Forgotten behind prison walls?

Mike Guilfoyle asks how people like Jim will reclaim their places in society, and not simply be forgotten behind bars

Mike Guilfoyle
Tuesday, 01 December, 2015

Having recently read Harry Annison's thoughtfully impressive case study of the genesis and demise of the IPP sentence (Imprisonment for Public Protection) put me in mind of a particularly challenging supervisory experience when working as a field probation officer with Jim (not his real name).

I had previously supervised Jim on an earlier probation order which, although not without incident, had been successfully concluded and viewed the prospect of renewed supervisory contact with a modicum of mild apprehension. That was on the basis that Jim had been charged with, what at the time was deemed to be, a specified offence that fell within the scope of Section (15) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003.  As such, this required an assessment of dangerousness (as such offences often attracted the equivalent of a life sentence or sentences in excess of ten years’ custody). Because Jim had a previous specified offence on his list of antecedents there was a presumption (at the time) of dangerousness. I arranged for a video link with Jim, who was being held at a local remand prison, to prepare the pre-sentence report and although I had professional misgivings at this format of interview (it was often difficult to hear or interpret the more nuanced subtleties of communication) the interview went ahead.

I sensed that Jim felt that he had 'gone too far' in the commission of the offence of violence against a relative. His moral distancing of his responsibility for his behaviour, in what was a 'nasty assault', left me very concerned that in all the circumstances, a sentence for public protection might well be the only viable sentencing proposal. I struggled to balance the professional need to contextualise his behaviour – which was set against his troubled personality and often reckless disregard for the well-being of others - with the need to fully represent the physical and psychological harm experienced by the victim of his assault, such that any future behaviour might occasion what was defined as significant risk of serious harm to others.

Having submitted the report, I awaited an update on sentencing from my colleagues in the Crown Court. I felt uneasy at what I perceived to be something of a tentative sentencing proposal that in all the circumstances, fell short of my usual confident report writing. A little while later, I received a call from the liaison probation officer at the court to inform me that the sentencing judge had been  ‘unhappy' at the sentencing proposal, and had requested that it be revised! Which meant that sentencing had been deferred to enable this to happen. I recall feeling mightily disappointed and annoyed that such a request had been made, and the delay in sentencing might well be deleterious in what I felt in spite of the index offence was my good relationship with Jim.

I experienced a momentary loss of professional confidence before realising that this was a task that needed revisiting and I would prepare the addendum within the agreed timeframe. What I had not anticipated was that my then line manager - whose unsympathetic managerial style I experienced as unduly oppressive framed as it was by a hidebound professional mind set shaped by a more fundamentalist risk driven outlook to supervision - would co-author the report! Arrangements were made to set in motion the video link and on the day we met in advance of the interview to cover perceived areas of professional concern and in particular the specificities of the dangerousness criteria. Once the interview had started the show of professional unanimity did little to disguise my internal emotional dissonance , at what I experienced as a 'professional infantilising' relationship, but Jim seemed to recognise that in view of the gravity of his situation having a second opinion might be of some assistance.

The resubmitted report, although incorporating the bulk of my earlier assessment, markedly departed in its sentencing proposal with an unwavering attachment for an IPP. Although I assented to this on the basis of joint agreement, I was left feeling professionally bruised by the experience. There was also an unwelcome reminder of my precarious professional identity insofar as the commission of the index offence was, according to existing guidelines, deemed to be a 'Serious Further Offence' (a list of serious offences committed whilst under supervision that merited internal organisational investigation, or in some more high profile cases public opprobrium!).

By some unforeseen organisational quirk, the offence that Jim was convicted of was deleted during this period from this calculus of harmful conduct, and the near disabling anxiety that often beset probation officers faced with such investigations was duly dissipated!

But what of Jim? How might his role as a perpetrator of violence be better understood and his narrative of feeling ‘powerless' and ‘different’ enable change to happen if not through empathic and respectful dialogue and supporting a more reflexive criminal justice intervention? This would allow for deliberative approaches so that in trying to grapple with why he committed this offence he sees that he needs to better interrogate his own life story, instead of masking his often fatalistic outlook!

The IPP imposed on Jim at the subsequent hearing had a minimum tariff of under five years (that is time to be served in custody before release could be considered on licence). His post-custodial supervisory contact was transferred to another colleague (at the time there was a fractured organisational split between those deemed high risk and those on lower risk bandings) which conveniently segued into the recent part privatising of the probation service. When I made a discrete enquiry to a colleague about how Jim was progressing in his sentence, I was informed that due to the unavailability of the bespoke rehabilitative offending behaviour programme (indeterminate sentencing was introduced with an expectation that such programmes would be available) at the prison his suitability for release could not be presently assessed.

How, I mused, will Jim 'make good' and reclaim his place in society if he is not afforded a chance to do so?  Does not a humane criminal justice system require not only sound and sensible sentencing, but approaches that do not further alienate and marginalise people like Jim, who once behind the prison walls are then quietly forgotten? 

As Jim used to say, 'It’s been a heavy life Mike'.