Memorable speakers from my time in probation

Mike Guilfoyle
Wednesday, 5 August 2020

It was whilst poring over the pages of Dan Werb's unsettling book, 'City of Omens', a troubling narrative of femicide on the US/Mexican borderlands, that I recalled a time in my probation career when my role in the union, Napo entrusted me with arranging guest speakers at branch meetings.

I have arranged dozens of headline speakers over many years and thought that I might be allowed a forgivable departure from casework recollections in today's post. I want to highlight some of the more memorable of these speakers and in particular one guest speaker whose memory I will always cherish.

One of the most moving moments was a when women from the maquiladoras (factories alongside the US/Mexican border shared the daily realities of hate filled sexualised violence, work insecurity and the costs of courageous campaigning to offer protections for women daring to speak out against such injustices with us. Their presence in the UK was facilitated by the remarkable women's safety campaigner, Claudia Da Silva.

A brace of speakers whose comic one liners stayed long in the memory, were the former prison ombudsman, Sir Peter Woodhead, who quipped at one such gathering that a ministerial meeting without biscuits meant that you had incurred the minister's displeasure! Another instance, the reformed bank robber and co-founder of Unlock, Bobby Cummines, opined ruefully that he retired from robbing banks, "when platform shoes went out of fashion" as he could not get his shotgun over the counter!

The late comedian and social commentator, Jeremy Hardy, brought an unexpected gravitas to one branch meeting, when campaigning for justice for Robert Hamill. Another instance was when the author of a gripping book on street homelessness, Alexander Masters, spoke about his campaigning  on behalf of the Cambridge Two.

Mark Johnson, the charismatic founder of User Voice, whose redemptive memoir, Wasted, I had the pleasure of reviewing for the Probation Journal, offered his unique User Voice perspective on probation and prison.

Although at one branch meeting, a former chief probation officer (no names supplied!) startled the union audience when he alluded to a letter printed in the London Evening Standard the night before which criticised organisational changes as "a letter written by someone living in a parallel universe". I had to suppress the urge to shout out "it was me!".

More recent speakers have included the indefatigable Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) whistle-blower, Faith Spear, and the well regarded Channel 4 journalist, Simon Israel, as well as the unfairly maligned former Parole Board chair, the wisely outspoken Nick Hardwick.

But unquestionably, the speaker whose memory I most cherish, and whose legacy, as a dedicated and vociferous campaigner for the cause of women in prison, remains undimmed in my eyes, was Pauline Campbell.

I had long sought to arrange for Pauline to speak at a branch meeting, and I had followed her diligently in her 'one woman' campaigning endeavours outside women's prisons following the death of her only daughter, Sarah, from an overdose of prescription drugs at HMP Styal in 2003. The coroners jury returned a narrative verdict later which concluded, "that a failure in the duty of care at the prison had contributed to her death".

I recall receiving a lengthy telephone call from Pauline to firm up the arrangements for her to speak in London. After the initial housekeeping formalities, the call proceeded to a deeper discussion on loss, the estimable value of enduring family support and the burdens of campaigning with a prison service seeking to undermine those speaking out at the shocking rise of women dying at the hands of the state.

After the call, I experienced a profound sense of anger and sadness at what I had just heard and the evident toll that this had taken on her emotional health. I wondered if my efforts to arrange for her to speak might be seen as too indulgent and insensitive to her well being.

On arrival at the branch meeting, Pauline listened to the drier aspects of union business before addressing the room, holding the floor in a rare spell binding attentiveness.

The branch unanimously agreed to support her and her campaigning and many prison based probation officers shared some the gendered practice issues around vulnerable women in the criminal justice system. It's worth mentioning that the context in which this discussion happened was around the release of the Corston Report set up following a review into the deaths of six women at HMP Styal.

At the end of her talk, I asked Pauline if she would stay around for the social gathering that often took place after branch meetings. She agreed and we proceeded to a nearby pub. Although it was a busy social space and Pauline had arranged for a taxi to take her onto a TV interview later in the evening prior for her return journey to Cheshire, over a drink she shared with colleagues some of her thoughts, concerns and expectations on how she envisaged future campaigning.

As she was about to get into the waiting taxi she turned to me, and with a painful prescience, said, “Thanks Mike for inviting me to share my experiences and for having such great people working in probation.…”, then she commented, “I will show them”. I did not fully register these parting observations until some time later when news reached me that she had taken her own life at the site of the grave of her daughter in 2008 having taken a fatal dose of anti-depressants.

There was a palpable shock at the following branch meeting after the news of her desperately tragic death was shared. I later wrote a letter to the Guardian which aimed in a small way to register the impact of this loss on behalf of the branch and highlight the lasting legacy she left for the families fighting for justice for those 'dying in the care of the state'.

The guest speakers I have had the privilege of inviting to branch meetings over the years have offered invaluable and critical support to the union and to the vital role and value of a unified probation service when buffeted by a political and organisational environment that has been at times an unforgiving and hostile one.

But I would like to dedicate this post in particular to the memory of Claudia Da Silva (who I undertook an MA Criminology course at Middlesex University with) and to the late Pauline Campbell.

Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer