Reading Erin Marie Daley's powerful and harrowing account, Generation Rx: A Story of Dope, Death and America's Opiate Crisis about the loss of her younger brother Pat to drug dependency, evoked many memories of encounters in the probation office during my time as a probation officer.
I had one particular experience which resonated with me and I thought that this would inform the theme of my comment piece this month.
I first met Ash (not his real name) in the waiting area as I was tending to another client. He brushed past me in a hurry and rather surprisingly, given his dishevelled and distracted presentation, apologised, 'sorry mate, can't wait to see me PO (probation officer)’.
A short time later, having been allocated a pre-sentence report, who should appear but Ash, facing sentence on various drug-related thefts from local shops, and whose opening remarks set the tone for our subsequent longer term supervisory links.
‘Listen, I ain't going change for no judge' and 'if I do bird, I will do it'. This early display of defiant resistance hinted at the possibilities for working together to achieve recovery from his lengthy dependence on Class A drugs, and a depressing litany of court appearances including stints of short-term custody.
The court report I had prepared acknowledged one stark reality facing Ash. His health-related concerns, arising from intravenous drug usage, were inexorably catching up with him and an infection on his legs meant that a medical intervention was now a priority.
The court adopted the proposal in the report that sentence be deferred for six months (the longest period for such a sentence). This was to enable Ash to attend urgent medical appointments, to re-engage with drug counselling to refrain from further offending, and for probation to prepare a further report at the end of the period of deferment.
After his attendance at hospital it was unclear just how much lasting damage to his health there had been. Ash mentioned that his father was 'losing patience' with him.
This latter comment seemed remarkably restrained given the troubled filial relationship which he told me about for the purposes of the report. Ash asked, 'can you come round to see me and my dad?'. I arranged a home visit but on arrival I was unable to gain access. It seemed that something was awry as there was an eerie quiet in an area that would normally be boisterously alive (the nearby street market was famed for its lively offerings).
I returned to the office, a little chastened, thinking that maybe I had over-estimated my role in securing compliance against such an entrenched pattern of multiple problem behaviours. I opted not to record this as a 'missed appointment' as I also sensed something had prevented contact.
Shortly thereafter, Ash arrived at the office, looking pallid faced and not a little reserved. 'I am sorry we didn’t answer the door, we thought you were ***'. As this was an unplanned visit from Ash to the office, I explained that without some risk taking and measured self-belief, the trust we had established would be lost. I told him that, ‘I know that time will fly and your next court appearance will determine whether you retain your liberty'.
I later discovered that the day before my home visit, a close friend of Ash’s in the next door flat had 'jumped to their death' and this shocking death had been keenly felt by many in the locality.
When we met again for an arranged appointment at the probation office, to draft the deferment of sentence report, Ash was unusually voluble. It seemed that this period had acted (or so I thought at the time) as something of a catalyst for him to reflect on how he might move away from what he accepted was his 'destructive lifestyle'.
'Can I tell when I appeared before *** at *** Magistrates’ Court’, he said to me (Ash mimicked his stentorian delivery). 'You will find that I will give you one further opportunity to make something of yourself before I send you through that door' (leading to the cells).
Ash was finding the interview 'tiring' so I outlined my proposals, which he acceded to, but ‘what about all those other matters?'. Before I had time to compose a response he had left the office. Much to my surprise, the court having read my report and accounted for the 'outstanding matters', having predated the period of deferment, opted for a further period of statutory supervision with some 'charged language', not unlike those mouthed in past times by the much famed 'Beak'!
Whilst I was walking in the vicinity of the probation office a while later, I could not help but see that Ash was keen not to be noticed. ‘I know what you're thinking, Mike’ he joshed, ‘how much are steaks these days?' as the twin pack dropped from his inside pocket! ‘Ok, I nicked them, do you want me to return them?’.
‘Ash’ I muttered, ‘you recall what the Beak once said to you, next time you will be going through that door'. I gestured towards the local store from whence he had come, ‘which door you choose to enter is now up to you!’.
Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer