I recently read through the excellent collection of readings, Beyond the Risk Paradigm in Criminal Justice, and was sharply reminded of a particularly challenging casework encounter whilst working as a probation officer. I had been tasked with the responsibility of preparing a parole report in far from satisfactory circumstances.
The allocated caseworker was unwell and the deadline date for the report was fast approaching. A local manager with a limited appreciation, it appeared at the time, for the sustained workload pressures that I was under, unceremoniously deposited the parole dossier into my work pigeonhole!
After this unpromising beginning, I shifted my timetable to arrange a prison visit and on hearing of my proposed visit a probation colleague hitched a lift to an adjoining prison where he had through-care casework contact with a long-term prisoner. The case notes on file suggested that the interview had the potential to be volatile and unsafe. Johnson (not his real name) had been voluble in his phone calls to the office and had intimated that he would ‘take action' if he missed his parole date.
On arrival at the prison after an uneventful car journey, enlivened by my colleague’s quirky humorous asides, I experienced more than a murmuring apprehension. I had no casework relationship with Johnson and the level of prior probation contact had been regrettably minimal. The details of the index offence and his history of previous law-breaking pointed inexorably towards someone with a marked tendency to violence and long-standing criminal attachments in the locality.
The prison officer who escorted me to the interview room expressly stated that I should not ‘hesitate' to press the panic button if necessary, and he or one of his colleagues would be positioned outside the room. With this in mind, I introduced myself to Johnson who was waiting for the interview to start.
Without warning, he launched into a tirade against what he perceived as failures of the ‘bureaucratic' probation service and its contacts with him during his sentence, together with the endless pressures that a delayed parole report had placed on him in moving towards resettlement. For the best part of one hour (at the time it felt considerably longer!), he berated me (‘you are just another probation officer who doesn’t know me’), and stomped angrily around the room making direct threats against the manager who had allocated me the report. I resisted the impulse to leave the room and was aware of the presence of a prison officer who beckoned me to leave more than once.
Finally, Johnson's explosive outburst began to subside. My emotional antennae sensed that a more prudential approach from Johnson might evince a tangible parole report in time for the parole hearing (his next date for parole would be in a year’s time). We spent the next hour or so mapping out the areas of shared concern - dynamic risks, victim issues and his long offending profile, positive strengths and needs, resettlement address and a well-argued parole supervisory framework that could inform a safer reintegration into the local community.
I explained that any proposals for release that the report might contain would be contingent on his cooperation, reports from prison sources, sentencing documentation, and his written submission.
Before I left I sensed that Johnson's manner had changed. It was clear that he still wanted me to report back to the office what he called the 's***’ level of service delivery. I explained that his threats to harm staff would not be countenanced and could jeopardise his release. I appreciated his frustrations and residual anger at the ‘tick box' probation service, but these could be better harnessed into making plans for resettlement, including a viable release address and some encouraging moves to desist from future offending.
I left the interview in a cold sweat but reminded myself that, whilst safety could not be compromised, the place of skilled and empathic casework engagement went a considerable way in not walking away from challenging behaviours.
A lot of the network of community resources needed to secure safe (what is now dubbed through the gate), and successful post-release re-integrative support was beyond the remit of the probation service. When I went to collect my colleague from the nearby prison, he had been locked out as his visit had finished some time ago and his shivering presence in a dark car park in the middle of the country, and my adrenaline-charged encounter, made for some supportive collegial exchanges on the way back to London!
I later drafted the parole report in which I proposed that an addendum from my colleague, who had now returned from sickness leave, might be needed to strengthen any positive recommendation for release. Johnson was later granted parole and was supervised at another office. I noted that he had commented on file that he wanted to hurt someone for his delayed parole report, but the probation officer who he met at the prison had caused him to change his mind!!
Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer