Family matters

Mike Guilfoyle recounts his meeting with Mark.

Mike Guilfoyle
Wednesday, 30 September, 2015

Having just read Pat O' Malley’s thoughtful and original analysis of the role of monetary penalties in criminal/civil prosecutions, brought to mind a telling experience which had a significant bearing on bolstering the faltering professional relationship I had with a life sentence prisoner whilst working as his home probation officer.

My first meeting with Mark (not his real name) had been particularly challenging, not least due to the hiatus in formal contact from the home probation team that I had recently joined, which resulted in his voluble outburst in the interview room at the prison he was then serving his sentence at, prior to his soon to be actioned transfer to the high security prison estate.

The reassuring presence of prison staff in an adjoining room had offered a safe outlet. However, having weathered his pent up anger, the tone of the interview changed measurably for the better! The one specific request he made just before I departed, was that I arrange to home visit his ailing mother to see if she required any practical assistance in her well-documented (he maintained) dispute over an outstanding entitlement claim to a higher rate of social security benefit.

I arranged to visit the family address some while later, having informed Mark of my intention to do so when he phoned the office and found a friendly and convivial familial atmosphere on arrival.

It was apparent that the family had a well-established and supportive prison visiting schedule in situ which was admirably organised as Mark was often, they claimed,  ‘ghosted' out to other prison establishments without prior notice. Due to what they described as his 'defiant' attitude to prison rules, plus his long tariff which meant that any possible release date was more than a decade away.

But his filial relationship with his mother was undoubtedly strong and mutually supportive, and this offered an opportunity to strengthen the professional relationship which showed signs of increased trust and openness. I received a very fulsome letter some days later from Mark who had been fully appraised of the positive impressions conveyed and the willingness to engage with his family, who had felt isolated and marginalised by prison authorities.

My next planned prison visit to Mark took me to a Category A Dispersal prison which he had now been transferred to due to some of the aforementioned disruptive behaviour in lower category prisons. Having spent the best part of the morning travelling to the prison, I was informed much to my chagrin on arrival that the visit had been cancelled as Mark was 'too unwell' to be seen! I insisted on being offered fuller information and was duly notified that he had ingested 'psychoactive substances', and was being closely monitored in the segregation unit.

I opted to be more circumspect on my next planned visit and rang the prison beforehand to avoid another fruitless journey. However, just prior to the visit (visits to long sentence prisoners were on average twice yearly) his mother rang to ask if I could accompany her and family members to a social security tribunal hearing. The hearing had been arranged so that her outstanding challenge for a higher rate benefit claim could be formally convened.  The somewhat sterile bureaucratic environment that housed the tribunal belied the lively exchanges that peppered the meeting. I was probed as to my role (I was in some sense a McKenzie Friend given that the family had no other legal assistance), and the impact that the life sentence was having on Mark’s mother health, her stretched financial resources and well-being. After a lengthy adjournment the tribunal accepted that her claim to extra funding was a legitimate one and agreed to authorise extra payments as soon as practicable.

When news filtered through to Mark that his mother had secured her much delayed benefit payments, he rang the office and movingly offered his heartfelt appreciation for my intervention and willingness to go that 'extra mile' for his family. The current Justice Select Committee inquiry into controversial court charges and tribunal fees will, one hopes when it produces its findings, proffer some far-reaching and hard hitting recommendations so that meritorious claimants like Mark's family are not denied access to justice due to exorbitant fees

Attending the benefits tribunal to support Mark's family when they were faced with real financial distress and securing a positive outcome made a clear and measurable difference to them, and my subsequent professional relationship with him before I moved to another probation office and our professional contact formally ended.

Mark used to say when referring to a late uncle’s fondness for gambling, 'he never back a winner, but Mike, for helping out my old mum you will always be a winner in my eyes'!