantly and clients are just representative of those changes, specifically attitudes towards authority generally.

In rooting around the internet I came across a long piece written for Inside Time by a serving prisoner and these quotes give a flavour of how things can appear from the other side:-

"Although many probation officers claim empirical evidence is an acceptable substitute for that fact-based, what such evidence really boils down to is usually nothing more substantial than an ‘impression’ – a feeling in their water that it’s a bad ‘un they’re dealing with. And what is all the more remarkable is the extent to which other decision makers such as parole panels appear willing to accept unquestioned the professional opinion of probation officers. It’s a gullibility readily exploited by some probation staff."

"Why it is that probation staff can so easily invoke professional opinion in their reports without credible supporting evidence whereas professionals in other areas such as criminology, psychiatry, psychology, etc have to state the factual basis of their opinion? And more to the point, why do too many prisoners accept negative probation reports unquestioned? Is it fear that to challenge them will jeopardise their sentence progression (and have risk factors increased as a result)? Or is it because many prisoners’ educational limitations handicap their ability to spot often glaring flaws (especially false premises) in probation reports?"

The whole article is well worth reading as an example, possibly an extreme example, of the negativity felt towards probation officers by some clients. Of course it's understandable in part because of the nature of our respective positions and such views can be all-too-easily explained in terms of 'well he would say that wouldn't he?'  But it's certainly something I've been conscious of over the years. What we do is not a science and never can be, but that just means we have to use all our skill and judgement in trying to make as good an assessment as possible, but always mindful of the potential consequences.

It has become fashionable to talk in terms of officers having to make 'defenceable decisions' and there is an argument that this has made officers much more risk-averse. This is entirely understandable in the current environment where, following a serious further offence by one of your clients, the blame seems to fall upon you rather than the perpetrator. This never used to be the case of course, but possibly explains the tendency towards what are perceived as 'negative' reports, 'lets err on the side of caution' risk assessments and endless referrals to behaviour modification courses.

The astute will notice that so far OASys has not been mentioned. The oh so confidently-named Offender Assessment System. Surely that should do what the name implies and enable all staff, no matter what degree of experience and training they have, to make sound assessments? Surely it introduces an element of dispassionate science and removes any danger of officer bias in producing accurate and fair assessments? Dream on. All it does is take up huge chunks of your time and hinder the very process I've been trying to describe. Making a good assessment is a cerebral process. Filling in OASys is a bureaucratic process.    


Sunday 9 October 2011

How Disappointing!

In reading this recent article in the Guardian about former Prison Service Director Martin Narey joining G4S, I was disappointed to note that apparently the former Chief Inspector of Probation Andrew Bridges has been snapped up by Interserve. You will recall that there has been a steady flow of former senior public servants in the Criminal Justice sector, such as Phil Wheatley another former Prison chief, deciding to 'embrace new challenges' in the burgeoning private sector.

All understandable possibly, especially given the current government policy of slimming down the public sector in favour of wholesale transfers of state functions to either private industry or charities. But I have to say I'm very disappointed that the former Chief Inspector of Probation was not able to use his many skills and talents, honed from a professional lifetime in Public Service, furthering that service rather than going over to the opposition. It's possible he tried and certainly this article from the Guardian in July could be taken as a barely-veiled invitation for job offers from the wider probation family. Surely his expertise would have been invaluable as the Service generally tries to come to grips with how to best position itself and respond to a rapidly approaching competitive market? Were there really no approaches from this side of the fence? 

I suppose what we're left with is the very depressing scenario that, in our field at least, the Public Service appears to be a lost cause and all the talent - and it has to be said smart money - is increasingly migrating to the private sector. If you have time, just root around on the Interserve website and you will see that these so-called Facility Management companies turn their hand to just about anything. Depending on your views about capitalism amid the present economic crisis, we're either on a hand cart to hell, or outfits like this will be running whole economies, nay countries soon. I feel one of my heads coming on and need to lie down.     

Saturday 8 October 2011

What Does a Probation Officer Do? 1

I find myself once again staring at a blank blog page waiting for inspiration when it occurs to me that perhaps it might be helpful to try and spell out exactly what a probation officer does - or should do in my view. I'm only too well aware that despite having written extensively on the subject for over a year now, it might still be a mystery to some. So this may well be the first of a series that tries to succinctly sum up what is involved. I suppose a bit like a magician revealing how a trick works, but hopefully without the danger of being expelled by the probation equivalent of the Magic Circle. Lets start at the very beginning, as they say.  

Establish a Relationship

When I first mentioned this some months ago I have to say I was genuinely surprised when it clearly raised eyebrows in certain quarters. It served to remind me that what may appear obvious to insiders is not necessarily so elsewhere. Virtually all interactions between officer and client occur in private and normally with only the two people present. I used to feel it was analogous to a doctor/patient relationship, only more so in the past when each officer had the luxury of their own room behind a door with their name on it. My office was one of the last to go over to dreaded 'open plan' and soulless interview rooms, but at least the meeting is still in private. In the past it was not unknown to have comfortable armchairs and sometimes a cup of tea was felt appropriate in order to oil the wheels of a possibly difficult interview. 

The thing about probation is that you may see a person just once, say for the purpose of preparing a Pre Sentence Report for court, or someone else over many, many years if you are supervising a long sentence or they are regular offenders. In each case, in order to obtain information and an understanding of that person, you have to establish a rapport with them, possibly at a very stressful time in their life and when they may feel motivated not to tell you the whole story. Much of what you want them to talk about may often be of the most serious nature and disturbing kind and you have to try and gauge when it's appropriate to push, or when it's appropriate to just listen. 

Sometimes it's necessary to challenge, or to dig or approach things from another angle in order to get as good a picture as possible as to what they did and why they did it. Only then can you try and help that person understand themselves, their motivations and encourage a path towards altered behaviour. It should be pre-eminently obvious that none of this is possible unless there is a positive, caring, professional relationship between officer and client. There has to be respect and trust between these two people in order to lay the foundations for change to be given a chance. Some things are hard enough to tell one person, let alone a succession of people, so continuity is vital. 

Happily, all the research proves that it is this relationship between officer and client that is the single most significant factor in affecting positive outcomes. In many ways I think it's sad to have to say that as to me it's just so damned obvious. It's the reason why I've never really had a serious problem getting clients to keep appointments. I like to believe that they turn up because they want to see me, not just because they have to. Of course the quid pro quo is that I'm there to see them. I cannot say how sad it makes me feel to hear of case after case reported on Prisoners Families Voices of either officers not being in the office or a succession of different duty staff seeing clients week after week. 

I know we all have other commitments and sickness befalls us from time to time, but I think it's more than that. When I joined, I think officers were far more 'proprietorial' about their clients than they are nowadays. There was an assumption that you kept clients for as long as it took, whereas nowadays there's lots of anecdotal evidence that it doesn't matter if they're passed around like parcels. I know I always put great thought and effort into who of my colleagues might be appropriate to stand in for me if I'm to be unavoidably absent. Sadly, I don't see much evidence of this sort of individual arrangement nowadays.

Especially amongst newer colleagues, I sense there is less emphasis on the importance of building and maintaining relationships with individual clients. Instead there seems to be a policy of shared responsibility in what might be regarded as the priority to just make sure clients 'report.' There seems to be a prevalent view that it doesn't matter who they report to. I have no idea why this might be. Possibly it's a symptom of stress or workloads. I can't believe it's a policy being undertaken deliberately to avoid clients as that would surely be unprofessional? But I can see how it might look and feel from a clients point of view.

Possibly as a reflection of younger people's more mobile lifestyles and professional aspirations, there appears much more movement of staff nowadays. This is extremely unsettling to clients, especially long-term prisoners and ironically is completely counter to the aspiration enshrined in the doctrine of 'seamless end-to-end offender management' ushered in with NOMS.  Whatever, I'm clear that the absence of well established relationships between officer and client will prove utterly self-defeating in being able to effect change in people. If nothing else, it simply doesn't satisfy the self-imposed Jim Brown test of 'how would this make me feel?'                

