I recently re-read Peggy Giodano's important scholarly work, Legacies of Crime, which explores the lives of seriously delinquent girls and boys in the United States who were followed over a 20-year period as they grew to adulthood. A book that left an abiding impression on my understanding of how some women become embroiled in the criminal justice system.
I was sharply reminded of my past supervisory engagement with Nala (not her real name), and some of the many casework challenges that made working the community order so very memorable. Nala's supervision had been transferred to me following an earlier fraught professional relationship with her erstwhile probation officer which meant that the order had become near unworkable.
So, our initial encounter was freighted with loaded expectation, and I recall more than a hint of apprehension when Nala entered the interview room at the probation office. Contrary to my outlook having read her case notes (she had a lengthy and troubled history of offences of dishonesty and alcohol fuelled offending), she was disarmingly pleasant, if subdued, and seemed very quiescent, during our interview. 'I have nothing much to say, today, can I go now?' and 'will you be visiting me at home, as I feel safer there?'.
I subsequently arrange to home visit.
Do you think of me as I think of you?
On arrival at Nala's home address, I was greatly perturbed by the presence of a fearsome dog (she had fleetingly mentioned that she had a very protective house pet!). For several minutes I was deterred from knocking on the door, until the incessant barking attracted her attention and I was let in. She explained that she had been victimised by one of her ex-partners and purchased the dog as one way of dissuading him from visiting her. Nala didn’t think I should worry!
After a while our discussion moved to some of the salient domestic issues that Nala attributed to her drift into offending. She explained, 'I wouldn’t be here if it was not for ***. He threatened that if I did not accompany him shoplifting I would be 'marked'. I was in a real muddle at the time, and starting to drink heavily and use crack cocaine’.
Securing accommodation via a women's housing association appeared to offer her a lifeline to a better future. But relapses and a lack of any stable income meant her lifestyle remained precarious, and she appeared vulnerable to outside pressures to revert to her more persistent offending pattern.
As I was about to leave, I noticed a poem that was framed on the wall. I couldn’t help but repeat a line that caught my attention. 'Do you think of me as I think of you?'. At our next appointment, at the office, I asked Nala about the poem and in particular the memorable line that had caught my eye. She seemed reticent about going into any detail and said, 'let me get to know you a bit better, and I will tell you what this means to me’.
At our meeting to discuss the preparation of the pre-sentence report, Nala sobbed quietly and I struggled to contain my own emotions at a life that was being bared in such painful detail. In particular her experience of a miscarriage that had propelled her into a spiral of self-destructive behaviour, and the loss of her former partner from an overdose.
I prepared the pre-sentence report, which whilst acknowledging the need to address her offending, also alluded to the importance of skilled professional interventions to mitigate some of the evident harms of personal loss, repeat victimisation, substance dependency and fragile mental health, that now pivoted on whether the court was prepared to offer her the opportunity of remaining in the community or impose a custodial term.
After a stern warning from the bench chair, the court imposed a concurrent community order with a treatment requirement, noting that, 'the probation service are there to help you to address your offending and lead a more law abiding life, but shop owners and honest members of the public are entitled to feel that the courts should not resile from sending you to prison if you do not take advantage of this opportunity to turn your life around'.
A home visit
'Can you visit me at home, Mike?' was Nala's plaintive request once she returned from the court. Whilst I had a busy caseload, I sensed that this might represent a ‘transition point' in her life, now that the threat of custody had been lifted.
The reality of just how close she had come to being 'banged up' seemed to register in a very visceral way. The home visit went well (even her dog seemed strangely at ease!), and she began to unburden herself of some of the issues that were alluded to earlier.
The order did conclude without her resorting to further offending and fruitful contact was made with a treatment provider, with a more nuanced gender specific approach that better favoured Nala's presenting problems.
Before the order expired, I asked her again about those poetic lines that have stayed with me ever since. ‘Oh, those lines, yes….maybe they reminded me of how you can be alone even when you put your trust in someone you love'.
I then remembered next to the poem a faded photograph of Nala and her deceased partner, and I recall feeling an inexpressibly heavy sadness when she left the office for the last time with those words echoing in my head as they do now, when writing this post, 'Do you think of me as I think of you?’.
Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer