Monday 4 December 2023

Being On Licence

Probation - what's the point?

I’ve just completed 27 months of probation supervision following my release from prison, and I don’t really know what to make of it. Of course it was much better than being in prison, but I can’t see any real benefit that arose from my time on licence. In fact it probably made my mental health worse.

From August 2021 until November this year I dutifully travelled to a Probation office most
months, often meeting a COM who I had never seen before and would never meet again. On each visit they’d ask if I had taken drugs, had a problem with drinking, had any relationship problems and whether I’d committed any new crimes. My (truthful) answers were always “no”, but I always wondered under what circumstances someone would say “yes”.

During my time on licence I moved house twice, so I experienced Probation in
Buckinghamshire, South Wales and Gloucestershire. Depending on the area practices differed a lot. As a low risk offender Welsh Probation were mostly happy to speak to me on the phone, while Gloucestershire insisted on a home visit followed by in-person meetings. Staff seemed stretched. At times I’d arrive for an appointment with no idea who I was meeting, and whoever happened to be available would see me. On one occasion in Gloucestershire I realised that no one had booked my next meeting, which was soon to be overdue, and so I had to call the office twice before someone was able to make an appointment for me.

The best COM I had was a smart, capable young woman who supervised me for almost
a year. She was helpful, supportive and even used her personal network to help me secure more paid work. This summer she left the Probation Service to become a Clinical Psychologist. I’m sure she’ll be a success at that too.

However, after every meeting my mood crashed. At home I’d draw the curtains, and sit
quietly, assembling and painting toy soldiers, just as I had in prison. I’d often take days to
recover. If it hadn’t been for my beautiful dog, Marmalade, I’d not have left the house at all.

Why did I react like this to such an innocuous meeting? I’m not alone in having such a
response. I often talk to men I was in prison with. Feelings of stress, fear, tension and
depression are common before and after Probation meetings.

There’s a contradiction inherent in the relationship between a Probation Officer and the
people they supervise. As much as individual Officers may be kind, patient and compassionate, they will always represent a threat to the people they supervise. People on probation, even those who are complying with every rule and requirement, live in fear of recall. We worry that at any moment our freedom will be taken away, we’ll be dragged back to a 10 foot by 6 foot cell surrounded by pain and despair. The Probation Officer, and the Probation Office symbolise the power of the state to imprison us again.

I would encourage Probation staff and managers to be conscious of this power dynamic,
and the potential to further traumatise people who’ve survived our prison system. Where
possible, phone or zoom check-ins are much easier for those on probation to cope with. If there’s no risk requiring attendance in person then perhaps a nationwide standard remote contact would help.

I recognise that regular in-person meetings with the same Probation Officer have a value
as changes in mood and appearance may provide an experienced Officer with warning signs. But really, what are we achieving by having a different officer meet the person on Probation each time, spending five minutes asking standard questions and then waving them on their way? It felt like box-ticking, the kind of administrative activity organisations perform to ensure no one can be blamed if things go wrong.

I still don’t know what to make of it. 27 months, one COM who actually sticks in my
memory. I feel that a good, functioning Probation service would care for its staff, retaining them and ensuring that offenders have a consistent relationship with the officer supervising them. That might actually do some good, reduce reoffending and provide meaningful work for the Probation staff.

David Shipley is a former prisoner who now writes and speaks on prison and justice issues. He is currently researching the probation service for a piece of investigative reporting and would love to speak (anonymously) with current or former Probation Officers.


  1. I read this and thought of this blog post. How far we’ve shifted.

    Carry On Advising, Assisting and Befriending

    1. Anon 07:50 - a quote from said blog post:-

      Essentially the official line is that 'advise, assist and befriend' has no place at all in the modern probation service either in protecting the public or in rehabilitating offenders. Many of us have always known that wasn't true - it isn't true and at the weekend on Twitter confirmed by Prof Rob Canton who reminded us of his assertion from 2007:-

      "The history of probation has... been characterised as a journey from 'advise, assist and befriend' to 'enforcement, rehabilitation and public protection'. But there is now a weight of evidence and argument to show that the way to get the best from people is to treat them well - with fairness, respect, encouragement and personal interest. This is not only ethically valuable, but also conduces to probation's objectives. In each of its phases, probation has sooner or later made this discovery. Perhaps the best way to enforce, rehabilitate and protect the public is by advising, assisting and befriending."

      This is so important to have academic validation. It was true then and it's still true now. With apologies to Hovis, 'it's as good as it's always been'. Probation MUST retain its distinct ethos and identity.

  2. I can already hear the spluttering outrage exploding over the coffee & croissants from those who cannot accept that Mr Shipley would dare to try & dictate the terms of his supervision: "its a clear risk indicator that someone would prefer 'phone or zoom contact"... "what is he hiding?"... "its not about making friends, we have a job to do"... "he shouldn't have committed the crime in the first place"... "what about the victims?!"

    And, as ever, nothing will change for the better & the machine will continue to crunch numbers. Staff will continue to haemmorhage; boxes will continue to be ticked; oasys will continue to drain resources; 'excellent managers' will continue to be an oxymoron; senior managers & simple serpents will continue to pocket bonuses, gain promotions & accrue generous pension pots.

    from hmpps accounts 22/23:

    rees - bonus payments in range £15,000-20,000
    copple - as above
    barton - £10,000-15,000
    jarman-howe - £10,000-15,000
    blakeman £5,000-10,000

    Accrued pension at pension age as at 31/03/23 and related lump sum £’000:

    rees - £55,000-60,000 + £5,000-10,000
    copple - £75,000-80,000 + £140,000-145,000
    jarman-howe - £45,000-50,000 + £80,000-85,000

    86 hmpps staff earn between £70,000 & £170,000

    579 staff left hmpps in 22/23 at a cost of £23.6million (averaging £40,000 per leaver)

  3. What todays probation system is about is the State providing enough "punters" for the "practitioner" to be able to achieve the targets they've been set by someone who doesn't have a clue.
    It's role reversal. Probation provides more opportunity for the practitioner then the punter in todays probation world.


  4. From Twitter:-

    "My probation officer apologises to me for requiring me to visit the office for check-ins as she says a phone call should suffice. But apparently she has no choice: I must be physically present despite no reason to be other than regulations. Waste of everyone's time."



    2. It’s normal for a lawyer to urge a judge to send an offender to jail. But it’s not usually the defendant’s own solicitor.

      On 18 November, a lawyer in Shropshire asked the court to lock up his homeless client.

      “He wants to be sent to prison because the alternative is being let out on the streets in late November/early December when it’s cold and wet,” James Ashton, mitigating for Scott Mills, told Kidderminster Magistrates Court. “Please send him to prison.”

      Mills breached a behaviour order banning him from entering Whitchurch in Shropshire, visiting his mother’s house in a deliberate attempt to be sent to jail.

      “When pressures get too much he has taken the decision to breach the order by going to Mum’s,” the lawyer said. “He knows police will be called and he will be arrested.” Mills’ subsequent night in the cells gave him a chance to eat and sleep on a “relatively comfortable bed,” Ashton said. The magistrate imposed a 16-week jail term.

      In October, the English and Welsh prison population reached an all-time high of 88,225 people – just 557 short of its operational capacity. A succession of reports have slammed conditions in these overcrowded and dangerous institutions.

      But, despite this state of affairs, it is perhaps not as unusual as you might think for someone with no other alternative but to sleep on the streets to request going to prison.

      With a dearth of support available – and private housing increasingly competitive – rough sleepers are forced to become “ever more inventive” to secure a roof over their heads, says barrister Nick Bano. Bano specialises in representing homeless people in public and private law disputes.

      “It’s really awful that someone would consider prison as an alternative to street homelessness, given the horrendous overcrowding and staffing conditions in prisons,” he said. “But that’s the situation we find ourselves in.”

      In 2010 – some of the most recent research that exists – a Sheffield Hallam University survey of 400 people living on the streets found that 30% had committed a minor crime with the intention of being taken into custody for the night.

      Once people are in jail, it’s even harder to break the cycle. According to the prison service’s 2022-23 annual report, the main reason that people are “recalled” to jail is “non-compliance with licence conditions” stemming from “homelessness and/or relapse into substance misuse”.

      “There was a lack of continuity of care before and after release, which led to prison leavers not being able to access the right levels of support to sustain their resettlement,” the report found.

      Under these conditions, “committing a minor offence” to go back to jail might seem like the best option, said Campbell Robb, chief executive of housing and social justice support charity Nacro.

      “[It is] a truly depressing situation and a wasted opportunity to help people coming out of prison change their lives for the better,” he said.

      In 2020, the prison service surveyed prisoners who found themselves in this situation. “I kept reoffending to get put back inside as I couldn’t get accommodation,” one man told inspectors.

      “People come out of jail and commit crime to go back to jail ’cause they feel safer in jail,” another added.

      “It’s easier inside than outside,” one former offender admitted. “I was begging them not to put me back out on the street, but they said if I didn’t leave the cell I would be forcefully removed.”

  5. I like meeting with the people I supervise, it tells me a lot about their wellbeing that I just can’t get from a phone call, it isn’t always about risk but then sometimes it is. We do need to be honest though, our jobs are about supporting people to complete their sentences, at its most basic it is why probation exists. Now how we do that, well there’s the issue……..

  6. What wouldn't I give to able able to write with the temperance David Shipley displays here. He captures well not just the caprice of probation but the active harm it is currently causing by keeping your beloved popsicles in a permanent state of paranoia. Anybody who isn't terrified of the whims of probation has got them all wrong.

  7. From Twitter: Some encouraging news from Danny Shaw:-

    NEW Delighted & excited to be starting a new job from today … as Senior Political Adviser to @YvetteCooperMP
    I’ll be working with Yvette’s talented team to develop the credible policies on crime, policing, security & immigration that this country badly needs…

  8. From Twitter:-

    "Excellent summation. I've been on probation for many years and have a great relationship with them but I'm borderline terrified every single time I set foot in their office. Fear of recall triggers prison PTSD and also dredges up the humiliation of my past offending."

    1. "also dredges up the humiliation of my past offending."

      Oh dear, someone has just raised a very important issue that onehmpps & its new iteration of probation simply cannot afford to acknowledge - moving on from past behaviours. They prefer to utilise that power differential to strongarm the client (or member of staff - it doesn't matter to most of the 'excellent leaders' who they humiliate).

      The risk management mantra is past behaviour predicts future behaviour - so sorry, @11:43 via twitter, you're fucked inside out with that one.

      The "Advise, Assist, Befriend" school of probation was permissive (gasp! horror!). It allowed people to have a past; a past they could leave behind, & it helped them make progress with a future that wasn't forever tainted.

      "You did the crime so do the time" - that used to mean the length of your sentence as imposed by the courts.

      What many current probation staff (at all levels) no longer seem to accept is that "the time" doesn't mean the rest of someone's fucking life!

      The risk averse, shit-yer-pants, wet-yer-knickers brigade have created, polished & unilaterally imposed a culture of 'risk management' that is useless, predicated on the grandiose notion of protecting the public & recognition of the victim's needs - just what a punitive, ambitious politician would want to wave at voters. But its not fit for purpose if rehabilitation is the game in play because it sticks like shit to a blanket and, if stats are all you're bothered about, it never goes away.

    2. The Advise Assist and Befriend model of probation recognised the offender as a person.
      Todays enforcement model of probation recognises the offender as a type.
      That's a huge barrier to stopping reoffending.
      You work with people.
      You manage types.


    3. You’re clearly no practicing Getafix as not a lot of enforcing goes on around here anymore.