Thursday 31 May 2012

What Can I Say?

Working in the field that I do it's a tad embarrassing to have to admit that maybe leopards don't change their spots. From as far back as I can remember, things have always been put off to another day; homework was always late; essays were invariably submitted at or shortly after the deadline at university and some PSR's have been so up-to-date that they've been hand-delivered to court.

I don't think I can put it off any longer - the time has come to say something about the current consultation exercise initiated by the government into the future of the probation service. Responses have to be in by June 22nd, but what do you say when you simply don't agree with the basic premise that virtually every part of our work has to be put out to competitive tendering? The only exceptions are advice to courts and supervision of high risk offenders.

The ironic thing about keeping high risk offenders of course is that evidence shows that 80% of Serious Further Offences are committed by low or medium risk offenders. Potential private bidders should bear that fact in mind before thinking of taking on the supervision of so-called low risk clients - do they really want to play our version of Russian Roulette and take the inevitable opprobrium when one of them murders someone "why didn't you know they were going to do that - they're being supervised aren't they?"

The sad fact is that probation is in disarray - a bit like the proverbial rabbit caught in the car headlights - and doesn't even have any effective national voice. As we know, several Trusts have already broken ranks and jumped into bed with private contractors and the Probation Association and Probation Chief's Association have yet to decide on joining forces. With staff being locked out as part of the prison tendering process, it's tempting to suggest that things are descending into farce. 

I've tried reading the consultation document with the view to crafting a considered response, but I can't. I fundamentally disagree with the whole ridiculous case for 'reform', privatisation, and competition. This is a public service for goodness sake - one that won a bloody gold medal last year from the British Quality Foundation (I hadn't heard of them either) - apparently the first public service ever to have won such an award. There's Crispin Blunt all smiles and coming out with all the usual meaningless and platitudinous boll**ks, whilst at the same time quietly working on our demise.

In short I don't have the inclination or energy to spend much time on this 'lets-go-through-the-motions' consultation exercise. Lets hope that great minds in NAPO, the Probation Association and Probation Chief's Association think differently though.         

Wednesday 30 May 2012

NAPO 100

It's extremely remiss of me, but I completely forgot that last Tuesday 22nd May marked NAPO's centenary. Both a Trade Union and Professional Association, interestingly Jonathan Ledger recalls that it was set up at the suggestion of the Home Office. Just imagine such enlightened thinking nowadays! Readers may find the online souvenir edition of the newsletter interesting from a number of angles, not least as to how many women officers there were right from the beginning, but also how fashionably dressed we all were back then. 

Saturday 26 May 2012


As the Probation Service braces itself for privatisation of chunks of its work, an indication of the sort of issues that will inevitably arise is provided by this story involving Serco in Cornwall. They have a contract to provide out-of-hours GP services and as a result of allegations, including the manipulation of performance data, they received an unannounced inspection from the Care Quality Commission last month.

There are many worrying aspects to a story like this, involving as it does peoples health and well-being. When these same service companies start getting involved in probation contracts it will involve public safety. Now naturally the company and the commissioning PCT are in essence denying that there is any substantial basis to any of the 'whistle-blowing' allegations. But can anyone tell me how a private firm can make a profit from a contract that costs less than one previously undertaken by a not-for-profit organisation and provide the same level of service? 

It doesn't make sense does it and so stories like this are going to become ever more commonplace. Now I know that officially the answer is that the service company is just more efficient, but we all know that's cobblers. Just look at what the new bank regulator said this week. The banks will all have to be forced by legislation to stop offering free banking because they can't be trusted not to screw us! I rest my case.

Friday 25 May 2012

Diversion From Custody

This report in the Guardian from Tuesday about a mental health diversion from custody scheme in London is extremely heartening. Based at Thames Magistrates Court, a female psychologist is available to interview and assess women coming through the system and in effect offer the court alternatives to prison, including on-going support during community sentences. 

This service is provided by a mental health charity 'Together' and part funded by the London Probation Trust and Primary Care Trusts. Without doubt an absolutely brilliant idea, but it raises a lot of questions. Why is the service not available to men and why isn't such a service available at all Magistrates courts and all Probation Trusts? Everyone seems to agree that the service has enormous beneficial effect - it was highlighted by the Bradley Report and Reforming Women's Justice -  so why isn't such a facility felt to be important enough for core funding?

I have spent years failing to persuade those in authority above us of the value of having access to psychological services for the benefit of our clients and to give expert support and guidance to officers supervising deeply disturbed clients. I well remember raising the issue with a senior NHS person in the lunch queue at a plush conference and was told that 'a Community Psychiatric Nurse was cheaper'. Such ignorance in high places still amazes me. 

Thursday 24 May 2012

Here Comes the Sun!

Summer really does seem to have arrived - for this week at least. Of course all probation officers know only too well that our clients like to take full advantage of seasonal changes in the weather as soon as possible. The minute that thermometer begins to move they are stripped off to the waist, revealing in the process a wide range of 'tats' that usually stay unobserved. The typical reporting ensemble is normally completed with just shorts and trainers. I have to say that it's a sight that never fails to depress me, especially when the flag of St George is in some way involved.

While I'm in this grumpy frame of mind brought on by sartorial matters, I might as well make mention of current prison attire for inmates. It can only be summed up as dreadful. Typically the cheapest-looking maroon tee shirt and drab grey 'trakki 'bottoms that seem to facilitate and encourage endless rummaging within. I know I'm not the only officer to now have doubts about the practice of shaking hands with prisoners when you've just seen where they've been.

Only a few years ago prisoners could look reasonably smart in cotton striped shirts and decent trousers. The present crap outfits might be a whole lot cheaper, but do absolutely nothing to help instill a sense of pride in ones appearance or sense of dignity even. It can't do anything to help rehabilitation if the message being given is 'you're basically crap, so we'll give you crap to wear.'

Seeing as I can't imagine ever finding the excuse to discuss clothing again, I might as well round off by making mention of dress codes for probation officers. Unthinkable a few years ago, some Trusts have either imposed codes or threatened to do so in the wake of some inappropriate attire both around the office and at court. You'd think commonsense would be sufficient but apparently not, a situation not helped by the now infamous case last year of the 'tartan trews' involving an officer in Hampshire.

Anyway, enjoy the sun while you can as the weather is set to change next week.        


Wednesday 23 May 2012

Prejudice Reinforced

There's nothing quite like finding someone or something that chimes perfectly with your own particular beliefs! Once again I'm grateful to Mike Guilfoyle for pointing me in the direction of the recent inaugural lecture by Professor Mike Nash at Portsmouth University. A former probation officer, he has written extensively on many aspects of the criminal justice system and particularly the probation service and risk assessment.

'A reassurance con?' is a refreshingly candid canter through the fine mess we've created in the form of a supposed 'world-leading' risk assessment system lovingly known to us all as Mappa. With forensic detail he describes a burgeoning bureaucracy whose success is highly equivocal, consumes a vast amount of resources, has taken our eye off the ball and encouraged a false expectation on the part of the public. He makes the stark point that whilst the mantra is 'resouces follow risk', in actuality 80% of Serious Further Offences are committed by low or medium risk offenders being supervised by less experienced and unqualified staff. In other words it's been a mistake to concentrate PO's expertise on high risk clients exclusively.

It's music to my ears when Prof Nash bemoans the lack of home visits, use of video links and basic getting to know your clients. These are all essential elements that should form the basis for real risk assessments, instead of 'data collection' for the damned computer OAsys. In short this lecture makes for refreshing academic confirmation of much I've been trying to say on here over the last couple of years. There's a lot in it and all grumpy probation officers would be well-advised to give it some attention.     

Tuesday 22 May 2012

Watching Them

I've previously written about A4E, pondering exactly how they seemingly manage the impossible and are able to get jobs for the unemployable. Well, we all know now that some 'creative accounting' was involved and their fall from grace has been spectacular, loosing a major contract in the South East and no doubt with more bad news to follow shortly. 

But, as they say, as one door closes, another opens and I notice that the big boys are moving into this lucrative field. Interserve announced on May 4th that they had taken over BEST a small provider of welfare-to-work services in Yorkshire, no doubt as a precurser to using the expertise gained in order to scoop up contracts that might suddenly be made available.

It's becoming increasingly clear that a small group of mega private companies are going to be running vast parts of our public services, from hospitals to prisons to probation and police even. Maybe whole Local Authorities might be contracted out soon. The same mysterious-sounding names crop up up all over the place, G4S, Serco, Interserve, Capita etc, but where's the accountability? Who's watching them and what they get up to?

In this vein I was interested to come across this website with a handle that explains it all - 'Watching A4E'. I think we need a few more in the 'Watching .....' series.  

Monday 21 May 2012

Prison Groupies

A recent post on the Prisoners Families Voices website got me pondering on a topic not often talked about. The post was discussing a friend and her relationship with their partner in prison. Although pregnant to him, he had written her a 'Dear John' dumping her in favour of a woman he'd yet to meet. To add insult to injury, the new partner had felt it appropriate to send the jilted party copies of their 'loved-up' postal exchanges.

This post gives a rare insight into the whole phenomenon of relationships that form between prisoners and complete strangers on the outside. I suspect it's always gone on since man started locking people up - photos, names, addresses and nowadays even phone numbers circulate between inmates and there never seems to be any lack of people willing to respond and form a relationship with a prisoner. In more recent times the process became formalised to the extent that specialist contact magazines were published. I've certainly known clients meet, marry and even divorce whilst serving long sentences and I've naturally pondered on exactly what the motivation is. Surely it can't all be down to maternal instincts? You know the sort of thing - 'he's just misunderstood - I can sort him out.'

As with many things associated with human beings, there is a dark unsettling aspect. It is a sad reflection on human nature that certain notorious prisoners attract huge amounts of fan mail. It seems to be a rule of thumb that the more awful the crime, the more interest they attract of an overt sexual nature. It doesn't matter what the offenders gender happens to be - both sexes attract unsolicited approaches from complete strangers. It should go without saying that such correspondence and ill-judged interest does nothing for professionals trying to encourage acceptance of responsibility and rehabilitation on the part of the prisoner.

In trying to understand what the hell is going on, I'm reminded of Erin Pizzey's book 'Prone to Violence' published in 1982 whilst I was still at university. Although having impeccable credentials as the founder of the Women's Refuge Movement, she was subsequently vilified by feminists for daring to challenge the belief that domestic violence could only be explained in terms of the subjugation of women by men. Having interviewed hundreds of victims she espoused a more complex explanation involving an 'addiction' to violence brought about by poor parenting. By also suggesting that women could be just as violent towards men, she so thoroughly challenged accepted wisdom that I think I'm right in saying her book was publicly burnt. Sadly, subsequent death threats forced her from these shores, in the process of course to an extent proving her hypothesis. 

In essence Erin Pizzey was saying that for some people, their only way of relating to each other is by the currency of violence. The sense of danger seems to be as attractive as a bright light is to a moth. I suspect there might be an element of this at play here.    


Sunday 20 May 2012

I've Seen the Future

Who out there can remember that infamous marketing campaign by Hoover? You know, the one that nearly bankrupted them by promising two free tickets to New York if you spent more than £100 on one of their products. I bought a vacuum cleaner in 1993 and duly ended up on a flight from Heathrow with several hundred other excited Hoover owners for two weeks in the Big Apple.

Being a bit nerdy, I thought it would be fun to take the opportunity and see how the courts and probation worked on the other side of the Atlantic. I well remember being introduced to the novel notion of probationers having to 'report' to electronic booths not dissimilar to ATM's. Their identity was checked by fingerprint and the machine enquired if their circumstances had changed; had any problems or wanted to see a probation officer? If all was well, the machine duly issued further reporting instructions and produced a token for the return subway journey.

I remember being thoroughly bemused by the whole concept and upon my return even wrote a dismissive piece for the service newsletter entitled "Is the Future Apple or Pear-shaped?"  Well, it might have taken 18 years, but it seems this ridiculous concept has finally reached these shores. The London Probation Trust have confirmed that trials are underway in several Boroughs. Without any sense of irony, a government spokesperson is quoted as saying that the aim is to 'ensure that officers are freed from bureaucracy and have more time to spend with offenders.' It looks like the future is indeed going to be pear-shaped after all.     

Saturday 19 May 2012

The Power of Listening

One of the snags associated with going away is that you always seem to miss something important. I'm grateful to a reader for pointing me in the direction of this recent BBC Radio 4 programme in the Archive on 4 series entitled 'The Grand Listener'. Broadcast last Saturday, sadly it's only available on i-player for a remaining few hours today, but hopefully there will be a repeat airing in the not too distant future.

The programme is dedicated to the pioneering work of author Tony Parker who died in 1996 and whom I'm embarrassed to say I was completely unaware of until this morning. Basically he was someone who undertook what we would now describe as oral histories of ordinary people, which he later transcribed into many books and plays. He is clearly someone long overdue for recognition and his work deserves re-visiting in my opinion. 

He started out interviewing offenders in the 1960's and although I recognise some similarities with my own modus operandi, I'm sure he was always able to get further towards the truth because he promised anonymity and of course was not a representative of authority. However, like Tony Parker, I've always rated the importance of just listening. I suspect this may have had something to do with my training in the Samaritans, long before I became a Probation Officer. To be honest I enjoy talking to people so much, I'm still amazed that I managed to find a job that paid me to do it.

For any budding sociologist or criminologist there is a wealth of material in Tony's work. I was particularly struck by a comment from a prisoner in the 60's who graphically described how "prison slowly destroyed you". I'm sure he's right. The longer or more often you go to prison, the more damage it inevitably does to you. 

This truism chimes with something that's been bugging me for ages and came up in the pub the other day. Basically officers of my generation have a habit of talking fondly of the innovative work undertaken with offenders in the 70's, 80's and even 90's. A colleague from the south coast talked of taking guys with pretty serious offences to their name off on a sailing boat for a week and this type of thing was quite routine back then. Impossible now for all kinds of reasons, not least the public perception of 'treats for naughty boys', nevertheless we still feel it was worthwhile and bemoan its demise.

However, in a world where measurement has largely replaced judgement and everything has to be 'evidence-based', what can be said to make a case for this kind of work? The difficulty is highlighted by my sailing colleague recounting the comment made by an offender sunning himself on deck in his swimming trunks 'it's funny ain't it - I hit a guy over the head with an iron bar - and here I am on holiday.' Another colleague chimes in with a story about young offenders on an outward bound course. The week included making printed T-shirts and they duly came up with 'Steal stuff - See Wales.' 

So, whilst pondering on the dilemma of how to prove that it was indeed A Good Thing by making up spurious re-offending rates, it made me smile to read about this open prison on an island in Norway. Looking and sounding every bit like a holiday camp, I notice that the Governor was reduced to claiming a 16% re-offending rate for released prisoners. It might be true, but hey, isn't it just a better way of dealing with offenders that doesn't just destroy them along the way? It just might make a difference and work too.     


Saturday 5 May 2012

I Don't Tweet!

Of course I've been aware of tweeting for some time, but have never quite got the point of it. I can understand why young people or the very famous might want to share inanities, but for me I think it's a bit like people above a certain age wearing trainers - it just doesn't work. I suppose it was always inevitable that the medium would be hijacked by the 'corporates', forever anxious to find new and exciting ways in which to 'get their message across' and no doubt help justify their salaries along the way.

According to former probation officer and new media consultant Russell Webster "there are now over a hundred individuals tweeting professionally as representatives of 19 probation trusts and the probation presence on twitter has grown substantially over the last six months".

I'm sure this is due in no small measure to his training events in the recent past. My difficulty with all this is the sheer banality of the tweeting content. It never actually seems to tell me anything of import. Does anyone really want to know, or indeed care, that Jonathan Ledger has been to a brilliant conference in York and is on his way to vote Boris out as Mayor of London? (Especially as he'll almost certainly fail in that aim). Or the endless self-congratulatory PR spin sponsored by trusts and promulgated by employees via tweets?

I suppose I shouldn't be so negative and demonstrate my credentials as an old fart, because no doubt Darwinian principles will inevitably operate and the worst of the drivel will simply disappear from the ether. I really do like to embrace change though if it seems beneficial, but short of assisting in revolutionary activity - and that doesn't seem likely here right now - tweeting will remain a no-go area for me. 

On a more positive note, I was pleased to be directed by Russell Webster towards this excellent and recent blog post by an officer based in Greater Manchester and having completed ten years. It certainly strikes a chord with me, but why or why is someone this good encouraged to move into 'policy and audit?'  Is it because front line service is just too stressful to be able to sustain for much longer? Now that would make for an interesting tweet.