A busy morning in probation

Mike Guilfoyle
Monday, 6 July 2020

Whilst I was reading Michael Tonry's timely and humane critique of many of the more damaging and unjust policies and practices of punishment and sentencing in the US justice system, a phrase jolted my memory of my time working in probation.

The memorably alliterative phrase used was 'punitive passions pulsate' and the unsettling emotions evoked by this telling expression centred on an encounter whilst undertaking a weekly office duty.

At the time, probation officers were allocated a weekly office duty, which meant dealing with a myriad of possible casework challenges and this particular office duty seemed fated to encompass the full range of troubled and troublesome client contacts.

On the day, I was alerted to a client by the receptionist who insisted on jumping the queue in what was by now a busy reception area. Doyle (not his real name) who I had some past supervisory responsibility for, was clearly in a distressed state and even before we had started to converse it was apparent that some medical assistance might be needed.

‘I've been stabbed', he uttered as he clutched his abdomen. Before long the well rehearsed (if at times comically chaotic) contingency support from the designated Senior Probation Officer went into action.

Doyle was lying on an office bench reluctant to allow anyone to approach him. Before long a bevy of unnervingly large police officers had pitched up, (Territorial Support Group) and in the commotion that followed, Doyle had been arrested!! He was in possession of a concealed knife, unbeknownst to me, and it appeared that his injuries were not as severe as first thought and he was escorted off the premises into police custody.

I had little time to recover my thoughts or to garner any collegial support for what had been a traumatic hour or so, at the start of office duty. The next client to be seen was a possible transfer in from another area. I was composing myself in what I thought was a professional manner, but had yet to fully read the hurriedly faxed through casework papers. I was surprised to find that on the file I had not seen that a probation colleague from another area, had perhaps unwisely described the client I was interviewing as a 'Walter Mitty' character. After some deft back peddling, frayed tempers were assuaged and arrangements were made for an appointment at the office on another date.

The final office duty client (still in the morning!) was an altogether more composed and controlled client. I had mercifully been able to read a summary of his index offence, as this statutory reporting contact was arranged in advance whilst a colleague was on leave.

I found myself drawn into a much longer discussion on victim empathy than I had anticipated, Bogdan (not his real name) had recently been released from prison on licence and made what I sensed was a needlessly callous comment relating to the index offence. The victim of his offending had died following a high speed race in which the defendant has shown a reckless disregard for the safety of other road users, according to the judge.

Due to time constraints and the fact that his supervising officer would, I hoped, challenge some of these casual rationalisations, on the victim's culpability, I found myself quietly raging inside. Arrangements for his next office appointment having been made, I bid him well on his licence. At the time of the offence, the case had attracted widespread and sensationalist media attention and I recall feeling a lingering unease at what I perceived to have been unwarranted attempts to denigrate the victim and minimise his role and involvement in the fatal crash, due in part it appeared to his father's moneyed influence and wealthy contacts.

Shortly thereafter a well known MP had contacted the probation office in what was considered an inappropriate intervention to find out how Bogdan was coping under the care of the probation service!

I barely had time for a lunch break, when the receptionist called to inform me that my first client for the afternoon was waiting. She says it’s her final appointment and she has a card for you! I put aside my flickering 'punitive passion' simmering from the morning and as I entered the room, I thought to myself each of us has a story of our own to tell, however flawed we may be. Move on, calm your emotions, it could be a long afternoon ahead.