How to fit into the fragmented services of probation?

Mike Guilfoyle
Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Whilst reading Duncan Campbell's compulsively entertaining history of crime reporting reminded me of my supervisory experiences as a probation officer with Serena (not her real name).  Serena was sentenced to a short term of probation supervision after being apprehended whilst attempting to pass off counterfeit cheques and, whose expressed predilection, as she described it at the time was of being 'brassy' and ' sassy'. She was clearly adept at perpetrating calculated offences of dishonesty which offered an insight into what can perhaps be described as a Runyonesque lifestyle that both amused and aimed to 'shock'. 

Our first post-sentence appointment at the probation office was memorable for the fact that seeking to shift her range of employability options she opened up a portfolio of her modelling assignments that she claimed offered 'lots of money and glamour'. Her background into offending offered up considerable scope for extended discussion, not least some bracing gendered-informed exchanges, she was an inveterate conversationalist with some unsettlingly voyeuristic hints of newsworthy stories that might 'pay well'! Mindful that supervision was time -limited and Serena, who was not lacking in self-belief, viewed her offending in strictly utilitarian  terms, 'It ain't hurting anyone' she would merrily chirp, brought with it the usual casework challenges.

At the outset of supervision, home-visiting probationers were more the norm. The area covered by the probation office, with a high percentage of transient residents, was also characterised by high levels of deprivation, street crime and urban density. But pockets of relative affluence and enclaves of artists and musicians added a welcome piquancy to such visiting. Having arrived at Serena's address I felt an unnerving presence enter the room - her abnormally large 'house hounds' (I seem to recall the mythic Cerberus from some distant cinematic memory).  For the next hour or so her volubility seem to cast an agreeable calm to her canine companions! I could only express relief that the visit concluded with little recollection on my part as to what by way of supervisory import had just transpired. Whilst such experiences were far from unusual, it was agreed that maybe she could report to the probation office for the balance of her order.

It was at our next appointment that the tenor of our meeting took on a more troubling aspect. Serena's demeanour and outlook seemed altogether more sombre and her chatty engagement had, for once, left her. Whilst the professional relationship on supervision was clearly of an involuntary nature and the honed skills of the probation officer/worker needed to harness the belief that meaningful and positive change was achievable, for once I felt ill -prepared and mumbled something that seemed to upset her. She stormed out of the probation office with me clumsily in pursuit, but she returned and I opted to drop her a line so that we could pick up next time on what had caused this communication breakdown.

Before our next supervision session, a probation colleague drew my attention to a luridly sensationalist article that had appeared over the weekend in one of the Sunday 'red tops'.  The article covered details of a well-known celebrity, drug taking and a 'call girl'.  Mindful of media depictions of female offending whose thinly veiled identity left little guesswork, someone in the office remarked, 'looks like we now know what Serena had on her mind when she stormed out of the office, Mike?’

She did not keep her following appointment and subsequent calls to her number were left unanswered. Although greater discretionary scope to enforce supervision was operative at that time, a warning letter was sent and this did elicit a response from her. Firstly a telephone call, which suggested that she was 'under pressure' as being the source of the news story, and the repercussions of this bordered on some unwelcome menacing attention, not only from the press, but also from 'others' connected to the revelations (I thought of Serena's guard dogs in a very different light after this).

At the expiry of her order (six months supervision being the shortest timeframe), the residual issues that had resulted in her being in the national press still weighed heavily on her mind. Her modelling career had stalled, the recreational drug use that had been prominent in such stories remained an unaddressed issue, which I acknowledged when I later discussed Serena's supervision with my senior probation officer colleague. But she had to her credit completed her statutory order without resorting to further offences of dishonesty and faced with the unseemly pressures of media exposure, fuelled by journalistic titillation, had negotiated her way towards looking at employment options outside her 'glamour lifestyle'.

The special edition of the British Journal of Community Justice - Imagining Probation in 2020, aims to capture something of the essence of probation in an excellent collection from noted probation commentators. I wondered how Serena might now fit into the current supervisory arrangements in a probation world of fragmented services, for-profit practice and competition-driven secrecy.

In particular what interventions exist that offer holistic and women-centred approaches to supervision?  As she once surprisingly said (much against the grain of her recent media exposure) during her supervision, 'Mike, if they knew [newspapers] I was on probation, they might leave me alone!'.