Breaking out

Mike Guilfoyle
Monday, 15 February 2021

Breaking Out is Janice Nix's unsparingly honest account of her transformative journey from serial offender and drug dealer to working with the Probation Service in London.

I had just finished reading it when a past supervisory experience that resonated with her motto, 'each one, teach one', seeped into my mind. I had arranged to visit Bethanie (not her real name) imprisoned outside of London as part of my throughcare contact. She had been sentenced to custody for Class B drug supply offences. On arrival at the prison it became apparent that unforeseen delays to visiting prisoners at the establishment would mean a shortened meeting.

When we did meet, the discussion was terse and tense. 'What's the ******* point of coming here if we can only spend ten minutes?' Before we were able to look at how she was coping with her first prison sentence, a raucous cry of 'time' rang out across an uninviting and chilly visitors room. I trooped out alongside a surly probation colleague who had travelled half way across the country for an abridged parole report interview. 

The next opportunity I had to meet with Bethanie was shortly after her release on licence supervision. She had reported on the day of release but was 'too busy' finding somewhere to live to meaningfully engage, saying, 'You can visit me Mr G, when I settle down'.

The routine office reporting requirements seemed to pass without any real sense of just how she was endeavouring to, 'shake off the bad ****' that had pushed her into street dealing the 'Collie Weed'. It was only at the point when I home visited that I appreciated that she wanted 'out'. Without any prompting she read a poem she had composed when inside which movingly captured how she had struggled with her abusive past and was searching for a new 'non-criminal' identity. 'I can offer probation my services,' she averred. I expressed positive encouragement and explained that once her statutory contact had ended, that maybe she might consider some voluntary role before committing herself further.

At the time, I also occupied a role as a probation union representative and attended a planned joint union/management meeting. During one of the breaks, I spoke informally to one of the senior management attendees with a diversity remit and casually floated the idea that maybe the probation service consider employing ex-offenders whose lived experience might better inform service delivery. I recall a sinking disappointment with the stock response I received, 'We are not quite ready for this'.

I kept this aversive sentiment to myself when I had my next appointment with Bethanie at the probation office. I pondered how best to support her evident motivation to share her lived experience, maybe employed at some point by the probation service or prisoner support organisation, as a gifted asset to benefit the wider community rather than a risk to be managed. This outlook sat uneasily alongside that of a service whose ostensible rehabilitative raison d'etre was offering those who offended 'second chances' but seemed ill prepared to actualise this ambition with its own service users.

It was some while later when User Voice founder, Mark Johnson, held a position on the London Probation Board that more innovative models of service user engagement began to find wider organisational support within probation. Indeed, Janice Nix alludes to this in her memoir. Remembering Bethanie after this passage of time, I kept racking my memory for one of the lines of the poem she proudly shared with me on my home visit, a heartfelt line that seemed to point forward to a better future after prison and probation. It sounded something like, 'We are not all that you say we are'.

Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer.