‘It’s not right that we get punished and the punters get away with it’

Mike Guilfoyle
Tuesday, 30 June 2015

I had an insight when reading the critical re-examination of female desistance by Roger Matthews et al., Exiting Prostitution, into some of the entrenched difficulties experienced by women wanting to exit prostitution.

This vivid study resonated from my professional supervisory experience when working as a probation officer with Pamela (not her real name) and in particular when visiting her whilst she was in custody awaiting sentence. I had been allocated responsibility for her community sentence which was imposed for a bewildering variety of offences: low-level dishonesty, compounded by her considerable indebtedness to the courts (and other extra-legal creditors!) following numerous summary offences which were termed 'loitering or soliciting for prostitution'.

The sentencing court had indicated that they were considering 'All options' which embraced a sentence of imprisonment and were particularly troubled by what they deemed her persistent ' refusal' to pay off her accumulated pecuniary obligations! As Pamela was unapologetic at these obligations and had murmured that she would serve her sentence, rather than pay her fines, I was less than sanguine that there would be any short-term resolution to her situation.

As I was being escorted to the interview room at the remand prison, I heard a familiar voice shouting above the near-deafening din of the remand wing, 'Hello Mike'...' that’s my probation officer' she intoned to the nearest prison officer before we met in the legal visits interview room nearby. At the outset I outlined what I identified as the main concerns that needed to be addressed in the pre-sentence report. I secured Pamela's agreement that she would engage, as she expressed a desire to re-train as a hairdresser, and enlist some voluntary assistance from a peer-led organisation that worked closely with women seeking to exit prostitution.

We agreed she would make some tentative commitments to the proposals we had jointly agreed prior to her most recent remand, namely that she was at a stage at which some of her complex needs could be met. She intimated that perhaps the single most challenging obstacle and barrier to her moving towards desistance, was her often volatile long-term relationship with her partner. At times, I had been aware of his baneful presence when he collected Pamela from her appointments at the probation office. There was a rueful appreciation that any progress towards longer term employability and legitimacy was going to involve some difficult decisions and enlisting more holistic support, whether formal or informal, was pivotal to a safer and more secure lifestyle outcome.

Certainly the depressing litany of previous convictions, 'It’s not right that we get punished and the punters get away with it’, was an oft-heard outburst, which could well prove a considerable barrier to exiting. Although, as Pamela had sought out the timely support of a business colleague (I was hesitant to query the sourcing of any proffered funding!), she exuded a confidence that her business venture might be crucial to any sustained improvements.

Although there was some peripheral drug-related history, it was deemed important that any substance-related intervention should avoid 'shoehorning' her into treatment (the court had alluded to this issue at point of remand). So, with a focus around the assessed areas in the report on the issues of debt, accommodation, treatment options for substance misuse and employment openings, we concluded our interview and would await the outcome of sentencing in the coming days.

As I left the interview room, I sensed that Pamela was sincere in wanting to make changes in her life, and was tiring of her repetitive round of insecure and at times abusive lifestyle pattern. When she appeared at the local magistrates’ court the bench, having read my pre-sentence report, offered her a 'further opportunity to start turning your life around'. Some of the incurred debts were remitted, as I had requested, and the balance made repayable through the little used ancillary court order known as a money payment supervision order (MPSO). The MPSO enabled those on supervision to have additional input from the Probation Service so that realistic reparation could be achieved. The prospect of imposing any anti-social behaviour order was hinted at as a sentencing recourse but on this occasion it was not actioned.

When Pamela next reported to the office, she was noticeably more upbeat and optimistic about what lay ahead. Together we reviewed the recent sequence of events, her remand experience (although frequent) could, if at the right stage of her 'desistance journey', offer a vehicle for more considered reflections. The terms of the newly imposed community sentence were explored.

It was clear that the complex interactions between her occasional drug use, insecure housing and the prospect of her newly offered business venture, whilst enticing, were likely to lack stability if her coercive relationship with her partner continued. Unnervingly, he kept his car engine turning over outside the office, and was unsupportive of any positive moves Pamela might make. He declined any offer to engage and remained aloof from our meetings. Would her seeking a new role and new life be undermined I pondered and I asked if her partner's attitude and influence was supportive to her exiting?

I picked up her clear ambivalence and before she departed from the office Pamela opined, as she was wont to do with almost comedic affect, 'Don' t get down Mike, I'm just off to work and will see you next time!'.