Having previously read with avid interest some of the rich ethnographic writings of criminologist Dick Hobbs, I spent a relaxed afternoon dipping into his latest book, The Business.
The book is richly drawn from his East End roots and brings together his insights on crime and criminality through the lived experiences of many of those involved in law breaking and skulduggery he had known and caroused with. The sub-heading of the book - Talking with thieves, gangsters and dealers - prompted me to jump back in time to recall two clients steeped in offending, who I had supervisory responsibility for when working as a probation officer in London. Indeed, the two clients in question were allocated to me around the same time, but had distinctive offending career pathways and were in all the circumstances most unlikely to meet.
Brinley (not his real name) was, at the point at which I assumed statutory oversight of his probation order, so well entrenched in offending that he opined at our first meeting at the probation office, 'I'm working until I retire, Mr Guilfoyle'. I took him to mean he would be pursuing a well-trodden pathway in/out of prison for shoplifting before cashing in any of his unrecovered ill-gotten gains!
After our meeting I prepared for my first video linked pre-sentence report interview, conducted from the probation office. This was with Ollie (not his real name) who was then on remand at a local prison after having been arrested in a high-profile operation: caught preparing to hand over firearms to known 'villains'.
The interview was haltingly undertaken, partly due to technical glitches, but also due to Ollie's angry insistence that he had been 'fitted up' and he could see no benefits from having a report for his sentencing hearing in light of the 'heavy bird' he expected to be handed out.
The court later imposed a term of custody in excess of ten years. At our next video link interview post-sentence, a much more subdued Ollie, having opted not to appeal, sat in near sullen silence on a grainy screen. He was barely able to communicate other than to ask if I could ensure his family, now living aboard, knew of his whereabouts. At the end of our interview he chirped, 'I will aim to get a transfer to my own country if I can to see out my sentence. How do I go about this?'.
At the time, repatriation of serving prisoners was undertaken on a voluntary basis, prior to more recent draconian legislative changes which now makes deportation the presumptive add-on to the sentencing of 'foreign national offenders' serving over twelve months.
Brinley trundled into the probation office attired in multiple layers of clothing, 'the better to hide items that I have 'lifted' and told me that his early entry into a career as a prolific shoplifter started at one of London's premier department stores. He was aided in part by some 'extra work' he undertook on behalf of one of Soho's more racier characters who owned many of the vice outlets in the capital. Making any kind of headway in addressing his persistent pattern of offending, fuelled in large part by his alcoholic dependency, was one of the most challenging casework experiences I had then encountered.
It meant that each pre-sentence report I prepared seemed only to further highlight his incorrigible behaviour resulting in periods of probation supervision interspersed with short prison sentences: 'Mr *****, Mr Guilfoyle sees the good in you, but the bench is thoroughly fed up with your dishonest antics'. Another six months inside was the usual outcome.
After yet another period of custody, the chair of one bench noted with suitable judicial ire, 'Your age is catching up with you. A man of your age should be thinking of retiring, not trying to outrun security guards'.
But in a most unexpected twist, Brindley, perhaps gripped by his waning ability to outrun the police and having received a letter from a close relative inviting him to live with her, appeared to change in his outlook: 'I now see myself as "sitting on the dock of the bay all day"'.
I sensed that probation supervision may have stemmed rather than stopped his offending, but Ollie then dropped out of reach of the criminal justice system. A postcard arrived at the probation office in barely legible form a year or so later. He had now 'retired' and was being 'cared' for by his relative (who knew nothing he claimed of his darker past!).
As for Brindley, he was eventually granted his application to complete his sentence abroad, but the only formal notice I had of this transfer was an official Home Office letter which was unsigned and arrived some months after the specially chartered plane taking him to complete his custodial sentence had no doubt flown over the probation office!
Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation worker.