Music, lyrics and memories in probation

Mike Guilfoyle
Monday, 1 July 2019

In his latest reflection, Mike remembers 'Brice'

I recently read Professor David Wilson's compelling memoir of his professional life working with violent men - especially those who have committed murder. His book reminded me of a particular prison visit I undertook when working as a probation officer. 

I was allocated through-care responsibility for 'Brice' (not his real name), at a time when prison visits to life sentence and long-term prisoners were regularly undertaken by a specialist through-care and resettlement team. As such, I approached an experienced probation officer colleague, to try to garner some of her seasoned insights into how she sustained a professional relationship, over many years, with those she frequently visited in prison. 

Indeed, it was her practice to be out of the office for several days at a time so she could see as many of her clients as possible in a cluster of prisons in one part of the country. Prior to my departure, I was approached by another well-regarded colleague, a probation service officer (PSO), who was keen to enhance her professional experience with a view to undertaking the two year probation officer training course. When we met up, I sensed a measured apprehension when I began to discuss what role we should take during what was likely to be a fraught interview with Brice. 

Brice was currently serving a double figure sentence for an organised drug operation. The reality of the impending visit and the prospect of an uncertain reception at a prison, in which a remand inmate had died violently at the hands of prison officers, suddenly became an unsettling aspect of our car journey out of London (even though the well-publicised death had occurred some years ago, it still had a painful resonance at the prison). 

Despite my best endeavours, by the time we had driven to the prison, it was clear that my colleague was too distressed to consider accompanying me on the afternoon visit. I suggested that we have lunch nearby and rehearse some of the pointers towards effective professional engagement. In particular, by looking at the factors and context of the index offences and what support network there might be in/out of the prison to enable Brice to sustain his motivation and cope with the undeniable hardships imposed by his lengthy sentence, and how her supportive role might serve to compliment mine. Feeling more reassured by the time we arrived at the prison, we went through the regular tribulations that assail visitors to her majesty’s jails.

In the event, Brice arrived and we introduced ourselves. The offer of a tepid coffee from an adjoining kiosk helped to lubricate the appointment. To my pleasant amazement, Brice immediately engaged and opened up with my colleague and her early misapprehensions seem to dissipate. Their shared enjoyment of 1970s British reggae music was the catalyst and soon audible and melodic references to 'Long truncheon' and 'Babylon' peppered the moody atmosphere of the cavernous visiting area! 

It seemed, in all the circumstances, a little churlish to try to steer the conversation towards the more pressingly mundane realities of sentence planning and so I opted to dredge some selective memories of spending some of my youthful moments at an 'illegal blues club' soaking up heavy dub sounds. 

I recall that the meeting then assumed an altogether more relaxed feel and there was perhaps an understandable paucity of professional attention given to some of the ‘criminogenic' aspects of Brice's participation in large-scale drug importation. By the time the meeting had concluded, I better recognised the value and support that was offered by this joint visit. We agreed that further professional through-care contact would be determined on the basis of what Brice had hinted was a possible 'transfer out’. 

As I gathered my thoughts as we left, my colleague was more animated than I had ever seen her. 'I really feel I want to do the training', she said, 'I know that I can relate well to people inside'. I later discovered a familial experience over an incarcerated relative had profoundly shaped her earlier ambivalence to visiting Brice in prison.

On the return journey, we were able to chew over some of the features of prison visiting, the pathways to 'desistance', and reaching a more developed self-understanding of the importance of the role of probation before, during, and after sentence. 

But before we mused too heavily on these topics, and reaching the pounding traffic on the M6 motorway, my colleague started to hum words from a song whose lyrics she has shared with Brice (when I had somewhat self consciously pored over his case notes!).

The lyrics have stayed with me ever since and served me well in my subsequent contact with Brice, '...and every move you make something always in your way, you try a little harder there'll be a brand new day'. 

Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer