Addressing enforcement-led probation practice

Mike Guilfoyle
Wednesday, 6 October 2021

As a subscriber to Probation Journal, I find it rewarding to pore over some of the more incisive articles on changes in supervisory practice and the professional relationships that underpin meaningful engagement with service users.

This particular article by Jane Dominey is about the networks of relationships (between people and between organisations) that underpin probation supervision. Drawing on evidence from a study researching these interactions, it develops two models of supervision (‘thin’ and ‘thick’) by taking themes that shape supervision and charting the interplay between them.

A memorable moment that preceded one such supervisory experience drawn from my past probation practice started from a very unpromising encounter.

I was working in a busy probation office on a day when several clients were due to report to see the office duty probation officer, having been released from prisons in different parts of the country prior to being assigned a permanent probation officer.

I was standing aside one of the administrator's desks discussing the contents of a forthcoming court report. A colleague who had a particular remit for inducting trainee probation officers entered the room and seemed unmoved when informed that one of those prisoners on release was due to report to the office and was likely to be delayed as the prison was in the Midlands. He blurted out, 'We will have to recall him then'. I looked askance at his harshly voiced remarks, thinking to myself, 'but he rang the office to let the duty worker know he would be delayed'. I was even more astonished when he then unblinkingly shouted out, 'that will make it my tenth recall this week'.

That such a callous observation could go unchallenged seemed to represent to me just how far the pervasive enforcement-led practice environment within the probation service was changing my perceptions of how best to work with troubled individuals in the throes of the transition from prison to community.

It was a short while later when I was allocated licence supervision for Michal (not his real name) that I connected the two events. Having rung the office to notify the duty officer that his train journey had been delayed, he opted to stay overnight at a friend's address without updating the office for further reporting instructions. For this minor technical violation he was breached and recalled at the instigation of the aforementioned manager.

His initial reaction when we first met was unsurprisingly hostile, 'I spent three years working towards my release and all my release plans have been f****d up'. I sought to reassure him that my approach to supervision would seek to assist him to reintegrate back into the community without the punitive threat of heavy-handed managerial fiats. Effective compliance was secured by regaining the lost trust that had been needlessly squandered to fulfil some top down organisational mandate on better enforcement outcomes.

But such directives were lost on Michal and it was only after many appointments at the office that I arranged a home visit. The thunderous roar of passing traffic meant that on arrival at his temporary address I struggled to make myself heard. 'It gets quieter in the evenings', Michal chirped, sensing that my presence signified some level of professional concern, sadly absent in his most recent dealings with the service.

At this point I heard the mewling cries of a young child as Michal's youngest came scampering into the room in an inquisitive manner. 'She has never seen a probation officer before' he jokingly bellowed.

This brief exchange seemed to represent a shift in our working relationship and it was apparent that Michal was keen to make up for the time he had spent in custody (for drug supply offences) by accessing a training course he had been linked to when serving his sentence.

At the next office appointment, Michal reported with his young family in tow and he was en-route to the local housing office to seek emergency accommodation after his flat had flooded. As he hastily departed the office, the manager who had sanctioned the recall (which also required a more senior colleague to endorse) happened to pass by. I was sorely tempted to point out that the person behind the recall was Michal, the 'tenth' recalled client on his much-vaunted enforcement metric.

A recall decision so cold-heartedly and casually implemented, without any proper regard for the consequences on his family life, after the hard-earned coinage of a custodial sentence had passed. For Michal, now with dependent children, his recall to prison had resulted in his partner turning up at the Social Service department for urgent financial assistance, and had pushed the family towards what was evidently the 'stigma' of near destitution.

I had not fully appreciated how close this recall had threatened to lead to the break-up of Michal's family. Some while later I was engaged in a broad-based casework discussion in the office with a newly appointed probation colleague on how best to positively engage with probation clients newly released from prison on licence supervision.

I mooted that one way might be a more thoughtful consideration for how breaches and recall decisions are reached, based on building better relationships with clients, with care for people being central. She looked slightly uncomfortable when I said this, telling me she had requested to shadow me but was emphatically told: 'No, Mike Guilfoyle, he's too old school.'

Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation worker