They say that meeting your heroes often disappoints.
I am glad to say this dictum was wholly misplaced when I went for an interview to study on the Criminology MA course at Middlesex University in the 1990s. Being interviewed by one of the doyens of British criminology, the late Jock Young, was a truly memorable experience.
During the interview, he asked what book I was currently reading that might prove useful for the course. After a moment’s hesitation, I mentioned a book now regarded as a seminal criminological text, Seductions of Crime by Jack Katz.
He smiled approvingly. A telling quote from the book always held my interest and put me in mind of working with Donny (not his real name) shortly after his release from prison on licence. Katz enjoins readers when looking at criminal behaviour to 'hear the slaps and curses, see the pushes and shoves, or feel the humiliation and rage’.
When Donny came into the probation office, with his cool persona and smart talking banter much in evidence, I did feel a sneaking admiration. 'What's doing, Mr Probation Officer?' he chirped. Having served two years of his sentence in custody for high end commercial burglaries, his jaded familiarity with the criminal justice system seemed not to have dimmed his ready wit and apparent carefree outlook.
During his sentence his partner had given birth to another child and the prospects of added parental responsibility were brushed off with a, '*******' is a good Mum' and 'I be back at work soon'!
After getting into the stride of his licence supervision, I arranged a home visit and found that the bustle of family life, after prolonged separation, was something Donny appeared to enjoy.
At our next office appointment, approaching the Christmas period, Donny explained that he was working for his 'uncle' and wanted me to have a 'little something' for 'sticking by me' since release. Before I could consider how to respond, he had left the office and I was in receipt of a considerable number of gift vouchers (to be exchanged for alcohol). I opted to put them safely in the drawer when I realised that they were out of date!
Shortly after the holidays a message had been left in my office pigeonhole. Donny was at the local remand prison awaiting sentence for a number of well-organised commercial burglaries in central London. The fact that he was already on licence meant that the sentencing judge imposed a custodial sentence to begin at the expiry of his current one.
A telephone call from my probation colleague at the Crown Court informed me that Donny appeared to exude a breezy indifference in the dock as he was sent down to complete yet another 'spell in her majesty's prisons'.
I visited him some months later when he had been transferred to a prison 'in the ******* wilderness' to look afresh at post-release sentence planning. He greeted me with his usual cheery bonhomie, 'Hello Mickey boy' eliciting more than one disapproving glance from some of the prison officers in the visitors room!
At the time, a new electronic assessment tool called Oasys was bleaching its way into the occupational world of probation officers and was now being integrated into the prison system’s own risk management plans. Donny's strident opinion as to the worth of this new assessment tool was graphically illustrated when I queried whether he had met with his offender supervisor (prison officer) to complete this assessment in anticipation of eventual release (including possible transfer to a lower category prison nearer home).
'I left the Oasys paperwork in the **** house!’ he said, adding 'Mike, you know me and have met the family'. In his boastful words, he evinced something of the allure of illicit pleasure and the addictive risk taking of a professional cat burglar, unbowed it appeared by the grinding experience of another lengthy prison sentence. 'I only go for top end premises to try to make a living'.
He was released automatically having completed the overlapping sentences, a year or two later. He reported to the probation office on his day of release. 'Have you spent your vouchers yet?’ he asked coyly. Reluctant to disappoint him in the throes of his first day of freedom in some years, I was politely non-committal and opted to change the topic!
Before he left he pulled out another sheet of vouchers, 'This is for the family Mickey boy' before dashing out of the office. This time his committment to going straight appeared to be informed more by his ageing concerns for his diminishing athleticism, 'you need to be top fit to scale office buildings'.
A while later licence supervision was transferred as Donny moved out of the area. But I did entertain a sneaky thrill one time later when looking at the gift vouchers tucked away subversively under my weighty Oasys manual. Until I noticed what was written inside the cover, 'Do not remove. This is the property of HMPS'.
Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer