'Putting in work' with Santiago

Mike Guilfoyle
Thursday, 5 November 2020

With the powerful momentum for enduring reform in criminal justice systems captured most recently by the Black Lives Matter campaign in mind, I was particularly moved on reading  Elliott Currie's timely analysis and policy blueprint for addressing the shocking levels of 'everyday' violence that besets many African American communities in the US.

A phrase drawn from the book caught my attention and offered an evocative memory of a particular supervisory experience at the beginning of my time as a probation officer. When I was first introduced to Santiago (not his real name) in the waiting area of the probation office, I was settling into my induction period in an area of the capital that was then marked by economic hardship and at times volatile community/police relations.

The phrase was 'putting in work' and it seemed tailor made for Santiago, who greeted me with a cautious wave and said, 'You may find that I's working away sometimes' he uttered. Without much ado, we ventured into the room I had been allocated and started to look at what supervision might actually mean. Santiago had a worryingly long antecedent list including offences of armed robbery and imitation firearms, but had been 'placed' on probation for more minor offences of dishonesty and impersonating a police officer.

It appeared the supervision was settling into an untroubled pattern of compliance and positive engagement. I held to the belief that as Santiago - who had a number of 'employment options' to follow up and was in a stable relationship with an expectant partner - might have reached a pivotal moment in his offending career and that supervision would bolster this commitment to an offence-free lifestyle.

In between appointments, on impulse I left the probation office to attend to some unrelated task at a nearby post office. As I approached I noticed that Santiago was pacing up and down in front of the post office and was, in other ways, 'behaving suspiciously' but I discounted any thoughts of deviant intent. As he noticed my arrival he hurriedly concealed whatever he had in his possession and somewhat awkwardly blurted, 'I ...was just waiting for...'.

At that point, another client on supervision stepped around the corner and before I was even across the threshold I found myself a little assailed with another amusing aside, 'There's no money today as some ********** has just robbed it'.

A while later when I home-visited Santiago, he brushed off any residual concerns as to what he intuited I had been thinking, 'I ain't planning any jobs Mr Guilfoyle! But would you mind if we walked back to the probation office, as I would prefer not to spend anytime at home'. En route to the office, Santiago asked me if I had seen the film 'New Jack City'. At that point I hadn't but I probed him a little, 'Well, seems that I keep getting hassled by the law. I ain't no Wesley Snipes'. 

A car drew up a moment later and a faceless voice shouted, 'Santiago, you wouldn't sell us owt would you?' A worried look and a hurried walk suggested that Santiago was indeed leading something of a shadow life, which unnverved me.

As our next planned appointment neared, I received a breathless call at the probation office, 'Can't make the meeting, things getting too hot...' as the phone cut off. The probation order which had offered to anchor Santiago in his stated intentions to 'go straight' sadly went into breach and a warrant was issued (I had to action this at the nearby magistrates court). After a number of 'drug-related' shootings in the area over the following months, no word of Santiago emerged. About a year later a client happened to overhear my conversation with a colleague on the whereabouts of Santiago and piped up, ' Yo, Santiago, he is now hot in *********'.

I never did discover what happened to Santiago as the breach warrant remained gathering dust. I can recall a promising moment at the outset of his supervision when his vibrant persona matched well with some long awaited positive change in his personal circumstances, causing him to say, 'Irey, Mr Guilfoyle, Santiago is not a con'.

I sensed that Santiago had the desire and motivation to change but seemed too entangled in other dealings. I did, however, ponder for sometime after, that my unplanned stroll to the post office might at least on one occasion have resulted in a timely intervention and possibly averted an earlier end to his period on supervision. It would have also ensured that users of the local post office could make their cash withdrawals undisturbed!

Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer