'Solving crimes is a lot easier than solving people'

Mike Guilfoyle
Monday, 6 April 2020

Jason Hardy's compelling and revelatory account of working on the front line for the New Orleans Probation and Parole Department, evoked many memories.

One recurring memory in particular prompted this post. When I first was introduced to Sharky (not his real name) it was in a slightly unconventional setting. I had just left a local community drug agency, following the conclusion of a separate three-way meeting, when a hoarse voice called out my name, or at least it sounded like my name. ‘Are you Mr Gifford (sic)?’.

It transpired that Sharky was also a frequent visitor to the centre and had overheard part of my passing conversation with a staff member. I stopped in my tracks and as we were heading in the same direction, struck up a dialogue. It appeared that he had been notified when he rang the office earlier that I would be his allocated probation officer.

He was on overlapping community orders (with drug treatment requirements) for a variety of offences, mainly handling stolen property and shoplifting. Over the years he had seen many a valiant probation officer endeavouring with mixed success to steer him towards reduced drug dependency and offence-free living.

Funding the habit

'Can I call you Mike?' he chirped and after a voluble half hour, I had discovered more about his way of life than I might have achieved by poring over his copious case notes! When we met formally in the probation office, it was apparent that he was quite a gifted musician. However, the ravages of chronic heroin usage had seriously undermined his efforts at stable employment, and his repetitive bouts of offending ('I don't always get caught!'), to fund his habit most often resulted in court appearances, custodial remands and short prison sentences. But it was apparent that he was wearying of this lifestyle and hinted at taking up treatment options (aside from methadone reduction scripts), provided he was offered some reassurances regarding his father’s well-being.

When I enquired further as to what this might mean, he asked if I would phone him to clarify. I initially formed the impression that his father seemed unperturbed by his son's illicit activities. But on further enquiry he was tiring of the 'bloody police always knocking on the door'.

Sharkey explained, ‘I need to you to come and see for yourself what I am going through'. Before I could arrange to home visit, I had re-referred Sharky for a fuller assessment (with his agreement) by the link worker for residential treatment in the borough. But this was then delayed due to funding challenges. ‘Seems your client was the wrong side of financial year!', I was told.

A tragedy unfolds

When I called at Sharky's home address - I had mistaken the location due to a street name mix up, so was late arriving. I recall an eerie silence amidst the darkened corridors that sat uneasily with the roar of nearby traffic. The door was ajar, in expectation, and I introduced myself to his father, who was perched it appeared uncomfortably on an adapted chair.

'He won't come out to see you as he is still in shock' his father said. I was a little unnerved by this observation. 'He will tell you', he continued. I waited a while before Sharky emerged from his room, looking shaken and ashen-faced and said, ‘she didn’t have to do it’. I struggled to comprehend what I has hearing. After many laboured minutes, the awful truth of what he was saying became chillingly apparent.

I had noticed when searching for the address a fading chalked-off area. Sharky in a quaking voice explained that one of his oldest friends had 'jumped to her death' from a nearby tower block a day or so earlier, and he had arrived at the scene shortly afterwards.

After a most difficult and emotionally charged follow-up conversation, I agreed that we would re-arrange our meeting and returned to the office, after ensuring that Sharky was able to seek counselling - if needed. I later read that the young women who had fallen from the 22nd floor (that figure was sadly indelibly etched on my memory) was a well-known figure in the community. Our subsequent meetings were always tinged with this unspoken tragedy.

Making the most of your talents

Sharky was able to access the treatment options on offer. But his progress was unsurprisingly halting at times and he would now and then refer to the moment when he lost his close friend as 'a what the **** moment'.

The fact that it went well for him for most of the balance of supervision, owed much to his shifting motivation to not 'waste his talent'. As Jason Hardy notes in his remarkable book, ‘Solving crimes is a lot easier than solving people'.

When the police later visited Sharky's address it was to inform him that some outstanding warrants had been discontinued. His father, I was informed later, somewhat querulously replied on opening the door, 'shouldn’t you lot be out solving crimes’?

Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer