Whilst on a recent weekend away I found it almost impossible to put down Kate Rossmanith’s luminously written Small Wrongs: How we really say sorry in love, life and law on the inner workings of remorse in the criminal justice system.
It took my thoughts back to my meetings with Armo (not his real name) who presented at the probation office one early spring morning after his re-release from a prison sentence. At the time I recall feeling a raging indignation when I read the sparse case notes outlined in a terse entry penned by a 'hassled' and zealous enforcement-minded manager, including this note, ‘Recalled to prison having arrived on his day of release after the probation office was closed'
It appeared that he had left an apologetic note stating that he had missed his train from a prison in the Midlands. I had to control this visceral sense of injustice and was somewhat relieved that Armo appeared to take this in his stride, and said he had, ‘Come to expect this from probation!'.
Being released to complete the balance of his period on statutory licence meant that we would need to address some of the pertinent casework issues that pointed towards and would support a crime and drug free lifestyle. In the first instance, a home visit was set in motion as is good practice.
The temporary address was clearly far from ideal and I sensed that Armo was nursing a desire to reconnect with some of his erstwhile drug network in the locality (the index offences centred on drug supply). A potent counter-pressure came from his expectant partner, whose fiercely determined presence and strong views on such law-breaking created an uncomfortable tension in the cramped bedsit.
But supporting her in this aim to 'go straight' was something that Armo grudgingly acknowledged. Linking him up with drug counselling support and seeking to enrol on a vocational course at a nearby college would 'occupy his time' and strengthen his prospects of employability.
We enlisted the services of a partnership drug worker who had an estimable record as a reliable and trusted support to probation clients under supervision. This meant that Armo was very soon engaging in weekly sessions and to this extent we were able to plan for the remaining few months on his licence with a greater measure of collaborative confidence.
This, however, was unsurprisingly more of a casework challenge than at first envisaged. I remember receiving a 'frantic' telephone call from his partner. 'Armo is using again, he is going to get us evicted.I do not know what to do, Mr Guilfoyle.' I altered my diary at short notice to accommodate this additional home visit which I approached with some mild trepidation which could possibly result in his return to prison and destabilisation of his fragile home environment.
On arrival, I noticed that I had come just after a tearful argument had subsided. By this time, the couple’s young son was playing in the middle of the room, untroubled so it appeared by the flux of domestic disharmony. I spent a difficult hour or so trying to unravel some of the complexities of the situation. Though Armo had a faltering start following his initial release from prison, there were strengths and positive aspects of his efforts to move forward.
I was particularly impressed by his evident lack of bitterness at what I had often perceived as a probation service more focused on punitive managerialism, and the fact that recall had caused accommodation and educational disruption. I pushed him on his shifting ambivalence regarding his engagement with the drug counsellor and this elicited some useful insights.
We sought to build on the importance of honestly sharing these misgivings with intimates and to urging him to be a little more realistic in his stated goal of drug abstinence. Before I left the address I enjoyed a strong coffee served from a 'cezve' and this certainly prepared me for the bracing air of the busy street on which the flat was located.
Meeting together again
At the point at which the licence had expired, I was gratified to hear from the receptionist that Armo was in the waiting room, anxious to see me. Indeed he had arrived at the office, the day after his licence had finished, so this was a voluntary, ad hoc office visit. But I was keen to see him, and we met in the adjoining appointment room. ‘Mike, I just called in with **** (his son) as wanted to say thanks for not turning your back on me when I was in a shitty mood'.
Noting that he planned to continue with his drug counselling and was now in his second year at college, I embraced him and wished him well in his future endeavours. The pivotal rehabilitative aspect of human and social relationship forming and of 'working with, not on' those aiming to desist from offending is admirably captured in a recent book, Reimagining Rehabilitation Beyond the Individual.
By chance, the aforementioned manager happened to be entering the office as Armo left with his son. A quizzical stare accompanied this interaction. Armo looked back, smiled and mischievously muttered 'Now, where's that train timetable gone?'!
Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer