The gravitational pull of law breaking

Mike Guilfoyle remembers Patrick who spent many years on licence

Mike Guilfoyle
Tuesday, 06 September, 2016

Having just read the scabrously entertaining offerings in the late Howard Marks’ valedictory book, I was sharply reminded of the gravitational pull of law breaking that still entices many who engage in profitable criminal enterprises experiences. The pull continues even after heroic prison sentences aimed at stymying such behaviour.

When I met Patrick (not his real name) for the first time at the probation office, I had briefly spoken to not one but two of his former supervising probation officers. His heavy 'deterrent' sentence was well into double figures for his prior involvement in a high profile drug importation operation that had resulted in his apprehension (along with his co-conspirators) and subsequent lengthy prison sentence. He had been released on parole having served the first part of his sentence in the high security prison estate before being re-categorised and eventually released. At our first meeting, he offered a personably reassuring presence and was well versed in the lexicon of statutory supervision, 'I know the routine Mr Guilfoyle and am not about to breach my licence'.

Although showing some understandable weariness in having to partially recount his involvement in the index offence and the multiple interventions that he had undertaken along his prison journey, to offset the considered risks of a return to what the sentencing judge had noted at the point of sentence as 'a highly sophisticated drug smuggling operation played for high stakes'.

Patrick had managed to cope - he averred away from the setting of his offending and had no ongoing contacts with his co-defendants. But he was hesitant to go as far as to concede that should another lucrative offer be presented he would not 'consider his options'! I sensed that this was partly due to his well-developed persona as a 'fixer' which he had used to place himself in the way of likely pathways of 'easy money' which the case notes amplified. He hinted this was made all the harder due to his present parlous financial situation (he had been deemed unfit to work) due to health reasons and mused at the looming reality of reaching into his 'twilight' years without very little to show for his many years of incarceration.

The frequency of our contacts arranged on the basis that reporting to the probation office was premised on his having been assessed as medium to low risk according to the calibrated risk assessment tools then operative in caseload allocation, meant that monthly contact had been the norm and this arrangement appeared to accord with my professional outlook after discussion with Patrick.

There was a clear perception that with such a reporting scheme working, and after several appointments, the professional rapport which had developed suggested that one of my colleagues who coordinated the office reporting scheme (a broadly supported organisational imperative to ensure that supervisory resources were targeted at those who posed a greater degree of harm) was worth considering.

As Patrick had maintained a regular pattern of reporting, his 're-entry' had been for the most part unproblematic and was he sufficiently resourceful, 'I can work things out without picking up the phone to Billy'! (Billy seemed like a stock fictional character) Although bogus identities are very much part of organised villainy, the neighbourhood context was important as most of Patrick's former associates had left, passed away or were still inside!  So I mooted this option as one which appeared to be most suited to his situation and warranted by current organisational practice. ‘Not sure if I like that idea' he demurred and this set in motion a period of unsettling professional meetings which, whilst stable relationships and continuity of supervision was clearly good practice, threatened to undermine the progress made to date.

In the event, I had already canvassed this option with my colleague who had recently been appointed to this new role and was quietly confident that a transfer of supervision could be successfully negotiated. This was another turning point for him, which was important enough (I had been his supervising officer for over two years at this point in time) such that his inner resolve to maintain his offence-free lifestyle should be underpinned by meaningful engagement (if required by change in circumstances he could request one to one meetings) and Patrick had made a renewed effort to get to know family members whose contact had been fractured by his time inside.

But his earlier experience of group-based reporting still rankled with him, and his derogatory observations surfaced in a way that meant a more sensitive appreciation of opportunities for moving ahead with his time on licence (still measured in years!) involved supporting his efforts, being mindful of how aging and later life experiences, the limited prospects of future employment - given the age old adage on 'keeping busy to keep out of trouble' (my colleague was similar in age to Patrick) were likely to play out in his life whilst being supervised.

An outstanding contribution on explaining crime over the life-course which is contained in Laub and Sampson's most recent text  refers to the significance of strong community ties, family links and structural routines in helping to shape the narratives of those enmeshed in longer term offending. When I met Patrick in the office shortly afterward the transfer of supervision he smiled and nodded 'still going straight, Mike, but it is f****** difficult!’

Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer

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