Unconventional ways of working

Mike Guilfoyle
Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Whilst reading criminologist Rod Earle's lively and critical account of imprisonment drawn in part from his own experience, Convict criminology. Inside and out, I was keenly reminded of working in a slightly unconventional way with Elias (not his real name) during and after my time as a probation officer. 

One aspect of probation practice that fell out of fashion (although with some historic irony it was restored under Transforming Rehabilitation), was that of offering adult prisoners, sentenced to short-term custody, voluntary aftercare probation contact to aid resettlement. 

Against this backdrop, I was alerted to a letter from Elias who was then serving a short prison sentence for offences of dishonesty (against a history of more troubling violent offending). He requested that the '…Probation Service offer me some help when I get out'. I was allocated this task as an 'additional piece of work' and somewhat obliquely informed by a local manager, that 'this might save us some trouble in the future' if I could engage with Elias and ‘sort out his issues'!  

The revolving door

Clearly, Elias was caught in the grip of what Rod Earle, in a vivid phrase, referred to in his book as 'the gyroscopic thrust of the revolving door' in terms of endlessly repeated 'survival crimes'. This meant his shoplifting and abusive behaviour when apprehended often pitched him back into the prison environment and when released he was often without any sustained external support.

At one point, the local Stipendiary Magistrate (now called District Judge) despairing at having to impose yet another term of custody pleaded with the court-based probation team (I was in court at that moment), ‘Is there nothing that you can do for this man?'  

After some faltering attempts to meet up with Elias I arranged to see him at his resettlement hostel on release, and enlisted his key worker to see if we could offer him some viable openings towards reducing his propensity towards reoffending and stabilising his present unsettled circumstances. 

Offering Elias ‘attentive stillness’

One way I related to Elias was through offering him an 'attentive stillness' in our meetings. His persisting anxieties and troubled background meant that our encounters were ones edged with paranoia and comments like, ‘why do you want to know?' and 'I need your help but not your questions'.  Holding his attention was a considerable emotional challenge. In time, although Elias remained in the area, his resort to offending appeared to diminish, some sense of his 'aging out of crime' might have played its part. 

Since the contact was premised on a voluntary aftercare basis our 'final' contact was when he came to the probation office unannounced. Elias did not wait around long enough for me to have any meaningful exchange.

An unexpected meeting

But to my surprise, I subsequently met up with Elias when I had left the probation service and was undertaking some ad hoc befriending work with a charity that worked with long term prisoners and ex-offenders.

He was then on remand at a local prison and I was asked if I minded visiting him with a view to offering him some longer term support as befitted his circumstances. At our prison meeting he said, ‘I would not believe that I would see you again, Mike’. The explanation for Elias’ return to custody was of an altogether more complex nature and the offences he was facing, which were contested, posed the threat of lengthy custodial sentence. 
Small ways of helping

But my express role on behalf of the charity fell outside the statutory position I had previously occupied, and this felt in many ways a relief. But how might I assist in this regard, one of the more mundane but important tasks I was requested to undertake, included arranging for Elias' best suit to be dry cleaned prior to his crown court trial. I was provided with his flat keys (after some delicate negotiation with a neighbour), and after some comic moments when I felt like I was a 'housebreaker', I recovered his suit from his property and arranged for it to be cleaned.

This time, things will be different

At his trial, I sat in the public gallery, awaiting the verdict. The judge offered these words following his acquittal, 'Mr ***, you are free to leave this court and I trust that you can resolve some of your practical difficulties, which I have noted in these proceedings’. As I walked to a nearby bus stop, I had this abiding image of Elias, as he awaited his judicial fate. He stroked his newly cleaned suit and caught a glimpse of me in the gallery, I am sure he muttered 'Mike, this time things will be a lot more different’.

Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer

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