Risk, psychology and the changing culture of probation

Mike Guilfoyle
Tuesday, 12 January 2021

Having taken a few hours off from festive activities I reached for a richly original, challenging and accessible criminology book by Jason Warr that I had resisted picking up for some time. 

Part of the reason for this mildly aversive behaviour relates to the central topic of his book which is a sharply observed ethnographical critique of the expanding and influential role of forensic psychologists in the prison system. It evoked a memory of a fractious professional encounter I had whilst working with a newly appointed forensic psychologist at the probation office in which I was then working.

Herbie (not his real name) walked noisily into the probation office and asked the receptionist who the "****" he was expected to see before his next court hearing for sentencing for multiple offences of theft/criminal damage. I was allocated the task of preparing the pre-sentence report but a note had been left in my pigeonhole from P requesting an appointment be made for Herbie to be assessed for a psychological report as, "certain issues relating to his addictive personality suggest that he is potentially a high risk offender".  

Warr refers trenchantly in his book to what he calls the "scriptural economy". This refers to exchanged transactions in prisons in which entrenched risk assessment practices dominate and the delivery of offender programmes through enhanced gate-keeping are increasingly provided by allied psychologist professionals.

In the course of my interview with Herbie, I mooted that an additional assessment might helpfully augment the report and offer some constructive options to the court to offset what was a troubled and troublesome pattern of offending with the prospect of custody a real possibility. I had not fully appreciated when I ventured this suggestion that Herbie had spent many years in care during which time a visiting "mind doctor" had deemed him to be a "maladjusted child" and this had shaped his unhappy schooling experiences. He was insistent that he did not want to see P, preferring that I prepare the report. "If P thinks I'm crazy, I will be banged up!" In the event, due to the delay in setting up this second appointment the court date was put back.

During this period, a harder edged actuarial inflected ethos was seeping, insidiously I believed, into the organisational fabric of the probation service, within which arose a macho managerial overreach and a dominant enforcement-led and risk-infused practice. This seemed designed to sideswipe any purposefully engaged rehabilitative relationship forming with clients, who now became ontologically invested as offenders to be managed. So I recall experiencing a growing and uncomfortable dissonance in my daily frontline practice which was increasingly amplified in my uncertain professional role. In this instance, I wrestled with how best to work constructively with P without wanting to be collusive in undermining what I hoped would be a positive sentencing outcome.

Though the meeting with P didn't go ahead, I was able to incorporate their clinical insights into my report and the court "took due note of the background factors which meant Mr ****** still poses a risk of harm to others" but "we note Mr Guilfoyle has offered us a sensible option which we will follow on this occasion'. A short time later I attended a three way meeting at the hostel in which Herbie was then living, his keyworker summed up the meeting thus, "Herbie will not trust anyone who he does not like. He is trying to put his difficult past behind him" and "being on probation will help him to do just that".

As I left the hostel, Herbie asked me with something of a morose smile, "Will I have to see P?" I quipped with waning confidence, "Herbie, the order says as directed by the probation officer. Let's work on the trust bit first". As I walked into the frigid air of a wintry London rush hour and back to the office, now with a heavier heart at the harsher penal ethos embedding itself into probation practice, I pondered, just how long that trust would last.

Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation worker