In the dock

Mike Guilfoyle
Friday, 15 July 2022

One of my more challenging early probation supervisory experiences involved working with Rahim (not his real name), after he was placed on a probation order for various offences of dishonesty.

I made a point of arranging a home visit at the outset of the order, as Rahim had had prior contact with a local youth offending team.

On my arrival I was greeted warmly by Rahim's mother and offered a refreshing herbal tea. We looked together at how the new probation order might work, with Rahim conspicuously apart in a corner of the room. Some past, unspecified, event had resulted in a sensitivity to being touched.

In his richly observed and insightful ethnography of young black street masculinities on a south east London housing estate, Brendan King writes of competing pressures facing young men. He "could go decent or he could go street", as one person told him. Rahim's mother echoed the sentiment. She was supportive of probation's endeavours, but worried about local gang affiliations enmeshing Rahim.

On leaving I sensed that his evident motivation and a place on an apprenticeship offered a positive start to the order. My optimism proved short-lived.

I had a phone call a day or so later, from a probation colleague at the court adjoining the probation office, explaining that Rahim was in the cells "kicking off". Shortly after, I was in court awaiting his appearance, on offensive weapon and assault charges.

In the dock, Rahim looked nervous and agitated. It was apparent from the information offered by the prosecution that the charges were more serious than I had anticipated. Before I could give a verbal update on his early progress on his order, Rahim broke free from the security staff and vaulted the dock with impressive agility.

Unfortunately for him, his forward momentum took him straight into the large midriff of a police officer, there to give evidence on another case. His bid for freedom came to a premature end and he was dragged back into the cell area. He was later remanded to custody.

When I next met with Rahim, to prepare a pre-sentence report, it was in a cavernous and loud visiting area at London's largest Young Offenders Institution. Making any headway on preparing this new report proved difficult.

The sentence of three years detention which was imposed meant that Rahim would most likely be transferred out of London. Instead, he was sent to a new multi-disciplinary unit, purposely established to address the unmet needs of young adults in custody with entrenched patterns of psychological disturbance.

When I attended a mid-sentence meeting, it was clear that Rahim had greatly benefited from the bespoke mental health interventions. At the point of release, he was deemed to have been one of the unit's most promising candidates for follow-up community engagement and support.

I arranged a post-release home visit to consolidate the gains made during his sentence. On the way there, I called at another address nearby to visit another client under supervision. This client's engaging persona – he had trained with the actor and martial artist Jean-Claude Van Damme – meant that I was late for the appointment with Rahim.

I felt the sting of disappointment when I entered the address. Rahim had left his home, his mother tersely informed me, feeling "let down" by my delayed arrival. All-too-often, his mother said, "authority" had not been there for him.

A short while later, she reluctantly conceded that Rahim had in fact left by the bedroom window when police officers had knocked on the door with a search warrant.

He was once again wanted for questioning. The police had referenced some historic offences and warrants (suspiciously not dealt with prior to his current sentence). Aided with legal advice, they were subsequently dropped. Rahim moved out of the area and his licence supervision was transferred.

The client who had trained with Jean-Claude Van Damme successfully complete his order. He worked in drapery and offered me an ill-fitting suit in appreciation of the positive outcome. I politely declined.

This time, it was I who made a successful escape.

Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer.