The role of compassion, determination and experience in probation

Mike Guilfoyle
Monday, 31 May 2021

Reaching out for a book on criminal justice to read in advance of my latest piece based on my experiences as a probation officer was made a lot easier when I picked up Christine Montross’ powerfully written, deeply humane and compassionate dissection of the shortcomings in mental health care for prisoners serving time in the US prison system. 

Her book also offers the reader insightful and comparative examples drawn from her visits to Nordic prisons, which point towards better ways of working, healing and treating the 350,000 mentally ill people incarcerated in US jails that go beyond the reflexive urge to impose ever harsher punishment.

As I was reading the book I thought about one of my earliest supervisory experiences working with Jehan (not his real name) which captured something of the casework challenges of my probation oversight of a new court order. Jehan received a sentence imposed for an offence of defrauding a local bank. His chronic mental health issues were compounded by ongoing financial difficulties and required the intervention of several community agencies to bring about some positive resolution. But just as importantly, Jehan's case highlighted the role and much valued contribution of one of my erstwhile but more experienced probation colleagues whose understanding and humanity for her clients I hoped to emulate.

Jehan stood unnervingly in a motionless stupor when I first introduced myself to him at the probation office. I recall awkwardly struggling to impress on him that maybe he should move away from the entrance to the building to the quieter interview room. One of my colleagues, who had interviewed Jehan at court prior to his case being allocated for a pre-sentence report recognised him and, sensing my discomfort, secured his compliance by gently encouraging him to cooperate. 

A rapport that she had built up with Jehan then translated into a shared and engaged working relationship which greatly aided the working of his supervision over the following months. This included accompanying him to appointments for his depot injections (anti-psychotic medication) at the nearby mental health centre.

I quipped to her later that my recently acquired social work qualification needed some grounded, real-time encounters with probation clients in all their diversity before I could confidently exercise my professional authority. 'Just be yourself, Mike,' she opined, drawing on her many years of frontline practice wisdom in both the court and community settings in the professional shadowlands which operated at the time, demarcating the professional roles of qualified probation officers and probation service officers, who were often tasked with what were considered more mundane and supportive but often undervalued casework responsibilities.

But it was my colleague's determination to work alongside Jehan and her appreciation of the economic hardships of surviving on a low income - as for so many of those now on probation caseloads - whilst living in fear of further penal sanctions from non-repayment of outstanding fines that aided my own professional development and awareness.

Her complimentary role made a significant and lasting difference to the order's eventual successful outcome. 'Have you thought of applying to the magistrates court for a Money Payment Supervision Order?' (MPSO) she queried. My bemused look suggested that this was not a mechanism of court sanctioned support I had actively considered or was aware could be applied for. 

I falteringly asked how this ancillary order might work. 'It will enable Jehan to know that he can repay the money owed to the court over a longer timeframe, remove some of his mounting stress which is interfering with his treatment, ease the threat of prison for non-payment, whilst still under the guidance of the probation service acting as his debt counsellor,’ she responded.

The application for the MPSO was subsequently granted at the local magistrates court, my colleague having appeared in person on behalf of the probation service. She had also impressed the bench when asked how Jehan was responding to his supervision.

Rather selflessly observing, after a moment of ironic jocularity, that once Jehan or Mr ******** as he was known to the court, had reported to the probation office and found his way to the interview room, he was greatly benefitting from the statutory oversight of an 'enthusiastic newly qualified probation officer, called Mr Guilfoyle'.

Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation worker.