Whilst reading Preet Bharara's thoughtful and vivid account of his time as a US federal prosecutor, I recalled my supervisory experiences with Mason (not his real name) when working as a probation officer in London.
I was piqued at the prospect of being allocated this statutory role as I noticed that Mason commanded a certain 'roguish charm' whilst engaging with other clients in the waiting room. When his period of supervision was confirmed, after he appeared at the local Magistrates’ Court for numerous offences of dishonesty, I introduced myself.
From the outset, I somewhat blithely overlooked that his use of English was not sufficient to enable supervision to be undertaken without the assistance of an interpreter. Arrangements were set in motion for an interpreter to be present at our next planned meeting at the probation office. On the day, I met with *** who was a strikingly larger than life figure, a former voice coach for operatic singers, as well as being a part-time actor.
There was an instant rapport and I sensed that by enlisting him in my supervisory encounters with Mason, we might well progress in ensuring that his probation order was workable, and such a vibrant shared cultural identity might even provide for a colourful distraction from some of the more mundane demands of everyday supervision!
But the initial meeting was regrettably short lived, and my early expectations of a successful engagement dimmed, when Mason did not attend. As we waited the interpreter said, 'I might know someone who will know how to find Mason'.
A call was made and news of his whereabouts was confirmed. I resisted the impulse to send off a warning letter, and made arrangements for our next meeting. In the interim, Mason had been accommodated in a hostel for homeless men in a different borough. We met at the entrance to the hostel, his key worker was not available and for a few moments I noticed that I was feeling palpably uncomfortable in such a setting, the dizzying volume of people in and out prompted me to suggest that we move from this venue and meet at a nearby cafe.
Mason was agreeable and we conducted our supervision, alongside many of the arty denizens of this part of London. I mooted that in light of his move to another borough we might have to transfer his probation order to a nearer office. But as his status at the hostel was as yet transitory, I opted to remain his allocated probation officer. I also noticed that the relationship between Mason and the interpreter was developing into a close and collaborative one. With this in mind, we agreed on the frequency of contact and the contents of supervision.
I received a plaintive telephone call from the interpreter, 'Mike, looks like Mason has been taken into hospital. No further details'. I rang the hostel to find out he had also breached the terms of his stay and his place had been withdrawn due to his 'illicit drug usage' and Mason had in fact been admitted to hospital following an overdose.
When the dust had settled and it was clear that the early prognostications were more favourable, he was discharged from hospital and moved to a temporary address elsewhere, but once again without leaving details as to where this was!
The interpreter was proving an invaluable resource and aided by his numerous local contacts had tracked Mason down within a few days. His efforts to go beyond the remit of his role as interpreter were proving a lifeline for Mason.
Supervision with a cappuccino
‘Can we meet at the cafe for our next appointment?’ Mason had requested via the interpreter. I was alert to the possibility that I was perhaps becoming too attuned to 'out of office' supervision sessions, with one colleague mischievously commenting, 'Mike’s off again to the cultural quarter with his case notes and cappuccino!’.
This time, the meeting was overshadowed by a concern that Mason 'owed' money to one of his 'drug-taking mates', and this person had made direct threats of harm which meant that he once again found himself homeless. I re-referred him to the hostel, and he was re-admitted, with a more bespoke package of support and a demonstrably more engaged key worker. After one of our four-way meetings, at the hostel, I returned to the probation office. It was agreed that would meet once more when statutory contact had ended.
Due to other casework commitments this planned final meeting had to be deferred, Mason's probation order expired and he remained at the hostel, albeit with a parlous tenancy, due to delayed rental payments and 'unauthorised visitors' to his room!
In the meantime, the interpreter had featured on a well known TV programme (in a cameo role that showcased his operatic talent!), and this had prompted me to arrange this much delayed voluntary meeting, at a cafe close to the hostel.
I raced over to be at the meeting and noticed Mason was already animatedly involved in a conversation with the interpreter and I joined them for this concluding encounter. Mason, whose command of English was now near perfect, opined that maybe I should open an office at the cafe, so that those struggling with crime and addictions could drop in and spend some of their time on probation with the 'Cappuccino Probation Officer’!
I gulped and looked back at Mason and the interpreter whose singular commitment to ensuring that Mason's order was successfully completed widely exceeded my early expectations, but whose untiring support and informed input, made all the difference to the prospects of Mason remaining drug and offence free for the better part of two eventful years.
As I left the cafe, a voice brimming with the brio of a seasoned actor bellowed out 'Mike, lavoro ben fatto!' (I looked this up later – it meant ...job well done!).
Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer