The double standards in probation

Mike Guilfoyle remembers Ramon who was the victim of an unforgiving decision

Mike Guilfoyle
Wednesday, 02 November, 2016

This month, my reflection is a departure from my regular offender-based narratives, because after reading Michael W Clune's gripping memoir of his battle with heroin addiction, I was sharply reminded of a professional relationship with one of my former colleagues, Ramon (not his real name).

Drug dependency

Ramon’s hidden drug dependency, whilst working with many sentenced to periods of supervision, offered a different prism through which to view and respond to his professional supervisory role. Struggles with his own drug dependency brought about an untimely conclusion to his career as a probation officer.

Whilst I was working with a particularly chaotic and challenging client, whose history of self-harm and substance misuse together with periods of short-term imprisonment, seemed to point inexorably towards the revolving door of custody, I canvassed Ramon's professional opinion.

I sensed from his insightful observations that he had a well-developed understanding of a recovery-focused approach. It put him in touch with some of the community resources aimed at sustaining this probation client to short-lived periods of stability and played a significant role in enabling his pathway to a drug-free lifestyle.

Pre-sentence report

On one occasion, Ramon was given responsibility for preparing a pre-sentence report on a client, as I was on leave.

I returned and picked up the case file and read his well-argued report which, while incorporating some of the work that I had undertaken, also offered some telling observations on how a proper focus on the service user’s strengths, needs and aspirations would provide a more hopeful perspective (dependent on the court following the recommendation in the pre-sentence report and supervision was extended).

Offering support

My first inkling that Ramon might be experiencing some physical withdrawal symptoms arose following one of our regular team meetings (meetings which, at the time, became more characteristic of what I subversively dubbed 'commissar' type briefings! This was due to a service-wide reorganisation that appeared broadly indifferent to notions of healthy staff morale).

I opted to discretely approach other colleagues who might have some intimations of how Ramon was coping with the profound changes in roles and practices in probation.

I then spoke to him, with I have some say some circumspection, only to be informed that unrelated domestic pressures were contributing towards a very fragile professional persona. However, he appeared to have sources of support and I moved on believing that he was working out his own recovery plan.

On another aspect of case management, which touched upon the dilemmas of problematic drug use and appropriate service-led responses, Ramon became particularly animated. This resulted in an impromptu case discussion in which colleagues recognised that his insights appeared uncannily similar to those usually encountered in interactions between probation officer and client.

Again, I thought I was witnessing an authentic endeavour where the daily struggles experienced by those gripped by substance misuse sought an exit route. But I dared not broach the topic, given the sensitivity it might raise in worker/client interactions.

Sometime later, following a period of prolonged absence from the workplace, colleagues expressed concerns that Ramon might not be coping. But clearly a measure of employer/employee confidentiality was important to respect.

Disciplinary action

On his return to the office, I approached Ramon to update him on several of the individuals whose professional supervisory overlaps featured in paired working arrangements.

It was with considerable shock that I later discovered that, during his absence, Ramon had experienced the demoralising impact of disciplinary action. The biting irony was that he had admitted to his drug dependency and was taking active steps to address the issue.

Unfortunately, at the time, the prevailing target-driven performance culture was unforgivingly unredemptive.

It seemed that lip-service was being paid to the much trumpeted importance of listening to those service user voices from those with the power to make decisions.  In this atmosphere, Ramon was dismissed from his employment (a subsequent appeal was unsuccessful): his years of experience and practice wisdom and determination to seek help to bring about his recovery counted for naught.

Taking risks

A recent excellent addition to the literature on risk and desistance, edited by Chris Trotter, Gill McIvor, and Fergus McNeill, covers with meticulous scholarship some of the practitioner themes highlighted in this post.

In particular, the centrality of collaborative efforts from workers, service users and communities as 'co-producers' in affecting change.

As a much-missed colleague Ramon was oft heard, when discussing his client caseload, saying 'you have got to take risks and get closer to those we are working with’.