Helping, hurting and holding

Mike Guilfoyle
Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Whilst reading criminologist Fergus McNeil's co-edited volume on comparative offender supervision in Europe, I was reminded of a particular supervisory experience of my own by his reference to what he denotes as the supervisory triptych; namely that being under statutory probation supervision often combines, 'helping , hurting and holding'. This evoked a memorably challenging set of professional experiences whilst supervising Marcus (not his real name).

I was allocated responsibility for Marcus' supervision following sentencing for public order offences at the local court. This was after a somewhat threadbare ' fast track ' court report, which resulted in the court imposing a defined period of probation supervision (with the insertion of an Alcohol Treatment Requirement) to address his problematic alcohol influenced offending episodes. 

When Marcus reported to the Probation Office it was clear to me that the terms of the core supervisory contract would need to be informed by the issue of his worryingly high alcohol consumption. Even before we had been formally introduced, he stumbled over the interview table, and the meeting ended in his fractious departure and the sense that maybe early engagement with alcohol treatment would need to be prioritised. Marcus rang the office later in the day, offering a maudlin apology and promising that he would curtail his alcohol intake prior to our next meeting. I had drafted into the following meeting the partnership alcohol worker, who seemed to envisage that supervision might be a short lived experience, having read the details available from court and discussed with me the next steps in securing some measured intervention.

When Marcus reported, he was at least more clear-headed and the three way meeting appeared to offer the basis of some considered reflections on how his usage of alcohol often resulted in offending. What became more apparent as the interview progressed was that Marcus, who hailed from Eastern Europe, had in fact been under some form of supervision abroad. He also revealed that his unsettled pattern of employment and prolonged bouts of alcoholic binges could be sourced to his troubled family background. But there appeared much more that needed to be disclosed if the anticipated therapeutic gains that my hard headed colleague seemed keen to elicit, could be gleaned from our meetings. Marcus asked for 'help' to assist in his endeavours to reduce his dependency on alcohol, which produced a positive valence in the interview that left me confident that some overdue inroads might well be in deliberation order.

Shortly thereafter I received a telephone call from a somewhat wearied custody officer, who notified me that Marcus was in the police cells after 'trying to head-butt one of my sergeants'. He appeared the following morning before Lay Justices. After some deliberation the court, having been informed of his shaky but purposive start to supervision, agreed to a concurrent period of supervision.

At our subsequent supervision session Marcus was reminded of the likely consequences of further potential offending and the 'pains of probation' might entail revocation of his order and, most probably, loss of liberty for breach. He nodded with residual resignation and reprised his earlier protestations that he did not respond well to being treated 'disrespectfully' by the police. That he was already at the time intoxicated and brawling with a fellow compatriot did not appear to feature in his disjointed recollections.

The 'holding' aspect of supervision meant that containing the fallout from his outbursts pushed the parameters of acceptable behaviour closer and closer to termination of his order. It was important to hold him to account in a way that recognised the troubling antecedents of his resort to binge drinking, whilst ensuring that supervision was paced in a way that enabled collaborative working. This often prosaically meant recording, in my regular meetings with the partnership worker, the steps he agreed to take that resulted in some positive feedback, as well as the shadow side that surfaced when past hurts arising from a brutalising childhood were presented.

I felt it more than gratifying that we were able to complete the supervision with a real sense that Marcus had at least recognised the harm his actions occasioned him and others, and without the fevered concern we felt initially. At our penultimate supervision, I was flummoxed when he reached into his pocket and offered me a miniature whiskey with a time honoured phrase having fixed me with a bibulous gaze, 'Mike , you might like this as it has been in my pocket for some time'!

Some while later a colleague informed me that he was in court and that 'someone called Ivan (Marcus' pseudonym) sent his regards.' Hesitant to enquire what his status was in the court setting, I remembered that, before engaging in supervision, Marcus would often utter the self-same phrase!  Sometimes, I mused, does learning in probation involve going back to where one has started from?