Recently, whilst mulling over criminologist David Scott's bracing anthologised abolitionist writings, I remembered a challenging experience whilst working as a probation officer at the outset of what was to become a 20 year stint!
I had been allocated through-care responsibility for Aldane (not his real name) who was serving a period of detention for offences of robbery in an out of London penal institution, and I was preparing to visit him in custody when his mother rang. She asked if she could accompany me to the visit and would I pick her up from her home address.
On arrival, I was fulsomely greeted by Aldane's mother but more than a little surprised to discover than she was heavily pregnant and unsteady on her feet. Wondering aloud, if it was sensible at this point in time to go ahead with the joint visit, my mutterings of concern were breezily dismissed and we started on our outward journey into the greener pastures of the home counties (where the young offender institution designed at the time for 18-20 year olds was located).
The car journey proved to be somewhat taxing as we had to make regular stops due her evident discomfort at the confined space and when we eventually parked at the site it was with considerable relief (tempered by the knowledge of the return journey!). But what proved of more lasting benefit were some of her car-bound parental observations about how Aldane had been 'led astray' and that he 'was really a good boy' but ‘would not listen to his mother’ (Aldane's father was an absent figure who was barely acknowledged in our conversations).
On entering the institution (which had been the site of a World War two internment camp), the atmosphere felt strangely remote and far removed from the cramped inner city environment in which Aldane had grown up. When we met with Aldane it was in a near empty visitors’ room and his reaction to his mother’s presence and her expectant state proved to be a little emotionally overwhelming for him.
As we had not met before and he was 'as noted on case work papers' for being ‘confrontational', the first hour of our meeting was intermittently tense, fraught and edgy. I opted to steer away from some of my intended professional enquiries. Aldane was accessing the range of vocational opportunities on hand at the institution, but some behavioural infractions suggested all was not what it appeared.
The clear, if fractured, filial bond with his mother was important to support and encourage given that she was due to give birth soon. Before we left she explained that Aldane’s brother would be returning home around the same time as his release (he was serving a sentence in an adult prison), and with the demands of a new baby the home environment would be a little 'vexed’.
I felt, as I left the room, an uncomfortable ending with Aldane looking more than a little bewildered at what lay ahead for him on his return. This unfinished meeting was for me compounded by information via the probation office that there were a number of outstanding offences that remained on the books for which the police would be seeking to interview Aldane (most likely in custody).
As we started on our return car journey, Aldane's mother became tearful and for a while I was concerned that the worrisome stress of the visit and the impending uncertainty surrounding Aldane's return to the address would prove too much. ‘What can I do and why has it come to this?' she said, adding that ‘I love my boys' but they had to 'learn to stand on their own feet’.
I hesitated to ask about her 'new partner' and how his presence in the household might possibly unsettle things further, but enquired how he might be enlisted to offer some guidance and a steer for Aldane and his brother. Before I had fully formulated these thoughts, I heard the words, but 'he is facing jail time’. The rest of the journey home was spent with more emotionally draining misgivings centred on whether she wanted to commit herself to this new relationship. I agreed to keep her informed of my contacts with Aldane and further planned visits to see him (at the time it was considered good professional practice to visit young people in custody quarterly during their sentence).
To my mild but welcome surprise, a while later, I received a letter from Aldane in which he thanked me for bringing his mother to visit him and could I help him to find somewhere to live on release. I spoke to his mother by phone after the birth and she was understandably distracted by domestic challenges. ‘Aldane tells me you have found him a flat!'. I had indeed referred him to our partnership accommodation worker and given his age there were well-founded grounds for a positive outcome.
Events however dictated that this planned pathway to rehabilitation would now be held in abeyance as Aldane subsequently appeared in court and was remanded in custody for further serious offences. I mused at the prospect of another long distance car journey to see him inside, this time with his newly arrived sibling in tow! One of my colleagues had assumed through-care responsibility as he covered the new institution Aldane was now held in.
I still have in mind that rainy day journey to see Aldane, and his faltering efforts to remove himself from what he dubbed 'all this badness’!
Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer