Sunday 23 December 2012

Small Print

I stole this from the internet last year. It made me laugh then and still does (I used to be married to a lawyer). I sincerely hope the copyright holder does not mind me sharing it around once more. As ever, thanks for reading and contributing to this blog - it's nothing without you and I really appreciate it.

I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Please note.
From us (“the wishors”) to you (“hereinafter called the wishee”):

Please accept without obligation, explicit or implicit, our best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, politically correct, low stress, non-addictive, gender neutral, celebration of the winter solstice holiday, practiced within the most enjoyable traditions of the religious persuasion or secular practice of your choice, with respect for the religious/secular persuasions and/or traditions of others, or their choice not to practice religious or secular traditions.

Please also accept, under aforesaid waiver of obligation on your part, our best wishes for a financially successful, personally fulfilling and medically uncomplicated recognition of the onset of this calendar year of the Common Era, but with due respect for the calendars of all cultures or sects, and for the race, creed, colour, age, physical ability, religious faith, choice of computer platform or dietary preference of the wishee.

By accepting this greeting you acknowledge that:

This greeting is subject to further clarification or withdrawal at the wishor’s discretion.

This greeting is freely transferable provided that no alteration shall be made to the original greeting and that the proprietary rights of the wishor are acknowledged.

This greeting implies no warranty on the part of the wishors to fulfill these wishes, nor any ability of the wishors to do so, merely a beneficent hope on the part of the wishors that they in fact occur.

This greeting may not be enforceable in certain jurisdictions and/or the restrictions herein may not be binding upon certain wishees in certain jurisdictions and is revocable at the sole discretion of the wishors.

This greeting is warranted to perform as reasonably may be expected within the usual application of good tidings, for a period of one year or until the issuance of a subsequent holiday greeting, whichever comes first.

The wishor warrants this greeting only for the limited replacement of this wish or issuance of a new wish at the sole discretion of the wishor.

Any references in this greeting to “the Lord”, “Father Christmas”, “Our Saviour”, or any other festive figures, whether actual or fictitious, dead or alive, shall not imply any endorsement by or from them.

Friday 21 December 2012

Who'd Have Thought It?

It's always good to have your prejudices reinforced or beliefs confirmed, but it never ceases to draw a wry smile through gritted teeth when academics come up with what just seems to be the bloody obvious. Apparently, according to issue 16 of the NOMS Offender Engagement Research Bulletin, clients respond better to good probation officers than crap ones. Yes I know that might take a bit of thinking about, but in a survey of seven male probationers (no expense spared on this piece of research), all of whom had a long history of offending and a large range of offences:-

"The results suggested that certain characteristics (acceptance, respect, support, empathy and belief) were associated with supervisors 'who worked' and produced a positive climate for change. Conversely, an absence of these characteristics (rejection, a lack of respect, no support, a lack of empathy and a lack of belief) were linked to those supervisors 'who didn't work'."  

It goes on:-

"In respect of challenging offender behaviour, the probationers argued that they valued an effective supervisor who was 'straight, direct and honest', a skill that was called ' pro-social push'. The probationers suggested that in order for pro-social push to be possible, a positive climate for change is essential. If the building blocks of acceptance, respect, support, empathy and belief are absent, the probationers stated, challenges by a supervisor were largely ignored and perceived as an 'abuse of power' as well as promoting a 'them and us' culture."  

So there we have it in a nutshell folks. The secret after all lies in having a good probation officer. It seems from this evidence that crap officers not only don't work too well, their piss poor practice can be positively dangerous too. Look what one probationer had to say:-

"I finished my meetings with her and went straight to the pub, got drunk and went home to argue." 

Another commented:- "I left the session and was so angry I went to the pub, got drunk and went out offending."   

I know I shouldn't mock Sarah Lewis of Portsmouth University because she's only doing her job, but this kind of stuff really does make officers of a certain age just a tad irritable. So, on the basis of the bombshell contained here, I think I'll just sign off and reflect on my own practice.    

Thursday 20 December 2012

Politician Talks Sense - Shock!

As we all know, and I've commented on before, politicians rarely talk sense about drugs. In the wake of the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee publishing their first report last week on UK drug policy, I think I heard Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg say something sensible. He said the war on drugs had been lost and it was time to review strategy - a view that I entirely support. 

"If you were waging any other war where you have 2,000 fatalities a year, your enemies are making billions in profit, constantly throwing new weapons at you and targeting more young people, you'd have to say you are losing and it's time to do something different. I'm anti-drugs - it's for that reason I'm pro-reform."

He went on to fully endorse the Home Affairs Committee call for an urgent Royal Commission on drug policy, only to be quickly shot down by Prime Minister David Cameron. Typically he says that current policies are working and that we don't need a Royal Commission. 

Sadly there is a long-established tradition in this country of politicians sounding relatively sensible on drug policy in opposition, only to go all tough-sounding when in government and pretend the situation is improving. 

The fact is the whole situation is far from rosy. Yes heroin use is falling, especially amongst young people, but we have no idea why. More people than ever, especially in prison, are being 'parked' on methadone for years just as a way of trying to keep prisoners off illegal substances. There is absolutely no way of stopping drugs getting into prison, not least due to the huge sums of money to be made by corrupt prison officers.  

Just to put the tin hat on the whole sorry state of affairs, I'm repeatedly told by clients that weaning off methadone is much harder than heroin and in fact deaths from methadone overdose in the community now far exceed those for heroin use. So, in effect, more people are dying of the cure than the disease.

I find him a hugely irritating politician, but in this instance Nick, you are indeed talking sense. It's just such a shame that I doubt you have a long term political future. The awful thought occurs to me that the two just might be linked. Such is our democracy here in the UK. 

Wednesday 19 December 2012

Food and Shelter

Not surprisingly the approach of Christmas gets many of us contemplating the plight of people less fortunate than ourselves. Food and shelter are two of the most basic of needs and it should be of concern to us all that the continuing economic situation is leading to an increase in people's difficulty in obtaining both.

In a nation brought up under the auspices of a welfare system introduced after the Second World War and designed to banish the 5 evils famously outlined by Beveridge in his 1942 report, I think it takes some getting used to. After all we all know that the welfare bill has grown exponentially and certain newspapers continually tell us that there are apparently many millions of people living quite well on state benefits. 

The coalition government endlessly state that the system has become unaffordable at present levels of entitlement and 'reforms' have begun. As a result the police are already reporting changes in shoplifting patterns. For years the main driver for shop theft has been the need for people to fund illicit drug dependency with high value items typically being stolen in order to sell for cash. Now however there is increasing evidence of essential food items being stolen such as baby milk.

I well remember a similar situation during the miners strike in 1984 when theft of coal became significant in order for many striking families to keep warm. People placed under extreme pressure will feel obliged to commit acquisitive crime in order to provide either for themselves or their families. Not all of course, but each person's situation will be different and as during the miners strike, thankfully communities will often rally round and try and provide food and shelter. It's no accident that food banks have sprung up all over the country in recent time and use of them has seen a dramatic rise.

The recent BBC 1 Panorama programme on the increase of homelessness served to reinforce the anecdotal evidence from food banks that quite ordinary people are increasingly coming under extreme economic stress. Working families on low wages are finding it hard to feed, heat and clothe everyone, parents are often missing meals and feel ashamed at having to turn to charity in the form of food handouts. But this is becoming the grim reality for many people on low incomes caught up in the economic downturn and having to cope with that meagre income reducing, as costs continue to rise inexorably.

As the Panorama programme highlighted in graphic detail, eviction and homelessness can befall any of us as a result of a series of tragic, unfortunate or unforeseen events. Ok poor judgement and unwise decisions can play a part too, but increasingly homelessness is going to affect more 'ordinary' people as businesses go bust, mortgages are foreclosed and illness or tragic accidents strike. It's usually the combination of factors that serve to compound a person's situation such as negative equity, relationship breakdown, ill-health or just very bad luck.

If we are not careful we may see a rise in very old-fashioned and insidious notions of a distinction being drawn between the deserving and undeserving. Of course probation has always been involved with the 'have-nots' in society and traditionally have always tried to do their level best to try and redress matters, make amends or ameliorate in some way. 

Our ability to act has been seriously curtailed of course with the demise of befriending funds and other practical help that used to be dispensed such as clothing and food. But I'm beginning to hear stories of spontaneous officer-initiated charitable distribution schemes of food in some offices. It seems like our social work ethos may just be about to be re-invented by newer colleagues feeling somewhat uneasy about how things have been going in recent times.        

Tuesday 18 December 2012

And the Problem Is?

I guess it's happened to all of us who use public transport - the tantalising snippet of conversation that drifts your way during a lull in background noise. It happens in other places too. It happened to me yesterday - just a sentence from an overheard radio newscast 'police shot the man dead, believing him to be on his way to rob drug dealers.' Hang on a minute I thought, the words still sinking in - robbing drug dealers - and the problem is? 'Drug dealer gets robbed' - I call that a result!

I had to look the case up and I must admit it had passed me by. Azelle Rodney, a young black guy, had been fatally shot by a Metropolitan Police firearms officer in 2005 whilst allegedly in a car with others on his way to rob Colombian drug dealers. It is said no warnings were given, eight shots were fired at close range when the car was forced to stop, and a police officer was heard to shout "sweet as!"    

The case is interesting and highly disturbing for all sorts of reasons, not least that legal history is being made as instead of an Inquest, an inquiry is being held in front of a specially security cleared judge at the High Court. Whilst I can appreciate that most concerns centre around the legal justification for what amounts to an execution, I'm really keen to be reassured that our law enforcement agencies were putting just as much effort into catching Colombian drug barons as they were into catching the people that were supposedly robbing them?

According to the Daily Mail report, Ashley Underwood QC, counsel for the inquiry explained:-

" early April 2005 her Majesty's Customs and Excise, as it was known then, received intelligence about an armed gang that robbed drug dealers. Its 'modus operandi' would be to set up a meeting to view class A drugs and then steal them at gunpoint."

For some reason I just can't get out of my head the notion, almost certainly erroneous surely, of said drug barons putting in an official complaint about being repeatedly robbed. Were the drug barons going to give evidence at a possible trial - and get immunity in return? Am I missing something here - or aren't the police supposed to be rounding up drug barons? If the police caught the bloody drug barons there wouldn't have been anyone to rob would there?      

Monday 17 December 2012

The End Really is Nigh!

Assuming the apocalypse doesn't occur on Friday this week, it seems that HM Government will be announcing the demise of the Probation Service as we know it before Christmas. Sufficient rumours are swirling around for NAPO to take the unusual decision of writing to all members along the following lines:- 

"Probation Review

You may have been informed that the Government will make an announcement on the future of the Probation Service this week.

The details are not yet known but are likely to involve plans to privatise up to 70% of our work.  The only work to remain in the public sector will be advice to the Courts and Parole Board and the management of high risk cases.

Please be assured that Napo is opposing these plans unequivocally and we are not alone.  The Probation Association and the Probation Chiefs Association are voicing their concerns as well as Napo’s allies in the Houses of Parliament.  

Sadly we have already had a taste of what’s to come.  When Serco won the Community Payback competition in London, they offered warm words to the staff and senior management team.  Minutes after the contract was signed, they made a third of the staff redundant.

The privatisation of justice will be a disaster: unaccountable, expensive and run in the interests of shareholders, not for the public.  Take a look across the Atlantic and shudder.  The big security companies have shafted the taxpayer out of millions in the tagging contract and are salivating at the prospect of more.

The shrinking pot of money for criminal justice will all be spent on overseeing contracts and complex procurement processes.  The G4S fiasco at the Olympics and the West Coast mainline debacle tell you all you need to know about the Government’s competence.

Probation is a fantastically effective and efficient public service, as proved by our British Quality Foundation Award.  Here’s what you need to do immediately to save it:

           1. Write to your MP with your concerns about the privatisation of Probation and ask them to raise the issue in Parliament. 

            2. Recruit a colleague into Napo - strength in numbers really works and provides the resources for       Napo to oppose the privatisation threat.

Meanwhile, at Napo HQ, we are working hard to get as much publicity behind our campaign as possible.  We will always work constructively with Government but we are certainly not prepared to see Probation go down the pan on the back of a lazy and ideological whim.  

Best wishes," 

The timing, if correct, must be seen as nothing but utterly cynical being so close to Christmas. With the Nation gently winding down for a well-deserved break and celebration, there is absolutely no hope of doing anything constructive by way of lobbying or organising any form of opposition until early January. All I can do is draw it to your attention readers.

Friday 14 December 2012

Pensioners Behind Bars

There's plenty of evidence to confirm that one of the largest growing groups within our prison system is that of the over 65's. Last night's ITV Tonight documentary 'Pensioners Behind bars' had a stab at raising some of the issues, but typically managed to miss the main point completely.

Yes we were treated to some images from prisons such as HMP Norwich which is one of several that have specially adapted wings for the elderly and disabled, but we didn't see that wing. We heard the governor talking about how the prison system has had to cope with an ageing prison population, and for those listening carefully you would have heard him give a small clue to one of the real and disgraceful issues that this programme missed entirely. In passing he referred to having to cater for the particular special needs of this group, including dementia.  

Hang on a minute, why would there be prisoners in prison suffering from dementia? Surely they should be in a care home or something? The fact is that HMP Norwich and other specialist units elsewhere house a significant number of elderly and infirm prisoners on indeterminate sentences with nowhere for them to go. I'm sure the Parole Board would dearly love to release most of this group to more appropriate supervised care provision, but in my experience they really are deemed the 'undeserving' and every facility either finds endless reasons why they are not suitable or not funded to take them. The funny thing is that if you become mentally ill in prison you can be transferred to a secure mental health facility. There is no similar provision if you are just old and demented.

Make no mistake, this group pose a very sad picture indeed as they shuffle around, either limbless or confined permanently to wheelchairs in an often confused state of mind. Maybe the prison service did not allow access for fear of stirring up a public outcry? Maybe the tv producers just didn't know or didn't want to know? Instead they highlighted cases of bright intelligent pensioners who all made poor judgement calls that put them well the wrong side of the law, and they all ended up in jail as a result. 

To be honest I think they all deserved jail, but I would remind readers that in years gone by I think I would have been supervising virtually all of them on what we used to call 'straight' probation orders, ie with no particular extra requirements. In effect the probation service has ruled itself out of taking this group on, because that's what successive governments have ordered us to do. Remember that probation used to be a period of time that allowed a person to demonstrate that they could stop offending and lead a law-abiding life with some appropriate assistance from a probation officer. What a brilliant idea! But it got turned into a punishment per se, and that's basically why we are where we are now with an ever increasing prison population.

A straight probation order would work perfectly well in virtually all the cases I saw highlighted in this tv documentary, with the state getting it's pound of flesh punishment-wise by means of Proceeds of Crime measures.   

Tuesday 11 December 2012

Reflection - Again

Regular readers may have noticed that posting has been erratic of late. I could say I've been busy doing my bit for the economy and buying loads of Christmas shit - but in truth I guess I've succumbed once more to waves of negativity to do with the job. I suspect it might be seasonal - a bit of Seasonal Affect Disorder or just the approach of another year end and time to reflect? I have always been prone to reflection, not a bad trait I feel in this line of work. In fact regular reader Mike Guilfoyle has just written quite a powerful reflective piece here concerning an incident during his career.

Rooting aimlessly around the internet, I came across the transcript of a recent provocative lecture by Professor Pat Carlen to the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies on the subject of rehabilitation. This is of course a topic close to the present government's heart and indeed prime minister David Cameron gave us the benefit of his views only fairly recently. The flyer for the lecture stated:-  

"In this lecture Pat Carlen invites you to consider the proposition that rehabilitation (in theory or practice) is not the good thing we have been taught to believe it is – and that it never has been. Secondly, she invites you to re-imagine the possible relationships between criminal justice and social justice; and then suggests that working towards a reparative justice informed by a sociological jurisprudence of equality-before-the law might help counteract some of  the blatant inequalities inherent in criminal justice in grossly unequal societies."

In the preface, Prof Carlen sets the scene:-

"I want to invite you to consider the proposition that rehabilitation is not the good thing 
we have been taught to believe it is – and that it never has been. Secondly, I want to 
invite you to imagine new relationships between criminal justice and social justice. 
Because Prime Minister Cameron was wrong when, in a speech last month, he put 
renewed emphasis upon punishment and rehabilitation in the community. He was 
wrong for several reasons, but he was fundamentally wrong  because the poor, the 
young, the disabled and the indigent elderly and many others are already being 
severely punished in communities deprived of the most basic access to housing, jobs, 
and general welfare. In such a situation it seems obvious to me that all questions of 
crime and punishment have to be linked to, and most probably subsumed by, 
questions of social justice and inequality.  It is with that agenda in mind that I shall 
argue, this evening, that, instead of repeatedly punishing the poor and then kidding 
ourselves that we can combine punishment with rehabilitation, we should work
towards a reparative justice informed by a re-invigorated principle of equality-before the law."

It makes absolutely fascinating reading and I was particularly interested to see that it was mentioned on the NAPO discussion forum. I hope contributor Duende will not mind me quoting this passage which to be honest has helped to remind me why it's still worth persevering in this remarkable task before us:-

It is times like this makes us all re-assess our situation and I am beginning to share your bleak assessment, JP, of what is left in probation worth saving. However, there are people who subvert the system and although the space is small, if I was an offender I would like to see someone that understood the meaning of respect, had professional values and some nuanced understanding of my social circumstances. I think there is still good work to be done but the system is as dodgy and unjust as it has always been. Perhaps probation has always worked in this space to some extent.

Reading that suddenly took me back to vague recollections of a paper I'd spontaneously produced for my team many years previously and during a similar period of angst. I wondered if, per chance, the archives could render up a copy? Well, here is the introductory section from 'What am I doing and where am I going' dated 15/02/1990.

The Wider Context

As a Probation Officer of only five years experience my perception is that the job has changed dramatically as indeed has the social and political climate generally. I have found that in order to function happily I have to divide my thoughts between being positive with individual clients and their situations and being almost completely negative when thoughts stray to the wider context. 

The Probation Service has always been, to a certain extent, involved with applying sticking plaster to situations caused by the effects of social policy, but it is surely hard to comprehend just how malicious and punitive successive Tory governments have been over the last ten years with this regard. As a nation, we sell council housing, but don't build any. We force 16 year olds to stay at home, but when they are thrown out or leave for good reason we pay them no benefit. We allow young people to live in cardboard boxes in their hundreds. We expect them to join YTS but pay no benefit if they don't etc, etc.

It is with such a government that Probation Service management seem to think they can arrange a 'fudge' in order to escape the worst excesses that no doubt are in store for us? At a time when the service should be putting most of its effort into diverting people from custody, we find ourselves having to redress these inadequacies of social policy by, for instance, becoming a provider of accommodation. Other agencies have this statutory role, not us. At various stages we have filled other gaps in social policy provision by supplying furniture, literacy skills, transport, food etc, etc. Taken to its logical conclusion we could be providing employment in depressed areas to fill the gap in regional employment policy, or provide a mini bus service to areas of employment opportunities, thus plugging a deficiency in public transport.

This trend has not gone unnoticed by government of course and it is no surprise that the service is almost certainly to become either a fully fledged government department or a QUANGO-style national agency. Bits of it may be 'privatised'. Local accountability and initiative go out and in come National Standards. This is not just about things like recording, it is about stopping our attempts to alleviate the worst excesses of social policy and removing the social work basis to our work. There are strong suggestions of removing training from CQSW courses and substituting 'criminal justice' courses instead. The emphasis will undoubtedly be on 'punishment in the community'.  

Re-visiting this piece reminds me just how much we have lost by moving away from the broad-based degree and CQSW courses, to the distance learning criminal justice degree and in-house NVQ training of late.  

Sunday 2 December 2012

A Lottery

Ben Gunn raises an interesting case over on his blogsite, namely that of Kevan Thakrar. Leaving aside Thakrar's claim to having been wrongly convicted of several underworld murders and thus serving several life terms with a tariff of 35 years, his case is extremely significant because he was acquitted last year of attempting to murder two prison officers at HMP Frankland. 

Thakrar never denied attacking the officers concerned in a 'pre-emtive strike' with a broken sauce bottle, sufficient to inflict severe wounds, but he did claim that he acted in self defence. His explanation centred around his claim to have suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a direct result of alleged racist attacks by prison officers on previous occasions. After hearing from numerous other prisoners who supported these allegations, together with expert medical opinion, the jury unanimously found Thakrar not guilty on all counts.

Not surprisingly this case has caused considerable concern within HM Prison Service, the National Offender Management Service and the Prison Officers Association. But one would hope that as a result of such an unprecedented acquittal there has been some serious soul-searching within the Prison Service as to the disturbing allegations made and obviously believed by the court. It's not enough in my view to throw hands in the air and complain about the judicial system having delivered a 'perverse' verdict. Surely it's time to bring in some outsiders to have a damned good look around? Is the current HMI system up to the job?  

I have to say it goes some way in confirming my own decision made some years ago not to work as a probation officer within the prison setting. To be honest I've always had a degree of unease about accommodations that I might have been expected to make just in terms of being able to establish and maintain good professional relationships. There are clearly huge cultural differences within the two organisations and I would say a degree of mutual distrust has always been evident. For many years NAPO campaigned for no PO's to be in prison at all and whilst I've never subscribed to this view, I can well understand management's current extreme reluctance for secondments to exceed 3 years, lest officers become subsumed by the prison culture. 

There's one other aspect of this case that I find worrying, and that is the role of 'expert' opinion. It would seem that the Crown Prosecution Service decided to commission a specialist report by a psychologist as to the defendant's state of mind at the time the alleged offences took place, but when it didn't support their case, they simply ignored it. This is routine in my experience of our adversarial legal system, but hardly conducive as a method of seeking justice in my view as it often pits experts chosen specifically to support a particular view against each other. 

Surely it would be preferable if all such specialist reports were commissioned independently by the court? In Thakrar's case, most unusually, the defence team used the psychologists opinion instead, and the CPS were put in the unenviable position of having to try and demolish expert opinion they had themselves originally commissioned.