A life interrupted

Mike Guilfoyle
Sunday, 1 March 2020

Having just read a keenly awaited book that offers a lively and compellingly original scholarly foray into sentencing research, Sentencing: A Social Process: Re-thinking Research and Policy by Cyrus Tata, I was particularly struck by a phrase he used in the book, 'demographic distance’, denoting the experiential and social distance between those caught up in criminal proceedings and the professionals working in the court setting.

This evoked a poignant memory of my supervisory relationship with Sergio (not his real name) after I had recently transferred to working in a probation office in Central London. For many years prior to this change of work setting, I had been pondering an emotionally unsettling memory, resulting from what I regarded at the time as a callously offhand comment made by a senior probation officer following the death of one of my female clients from a drug overdose.

'In this job, you'd better get used to druggies killing themselves'.  I met with Sergio for the first time after he was sentenced, for possession of Class A drugs, to a community order with a requirement that he also comply with appointments with the office-based drug counselling worker.

Positive steps

I recall experiencing a foreboding sense of a probation order that was fated not to work. Sergio barely spoke at our first interview; he appeared depressed and bore the destructive ravages of a longstanding heroin dependency with his sunken appearance and flat expressionless delivery. I struggled to make sense of his broken English (he pointedly refused the services of an interpreter) and sought to frame a supervisory contract that supported him in his stated commitment to work to becoming drug-free and to find a job in the catering trade.

At our following office-based appointment, some measured progress had been made, in the sense that he had met with the drug counsellor which was a positive meeting. He arrived early at the office and I acknowledged his compliance to engage in, what was for him, the first time he had been in any form of therapeutic programme. I then suggested the possibility of a home visit, but this was somewhat brusquely batted away. Sergio explained that ‘my landlord doesn’t know I am on probation' and so I left this proposal in the background (at least for the moment).

A turning point

As the weeks progressed Sergio became a familiar presence in the waiting room. In spite of my initial misgivings his reporting was impressive and his attendance offered a realistic opening for him to reduce his chronic dependency on Class A drug use and begin exploring alternative harm-free lifestyle options.

I was aware that he would often visit a community-based drop-in centre  take courses to improve his employability. I was also aware that he would pick up cash-in-hand odd jobs when he could. At one particular appointment, I sensed that maybe Sergio was at a turning point in his endeavours to become drug free. His manner, motivation and presentation were starkly at odds with his earlier gaunt appearance and with his methadone prescription being reduced, I talked about some of the familiar challenges that enduring recovery from his addiction might elicit.

Although he remained laconic throughout the meeting, his smiles and light-hearted body language promised to set aside my initial foreboding and I recall a reassuringly firm handshake as he left the office. A single man, Sergio had alluded to an ailing father living abroad who he was increasingly worried about and I had considered a possible request for permission to travel in light of his expressed concerns.

The disappearance

The probation order was now at the half way point and a more positive outlook set the tone for the balance of supervision. It was at this point, that Sergio's reporting suddenly ceased. Telephone calls went unanswered and, mindful of his reluctance to allow me to home visit for fear that his tenancy might be jeopardised, I opted to refrain from undertaking such a visit.

Breach proceedings were then under consideration. As his reporting at this point in the order was agreed to be on a monthly basis, my earlier foreboding emotions began to surface. I felt horribly constrained and also recall feeling that I could not entertain the idea of Sergio having come to harm. It was some weeks later when I had a call from a police officer that the grim reality of Sergio's fateful last days was made known.

The landlord had called the police concerned at an 'unnatural smell' coming from his room. When discovered, his lifeless body had, it was estimated, laid undetected for some weeks and physical identification was proving difficult. But one mundane item which assisted in this process was a probation service reporting card which was prominently placed in his room. The only other form of identification was a signed photograph of Sergio as a boy with his father.

I struggled for some time to come to terms with the idea of Sergio's sad and lonely ending. I wondered how his family abroad would deal with the news and manner of his death. I, perhaps ill advisedly, did not share with my line manager my inner emotional turmoil at the loss of a client whose turbulent life I had got to know well for close to a year. However, I vowed never to use the term 'druggies' or think of his death as yet another half-forgotten statistical footnote on a probation caseload.

This concerning oversight of non–custodial deaths within criminal justice is belatedly being recognised.

What I best remember now most vividly is a Sergio with his warm and winsome smile as he left the busy probation office and a life ended with such unfulfilled promise cut short way too soon.

Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer