The benefits of guidance

Mike Guilfoyle
Thursday, 1 February 2018

Andrew Johnson's passionately argued account, If I Give My Soul. Faith Behind Bars in Rio de Janeiro, on the transformative role of faith inside some of Brazil's toughest prisons, reminded me of my early supervisory meetings with Glenmore (not his real name), when I worked at a probation office in one of the capital's most deprived boroughs.

My earliest vivid memories of Glenmore were of seeing him in the waiting area and then accompanying him to my room (at the time it was not uncommon for probation officers to have access to their own rooms), but feeling unable to suppress a visceral unease about his appearance. 

This arose in our initial uncomfortable exchanges, when I introduced myself as his newly allocated probation officer. He noted with an unnervingly keen interest a newspaper article pinned on my wall in which I was featured, talking to a local reporter, about some of the challenges of working in the area and the types of community interventions that helped towards making communities safer.
‘Do you think, I am safe to work with?’ was his interrogative response. I fumbled a reply which raised the tensions in the room. ‘Is there something you want to say about how I look?’ was his follow up line. I proceeded to outline what I believed would be the most salient points of the 12-month supervisory contract. I then felt more confident in querying him on some of the responses that he elicited from others not only by what he wore but his wider demeanour, when he went to music venues (the site of his recent offending) wearing a tee-shirt with a flag emblazoned on it. 
This sown on flag had some resonantly mixed historical associations that might well attract adverse attention. There was, I deemed, a fine line between acknowledging what was for him a clear statement of identity ( however construed by others), and exploring in supervision some of the clear overt hostility that Glenmore's wearing of this bespoke tee-shirt gave rise to, placing him on his current order.  The consequence of someone in a public arena objecting 'peacefully' to his 'insulting' appearance’, resulted in him muttering, 'he kept staring at me'. This had then resulted in a fracas and his being placed under a statutory court order.
It was apparent, from the outset that Glenmore would remain stubbornly resistant to changing his 'offensive garment'. He accepted that when he went to gigs he liked to have his own space in which to dance and 'feel the groove', and to have a 'few beers'. 
I re-read the pre-sentence report written by a colleague and was drawn to the offence analysis which noted, 'Mr *, seemed all too ready to (mis)interpret any untoward glance or stare, as a calculated ruse used by others to belittle him, but does not appear to offer any insights, at least to this author […] that he might be emotionally predisposed to hitting out, due in part to his history of being the subject of ridicule and bullying and likely parental abuse’. 
When I broached this sensitive subject with Glenmore, he sought to close down the discussion and we moved onto other areas covered in our supervisory plan. I felt an abiding frustration in not being able to contain my own unacknowledged annoyance, at this impasse and came to the point in our supervisory contacts were I actually dreaded meeting up with him. 
How best to resolve this knotty professional barrier (can you really be in a career were you dread meeting challenging people I mused!)? Clearly it was resolvable, but how? 
I sought the experienced supervisory support and informed casework consultation from colleagues: in particular with a very humane and professionally adroit senior probation officer. Anticipating my approach, he said, 'Oh. I know who you are concerned about!’  My colleague, who had a pragmatic realism that sometimes belied his more ethereal utterances, offered to co-work the order. 
'Would that not be undermining my authority I chimed?’  My colleague replied, ‘That might be the case, the court report mentions his good links with a local Pastor who he undertook some voluntary work for'. This active local Pastor was a guiding influence for Glenmore and so his support proved to be a real and lasting boon in subsequent meetings. 
An interesting contemporary case study on 'enhancing offender engagement' in probation demonstrates some of the proven benefits of employing ex-service users to support probation staff, in turning lives around.  
For Glenmore, well he did (albeit in a circumspect way) try to hide his tee-shirt when we last met. ‘I know why I was on probation’, he averred, ‘but will not be betting my shirt on coming back!’

Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer

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