Powerlessness in the face of negligence

Mike Guilfoyle reflects on how institutional failure led to a sad outcome

Mike Guilfoyle
Friday, 02 March, 2018
Whilst reading a recent academic contribution by Elizabeth R Turner, on the perennially vexing issue of the role of public confidence in criminal justice policy making, Public Confidence in Criminal Justice, my thoughts turned towards a powerfully moving casework experience during my early years working as a probation officer. 
I was allocated through-care responsibility for a serving prisoner called Farid (not his real name) who was serving his sentence in an out-of-London Category C prison (closed prison), and who was due to be released within a couple of months. 
It seemed to be the case at the time that Farid preferred to remain out of touch with probation as he had indicated that he would be returning to his home address in the local area and wanted to 'keep his head down' during his sentence. 
This was confirmed in our correspondence and my contact with family members who had retained a positive and supportive role during his sentence. The index offences centred on drug-related matters that appeared to be behind him. There were no apparent concerns highlighted in the sentence planning documentation from the prison, and the outlook for resettlement suggested a progressive pathway with a short period of statutory oversight on licence.
This positive picture was then abruptly shattered when news reached me that Farid had been ‘found dead' at the prison, and the matter would perforce be subject to a Coroner’s inquest. I was unable to ascertain anything other than sketchy details as to the circumstances surrounding his death, and the family were even more distressed at the absence of any information that would provide clarity and transparency from the prison. 
In these circumstances, I awaited the date for the inquest as I was determined to attend and if possible assist in enabling the family to seek legal representation. To this end, I contacted the charity Inquest to canvas if they were able to offer pro bono representation to the family. 
To my relief they unhesitatingly offered such support and nominated a barrister to attend the jury inquest on the appointed day. On my journey from London to the inquest, I felt an uncomfortable apprehension at what lay ahead. I had in fact been summonsed to attend as his home probation officer and would be expected to offer 'evidence' on his engagement with probation. 
I had prepared a written report which I hoped to be able to speak to. When I entered the court, I was a little overwhelmed at the sheer number of officials representing the prison service (each of several landing officers was separately represented by counsel), and the evident imbalance that the family would have experienced in the absence of any legal assistance. 
The concept of equality of arms and the expectation of a fair hearing being clearly fundamental to any just outcome and with the jury empanelled, the atmosphere in the room was tense and emotionally charged. Members of Farid's family seemed to form a marginal presence in the proceedings and when read my report aloud verbatim, I was inwardly shaking and emotionally unsteady. I felt even with the professional persona of a probation officer 'a powerless bystander' hearing the steady succession of prison officers’ representatives proffering what appeared to me as defensive obfuscation, when questioned about the circumstances surrounding his final  moments alive. 
Farid’s 'unauthorised' access to psychoactive medication and 'unsupervised' opportunities to overdose seemed to point to culpable negligence, as I surmised in a hearing break with the Inquest legal team. It was a powerfully chastening moment when an 'open verdict' was finally reached on the direction of the Coroner (without any admissions that the prison was in anyway culpably responsible for what appeared glaring healthcare shortcomings). 
I returned to London, with a heavy heart and an enduringly deep sense of abusive institutional failure, and pondered how I might offer even a modicum of comfort to the bereaved family who I had met briefly at the hearing but agreed to home visit in due course.
Farid’s brother held the family together during this most difficult of periods. I recall sitting on the family sofa in unspoken moments whilst his crying and distressed parents asked (the brother also acted as an interpreter) how I, as a 'member of the prison service', could explain how Farid had died within days of his release. 
In spite of my best endeavours, trying to clarify the role of the probation service in such circumstances fell far short of what the family were simply and reasonably demanding and I could only reiterate my sadness at such an untimely death. With this human expression of empathy, his brother embraced me and in broken emotional tones informed me of family plans for his funeral abroad. 
Just at the point that I was leaving the home, Farid's brother thrust something into my hand, which I at first felt uncomfortable in acknowledging. It was a photograph of Farid when he was much younger in a happy pose without any foreboding hint of what lay ahead. ‘Please take this photo of Farid, Mr Guilfoyle, and when you look at it remember him as we do as a loving brother and son now lost'.  
I kept the photograph and still have it in my possession to this day.

Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer
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