Thursday 6 October 2011

A Day at the Seaside

Ok it was only the Mersey, but it was a gorgeous sunny day in Liverpool and the terrace of the Conference Centre certainly felt like the end of the pier. Last week I took up an open invitation to attend the Labour Party Conference as a visitor. I do this kind of thing every now and then, I suppose as much out of idle curiosity as any naive belief that you might actually be able to influence anyone. 

I've made the journey down to Parliament a few times, but I really wasn't prepared for the security hoops you have to go through to get to a party conference. The comparison couldn't be more stark. Any citizen can just turn up unannounced at the House of Commons, ask to see their MP and without the need to show any ID, they will be ushered straight into the Lobby, following a quick trip through a standard airport metal detector. Not so for Liverpool. A months notice; extensive application form; a referee; passport and driving licence details, and a photo were all required. Fascinating.

Anyway, I digress. Once the novelty of spotting famous people had subsided - and I found myself almost swept up by accident in Ed Milibands entourage - I eventually got to put my question to an open 'fringe' session chaired by Hilary Benn. 'Keep it short and snappy I thought' - (I'm always amazed how long-winded some people are)  "Is there any chance politicians might be able to talk sensibly about drug policy soon, for example by supporting a return to the prescribing of heroin, seeing as the war on drugs is failing completely?"  To my utter amazement it drew a healthy round of applause and several subsequent speakers picked up on the theme.

In response, Hilary had a stab at trying to sound concerned and provided some positive strokes, but in essence I think it's difficult for a life-long teetotaller to say anything other than "we really don't want a lot of people going round snorting stuff though do we?" I think I can see why he didn't last very long as Prisons and Probation minister before being whisked off into Overseas Development in the previous Labour government. I just don't think he quite gets the whole idea about any mind-altering substances, even legal ones. Anyway, I tried and it had been a lovely sunny day out.   

Wednesday 5 October 2011

The Beguiling Question

According to Sir David Frost, John Smith, the former leader of the Labour Party, once said that his skill as an interviewer was to 'ask the beguiling question that had a potentially catastrophic answer.' This gem was contained in the absolutely fascinating recent BBC tv 'Frost on Nixon' programme where Joan Bakewell takes David Frost back to those amazing 28 hours of interviews with disgraced former President Nixon in 1977.

I certainly remember the whole Watergate scandal, but I'm ashamed to say I never got around to watching the fruits of Frost's marathon series of interviews, culminating as they did in a reflective and chastened former President coming as close as possible to a full and frank admission of guilt. When I watched this two hour special programme which included the famous exchange about Watergate, I became absolutely spell-bound by the parallels between what Frost achieved and what probation officers routinely aspire to in interviews with clients. 

Interviewing is without doubt a skill. I'm not sure it can be taught as such because in essence it has to be a personal process in order to extract vital information from an often unwilling and uncooperative individual. The circumstances surrounding often horrific crimes are not easy topics for analytical discussion and the process is understandably charged with emotion. The patient skill of the interviewer is to get to the truth not just about what actually happened, but the underlying motive. I can assure you it's not easy and watching this tv programme brought memories flooding back of many hours of intellectual battle with a particular client of mine over more than 20 years. 

It was this particular case because I've always found it difficult to admit failure, and maybe I now know why. There never was the 'golden' moment when he just caved in to my forensic and patient questioning. All my efforts over many hours of exhausting intellectual and emotional battle would only ever end with him saying 'just tell me what you want to hear.'  To my astonishment when Frost gets Nixon to the absolute knub of the issue, Nixon responds by asking Frost 'What would you say?'  A dumbfounded Frost is at first shaken, but then provides a three-point answer that opens the floodgates and triggers Nixon's heartfelt and humble apology. 

I now realise that I almost certainly got it wrong. My client really did want to hear what I felt he ought to say and my crass answer 'just tell me the truth' was never going to work. It just might have unlocked the door and enabled me to ring the investigating police officer as he suggested if I ever got to the truth.