Probation in Ukraine, nothing like this

Mike Guilfoyle
Tuesday, 5 April 2022

One of the pleasures of reviewing books for the Probation Journal is the discovery of literary gems that not only enliven the reader but evoke memories of former probation practice.

Such was the case with retired probation officer Wally Morgan’s independently published autobiographical offering, Probation: Butter Side Up.

It was whilst reading this unsparing and wonderfully pitched insight into probation practice at the front line, that I was drawn to one memorable probation encounter from my own practice. It also has a grimly humorous resonance to contemporary political events.

I met Illya (not his real name) for the first time after he was placed on probation supervision for various offences of minor dishonesty and public order breaches. As I approached the waiting area to introduce myself, I could hear a sonorous voice, conversing to others in the room, on the merits or otherwise of supervision in London as he referenced his country of origin, Ukraine.

“Ah, you sound like my father” was his opening line. “How strict is probation here?” As we discussed the outline expectations of his probation order, Illya laughed unnervingly. “But I am an actor and an entertainer”, he mused. “What can you tell me that will make any difference?”

His English was clear and lucid and I was chided from mispronouncing his surname. “I am Ukrainian , not Russian”, he said with a spiky intonation.

Indeed, Illya had secured some minor acting roles, but he seemed uncertain as to how his precarious earnings might enable him to remain in his current address.

“I live with my girlfriend,” he said, “and we would very much like you to come to visit us”.

After some false starts, a home visit was arranged. On arrival, I was a little abashed to discover that my visit was due for a later time, and as the couple hurriedly rearranged their home, Illya pored out a strong herbal beverage.

“Here’s to Mister Mike; a probation officer who looks like my father!” Illya’s partner entered into the conversation, hinting that their relationship was a troubled one. But I was unable to elicit anything further and returned to the probation office, unsure as to how best to take forward supervision.

By chance, I was in the area the following week on another matter, when I bumped into Illya, who was loudly expostulating with a news vendor. “Mr Mike , can you tell this ****** that I am on probation and cannot risk going to prison!”

I edged Illya away from this fraught conversation and we chatted as I made my way towards the underground station nearby.

“Mike, I never told you I was in prison in Ukraine when I was a juvenile. Five years, in a colony”. Illya stopped in his tracks, looking into the distance. I sensed that what was most likely a brutalising experience had left its impact and helped to explain something of his confrontational manner when in public.

Illya lost his former accommodation due to rent arrears and, when I next visited him at his new address, he was busy painting the living room. His mood was altogether darker and the conversation stilted and uncomfortably threatening.

Such were my concerns that I spoke to the partnership forensic mental heath practitioner who held a fortnightly consultation at the office. “It sounds like you have a strong professional relationship with Illya, but there remain too many gaps in our knowledge of his upbringing and his ‘insecure attachments‘ might well have arisen from his five years inside a ‘reformatory’ setting.”

Towards the expiry of his period on supervision , Illya reported to the probation office in an elated mood. Having secured a small but remunerative acting part in a niche film. He envisioned a bright acting future, which seemed at variance with the paucity of offers he outlined when I wished him well. “But Mike, will you not come out to celebrate my success!”

I checked my diary for the day. It was a late reporting day, which meant that most of my regular probation appointments were arranged for late afternoon.

Close to the probation office was an iconic London hotel (with some interesting associations with celebrities from the music industry). We entered the basement bar and I purchased two ‘modestly priced’ drinks. Seated in an opulent banquette, I almost lost the focus of our meeting.

But Illya had now completed his probation order, albeit at times it was worryingly close to breach, and he seemed unperturbed by what appeared an uncertain future as a cameo actor. At the point at which we were about to leave the bar, he stood up, lifted his glass and uttered, “Mike, probation in Ukraine, nothing like this. Thank you, father!”

With recent moves to introduce probation into the criminal justice system of Ukraine now likely disrupted by the destructive conflict besetting the country, that memory of Illya with a celebratory smile is a haunting one.

Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer.