I recently read Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison by Shaka Senghor, a powerfully redemptive account of his years of incarceration and transition to an inspirational criminal justice campaigner.
This prompted a vivid memory of another individual Albie (not his real name), whose pathway to release from a long prison sentence for several offences of distraction burglary, in many ways corresponded with the narrative account offered in the book.
I first met Albie when he was on a period of home leave. I had been allocated through care responsibility for his case, and the home leave had been authorised after some protracted negotiation with the prison. I remember feeling at the time more than a frisson of apprehension at the prospects of the leave going well.
'I may not go back'
Albie explained at the outset of our meeting, that he would be staying with his partner, but 'we are not really getting on' and 'anyway, now that I am out, I may decide not to go back'. Having stressed to him the terms of the home leave (reporting to a probation officer was the one aspect he complied with), and the importance of using the period of leave as a springboard towards eventual release on licence.
He had some strong links to 'mates in the building trade' and hinted at having picked up some extra bricklaying skills on a vocational course at the prison. I did voice a feeble aside, 'about using this as a foundation for crime free future', which elicited an awkward smirk.
A few days later, I was notified that Albie had not returned to the prison and was therefore 'unlawfully at large'. I could do little but await the outcome of his being picked up for 'other offences', or more unlikely I surmised, his returning to prison of his own accord once he had 'sorted out his issues' as his parting comment noted.
'I cannot tell you where'
A while later, the probation office receptionist called me to say that there was someone on the line 'who is desperate to speak to you'. I picked up the phone and it was Albie. 'I just couldn’t face going back for the rest of my sentence' so 'I am staying somewhere that I cannot tell you where’.
It was a difficult conversation as I sensed he was struggling to move away from a troubled and fractured past, but currently lacked the resolve and capacity to see a beyond what for him looked like a bleak future. I tried to proffer some realistic options and remind him of the positive developments in terms of family links, enhanced employability prospects, and seeing himself as someone who was tiring of years of offending and ready to make the break from his background and not be a ‘hostage' to his past misdeeds.
The conversation lasted well over an hour but he declined to give me his number, so I listened as intently as I could. ‘If you hand yourself in, is there someone (I could perhaps be that someone?) to accompany you’. The call ended abruptly and I heard voices in the background, saying 'we had better go'. I recorded our conversation on the case file and once again moved onto other casework demands.
His case file was a copious one, of a desperately unhappy life, I thought fossilized in a probation office storeroom (three voluminous case files!). It certainly needed to be 'pruned' of some of the extraneous paperwork that spilled out of the vanilla folder.
When I read through Albie's paperwork, I was stunned to read a tragic entry which, until then, I had been completely unaware of. The clipped case note entry read, ‘Whilst travelling to the prison to see their son, Albie, the car in which the family was driving was involved in a fatal accident and one of his parents had been killed'.
The accident happened whilst he was serving an earlier sentence at the same prison. I could find no entries that recorded whether he had been granted compassionate leave to attend the funeral, or how this traumatic incident had been handled. I remained troubled by this oversight on my part, as electronic records were then not as commonplace, and perhaps this offered an explanation for his failure to return to the prison?
About a year later, he had managed to avoid detection and lead something of an 'ordinary' life as a fugitive without reoffending (or so I thought!). I had a call from the custody sergeant at the local police station, who somewhat gruffly uttered, 'Do you know Albie ****? He is with us and is currently being questioned about a string of distraction burglaries; he wants to speak to you’.
'Will you still need to see me?'
‘Mr Guilfoyle, I am going to plead to all of these offences and when I finish my sentence, will you still need to see me?’. I hesitated to mention the death of one of his parents, as it seemed painfully overwhelming. But before I had time to add anything noteworthy and just before the call was terminated, he said 'Me old man used to say, you've got to clean up your own messes, he's gone now - time for me to go'. Albie completed his sentence, plus time added on for his period unlawfully at large.
Then one day he left a card for me at the office, simply addressed to Mr Gullfoyle (sic). It served to remind me, long after our formal contact had ended, that even in the space of a brief professional relationship, one infused with hope, a belief that change is possible and care for others, aided by advice, guidance and of course practical assistance, that this contact can still leave a lasting imprint and at best offer a catalyst for a rehabilitative future.
'Out of the mess now, how are you old mate, Albie?’.
Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer