I recently read Rob Canton’s contribution to the realities of probation practice in an excellent collection of essays, Probation and Politics, Academic Reflections from Former Practitioners.
My thoughts turned to my supervisory experiences when working with Lionel (not his real name), who arrived at the probation office on a particularly busy reporting day, giving off I vividly recall a particularly noisome odour, ‘cardboard boxes must have been used before' he blithely chirped!
Lionel had been placed on licence supervision for an ill-planned burglary of a shop premises (although the shop had been abandoned, the value of the stolen goods was significant). After much deliberation the Crown Court judge opined, 'that on release you should see the probation service and try to sort your life out'. Preparations for his release had not been easy because of the unedifying boundary dispute between the prison probation team and various probation services (including London) as to where he would be released to. This was not helped by Lionel's unrealistic expectations that housing for him meant he could be safely accommodated to an area he had only tenuous links to. After meeting with the partnership housing officer, it was made clear that the best offer Lionel could hope for would be placing him on a waiting list for supported accommodation on release.
Once Lionel recognised the stark situation he faced until his accommodation was stabilised he opted 'to sleep rough' and maintaining some semblance of dignified appearance was very much all he could find it within himself to do. To his credit, he explained at one of our early office appointments that he had found the opportunities to break into properties to 'survive' almost too easy, but had resisted this impulse buoyed up by the prospect of him being referral to a hostel provider that might soon materialise .
Before the next appointment Lionel rang to say that he had found 'temporary digs' and would I come to visit him. On arrival, I was faced with a communal entrance and somewhat self-consciously, I padded about the foyer as there was no response to the buzzer. As I was about to leave, I heard Lionel's voice and he directed me to a darkened corner of the housing block whereupon he emerged and we entered his ‘digs. As I sat down I was momentarily alarmed by the presence of his new 'landlord' as I was led to believe that he had exclusive possession.
Lionel was in fact sleeping on the sofa and his landlord (a taciturn presence who stayed in the room) was 'claiming for him'. It was a rather uncomfortable experience, as it became apparent that the landlord was abetting a potentially fraudulent claim and Lionel was now his 'unofficial carer'. The local community psychiatric hospital was a short distance away and he declared that Lionel might accompany him to his outpatient appointments, and also collect his psychotropic medication!
After much sensitive discussion on the possible pitfalls of such an arrangement, Lionel found himself getting more stressed by what he found to be the incessant demands of his landlord and the unsocial hours at which he often returned home in an intoxicated state. I became increasingly concerned that this was potentially so volatile that the terms of his licence supervision might need to be invoked (as one condition stipulated that any address had to be approved by the responsible probation officer).
Whilst I toyed with this, events took a different turn and Lionel left the property when his landlord 'invited' someone to stay at the address who was described as a 'local villain'. Fortuitously Lionel was then interviewed for a place at the hostel and moved in almost immediately. The hostel offered well targeted on-site support, and at my first meeting for a three-way interview with his newly appointed keyworker I was hard pressed to recognise his changed persona and energised appearance.
The terms of his stay were outlined with due emphasis on vocational and substance misuse follow- up courses which were part of his contract of accommodation. I was greatly impressed by Lionel's renewed motivation, his reclaimed identity and pride of appearance. I was also professionally concerned at the time, by some of the enforced rigidities of organisational practice. Home visits had been falling out of favour and top down audited compliance was now seen as more efficient so office-based appointments now took priority. I recoiled at this, as it seemed to glibly ignore the diversity of circumstances faced by those under supervision. For me, how you weigh up compliance was Lionel’s commitment to avoid reoffending and his clear progress on supervision, not by the number of office-based meetings.
When I arranged for Lionel to report to the office, after our many fruitful contacts at the hostel, he simply said, 'Look at it this way Mike, at least this time you won't have to open the windows when I leave!'.
Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer