Born under a bad sign

Mike Guilfoyle
Saturday, 1 December 2018

A short time ago, I read Fergus McNeill's latest opus, Pervasive Punishment: Making Sense of Mass Supervision, which I believe will be hailed as one of the most important recent scholarly contributions to the better understanding of the lived experience of supervision.  It reminded me of my 'roller-coaster' supervisory contact with Hunter (not his real name).

The circumstances in which our initial contact was established centred on his 'unplanned' arrival at the probation sub-office where I was then working. The practice at that time meant that supervisory responsibility for temporary transfers from other areas would fall on the office duty probation officer who first interviewed the client. 

Introducing 'Hunter'

Hunter explained in a frantic manner that he was effectively a 'wanted man' and it was ‘doing his head in'. He had opted to flee from his home city to avoid what I would term as 'extra judicial' punishment for his alleged involvement in a gangland shooting. When I made contact with my probation colleagues from the area, it transpired that Hunter had indeed 'left in a hurry'. However, as he had not informed his supervising officer, breach action was in the offing. In view of the 'unusual' situation, and his safety being compromised, this action could be stayed pending his reporting to the nearest probation office. This arrangement was endorsed locally and I agreed to undertake this statutory task, with more than a measure of apprehension, in light of the claims he was making about his welfare and of course anyone associating with him. Did this mean that he might be tracked to this area and this probation office? I asked him what, if any, action he had taken to ensure that the police would offer him some form of  ‘protective measures' as he was not currently wanted by the police (although he was a person of interest!).

Escaping a history of abuse

His offending history, including firearm possession and robbery, meant that shared supervision with my probation 'pair' was deemed a sensible and safe contingency arrangement. The follow up appointment offered an opportunity to delve a little deeper into the shadowy side of Hunter's picaresque lifestyle. He began to offer some moving insights into his early exposure to parental abuse and school exclusion which propelled him into the 'firm'. His candour and openness were circumscribed by an awareness that he was now operating (an instructive lexical slip!) to protect his 'interests'. The temporary address he gave was one that had more than its share of  'troublesome’ links to drug taking, but in the absence of any other housing options, he wanted this address to remain for probation. 

The next few weeks passed within agreed reporting instructions, and case papers faxed through from his home office probation officer appeared to reinforce the concerns that he remained 'at risk', and this time from information obtained from 'unofficial sources' that he had 'grassed up' some accomplices. 

As the supervisory element was for the moment holding it was mooted that formal transfer of his probation order could be initiated. Shortly thereafter, I received a worrying telephone call from Hunter telling me that ‘they were onto him' and he had to go to 'ground'. The call cut off after a minute or so and, having recorded this on the case file, I could do very little but wait for our next planned meeting in a week or so.

A probationary question: to breach or not to breach?

Hunter did not attend this appointment and my efforts to contact him on the numbers he had provided proved fruitless (at that time a missed appointment without explanation would not trigger formal breach action). 

I was fearful that this might prefigure the need for further action and court papers were indeed prepared in anticipation. Another appointment was missed and I prepared to action the breach by attending the local Magistrates’ court to seek a warrant. But a separate emergency at the office interfered with my planned visit, when police arrived and were 'permitted' to observe from one of the offices in the building, the activities of a known 'drug dealer' whose address happened to be conveniently adjacent to the probation office! 

As I left the office a day later, I noticed someone meandering towards me and recognising Hunter I called out, as I did so he scampered off down an adjoining alleyway and I had no time to follow. Sensing that he was on the point of attending the office I returned and deferred breach action with some reservation and tried his phone again. This time he answered. ‘Mr Guilfoyle, I saw you but as there were police all around the office, I freaked'. I sought to reassure him that this was 'unconnected' to his situation, but my attempt to assuage his anxieties seem not to impress and he hung up. 

Once again, after a short delay, breach action was undertaken and I left the probation case file to one side with little expectation that Hunter's order would be successfully concluded. This was sometime after the formal expiry date for the order (the warrant for his arrest for breach remained outstanding), although it now seemed futile to pursue this. 

Born under a bad sign

I then read a newspaper clipping which held my attention as it described an interview with an ‘underworld figure' who was on the run but wanted to put his past behind him, while surviving attempts on his life, and leading a transient lifestyle in fear. Just as I was about to discard the newspaper, a phrase caught my eye which rather suggested that this might indeed be Hunter. ‘I guess I was born under a bad sign', he told the reporter. 

I recall that this was one of his favourite turns of phrase. As for Hunter, he disappeared and I had no further contact or updates.  I often pondered when looking out of my office window to the tight assemblage of Victorian terraces that surrounded the probation office, if as he mooted, his 'dark past' had indeed caught up with him?

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