Whilst reading Eli Sanders' truly compelling and compassionate Edgar-nominated account of a murder in Seattle, I was sharply reminded of my supervisory encounters with Melrose (not his real name) when working as a field probation officer (PO), covering one of the more troubled and economically deprived urban areas of the capital. The phone call that betokened the start of, what proved to be, one of my most demanding casework experiences was quite innocuous.
It was a call from the receptionist, whose uncanny ability to ascertain how certain clients in the waiting area might be more volatile than usual, often pre-empted potential conflict. ‘Would I see Melrose, as his PO was on leave?'. Melrose was currently on licence having served a prison term for robbery (as a young offender). Although it would not be true to say we instantly 'clicked', I was immediately impressed with his mature manner and positive outlook.
However, due to my colleague’s prolonged absence, Melrose’s licence supervision was reallocated to me. Before long I had established a pattern of regular reporting, and recognised that a home-visit was integral to good practice and his family support was pivotal to his future desistance from offending. Melrose was looking towards securing an apprenticeship and a family friend had opened up a source of financial assistance.
On my initial home visit I was unduly alarmed by what I perceived to be a measure of hostility to 'official visitors', with some young people making threatening comments towards me. I was greatly relieved when Melrose opened the door and introduced me to his mother. The visit was a snapshot of the challenges of growing up in such an estate which at the time had a much documented reputation for violence and disorder.
His mother was clearly greatly perturbed at the way her younger son (another son was serving a long sentence in an adult prison), was on the cusp of 'either getting into more badderation or making something of his life'. Melrose's father worked very long hours so was not present at the meeting, but wanted the 'best' for all his children and implored him to move 'away' from the peer-led ‘bad influences' that seem to be an almost inescapable reality ensnaring many of the young people on the estate.
To support Melrose securing employment, a referral was made to the on-site partnership employment advisor (EA) who had a creditable record of finding viable employment for many like Melrose. There were many with offending backgrounds and home addresses in an area which was synonymous with levels of high crime but who were often at 'transition points' in their offending lifestyle.
The report back from the EA promised practical employment preparation and a follow up appointment had been made with Melrose. Based on the confidence he had shown in the initial meeting I was hopeful that he would actively engage and participate. A call from him later in the day, reinforced this upbeat assessment and I was buoyed by the knowledge that aided with such assistance he might even enrol on some courses before any anticipated uptake of his much delayed apprenticeship.
With his next office-based appointment due later in the week, I had little inkling that the meticulously tailored employment pathways (which covered three months) would shortly count for naught. Melrose did not attend and I rang and spoke to his tearful Mother. 'He's been taken away' she said.
I could not gather much from the fraught conversation, so agreed that I would find out what was going on and call her when I had more information. To my dismay, I learned that the Flying Squad had smashed their way into the home and arrested Melrose in an early morning raid. He was now in custody and faced serious charges relating to a string of armed robberies committed with others across this part of London.
Melrose was later sentenced to a significant term of imprisonment and his allocated through-care was now within the supervisory remit of a bespoke long-term resettlement team.
Some while later a letter arrived at the office post with a high security prison stamp. Part of it read, ‘Dear Mike, feeling bad I let everyone down...guess I now have to do it the hard way...bet you this will be my last time’.
Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer