Trying to do things better in probation

Mike Guilfoyle
Wednesday, 31 March 2021

Since retiring from the probation service, I have remained a seasoned observer of the relentless organisational reforms visited on it from what has often appeared governmental whim.

A probation service once again about to be 'reunified' after an act of ill-judged political vandalism. In this vein, I recently dipped into a new anthology of interdisciplinary writings on punishment, with a welcome introduction by the admirably prescient probation scholar, Rob Canton.

His insightful writings on why punishments take the form that they do, offer a vade mecum for hard-pressed penal practitioners who often are in his words 'trying to do things better'. One entanglement with the law evoked by a memorable supervisory experience seemed to stand out when reading his introductory words.

It occurred during a stressful office duty when Viraj (not his real name) reported to the probation office, entangled with his drooping sleeping bag and now entangled within the criminal justice system. When I went to introduce myself, he promptly fell asleep, and was only awoken from his soporific state by the deafening sound of the office fire alarm, which had been accidentally activated by a smouldering toaster in the office kitchen area. The frenzied movements visible via the interview room came from a wonderfully quirky support worker (now sadly deceased) running to rescue her burnt toast. This gave rise to Viraj's wry opening comment, 'The judge did not tell me I would be suffocated on probation’.

Attached to Viraj's probation order, imposed for numerous carding offences (introduced under the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 when placing a prostitute's card in a phone box became a criminal offence) was an exclusion order. This meant that if he stepped inside its capacious boundaries (reporting to the probation office being the exception) he risked arrest and further prosecution. His long-standing homeless status meant securing fixed accommodation was identified as one pathway to a more stable and offence free lifestyle. Viraj forlornly quipped 'I have lived on the streets for many years, why would I want to live in a hostel?’

He had supported himself by carding, as it offered him 'easy cash' but a local clampdown since the change in the law had resulted in his spending time in custody prior to his sentence., As he was deemed a 'persistent offender'. I strongly sensed that there was something worryingly vulnerable about his accounts of his mainly nocturnal activities, as he always referred to ******* as his 'mate' when such offences arose, someone who was also known to the probation service, for offences of violence and intimidation.

The pattern of Viraj's reporting proved to be predictably erratic, given his 'no-fixed abode' status. But I was also troubled by the regularity of his seemingly trivial breaches of his exclusion order. On one occasion he had turned over in his sleeping bag (literally under the arches) and found himself arrested by a' ******** copper' for entering the exclusion zone unlawfully! Once again, a report was requested by the local magistrates’ court, and Viraj said in an achingly honest and compassionate tone, ‘Mr Guilfoyle, I try to keep myself safe on the streets by never washing and dirtying my cardboard sheets, so maybe the ******* police can now smell me’. By now it was also apparent that Viraj was using heroin, but 'only to help me sleep' he opined. He then asked quizzically, 'Do you have any defects which I might help you with?’.

Viraj did not attend his court hearing and a no bail warrant was issued for his arrest. The period on probation supervision had not curtailed his breaches of his exclusion order, due in large part to the easy arrest count that followed the smallest boundary infringement, which in turn was pushing him away from what he regarded as 'safety from evil'. Although supervision had made a modest impact on their frequency and offered him an alternative 'safe space' in which he could begin to look ahead as he put it 'to deal with my desires in a different way'.

The warrant remained outstanding, and the probation order became clearly unworkable and formally expired without further contact having been established. Viraj appeared to vanish into the shadowy urban recesses of the capital. I often walked home from the probation office to Charing X station at the end of a working day. I recall on one such journey sometime later a reclining figure lift the flap of a threadbare sleeping bag. As I was about to shout aloud, ‘Viraj I hope you are ok’, the flap folded shut in the half shadow of the recess of an empty shop front and the only sound to be heard above the din of the West End traffic was the blare of the station announcer.

Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer