Our over-riding aim is to reduce reoffending and protect the public.
Often when people come back into society, it’s information and support they need – to help them get back on their feet and, more importantly, stop them from returning to a life of crime.
Supporting an offender, so that they can adjust after life in prison and continue to make good progress in their rehabilitation, is a key part of our job. These cases don’t make the headlines, but our role is no less crucial.
Graham* was sentenced to ten years in jail for four counts of robbery. There are many precursors to offending. Graham’s criminal behaviour was linked directly to his drug use: he’d commit crimes to fund his habit. Luckily, while he was in prison he managed to kick his long-standing drug dependency.
But it was his probation officer’s job to make sure that when Graham was released he had the support and information he needed to steer clear from his old lifestyle and settle back into society.
*Name changed to protect identity.
A former addict, Graham first started smoking crack cocaine when he was around 19 years old, after being introduced to it by his partner at the time. He may only have been with his ex-partner for three years, but the habit stayed with him.
“The only time my mind was content and I had money in my pocket was when there wasn’t a dealer around or, if there was, he didn’t have any drugs. Then I’d force myself to do something. Go home. Sleep. But if someone, somewhere, did have it – I would go all out to get it.”
When he ran out of cash to support his habit, Graham turned to crime. “It started off with friends and family; the easiest persons you can get it from.” He explains: “I class ‘verbal persuasion’ as a crime. By that, I mean if I tell someone I need the money for one thing, and I’m using it for another – to me, that’s still a crime.
“I’d tell people I had the bailiffs coming round and needed the money. My mother died when I was in my late twenties. Of course, it had an impact. But I also used it as an excuse for taking drugs, or taking more drugs or if someone found out I was doing drugs.
“I was always working. But then I’d lose the job due to the drugs, by going in late or something along those lines. I went from one job to another. The habit and the crimes got worse when I stopped taking the drug just at night and started to take it during the day, too. At this point I was in my early, possibly mid-thirties.”
Graham’s crimes escalated and he was ultimately sentenced to prison. He says: “I give praise and thanks for the days I spent off the streets. The way I was going, it was going to end up with someone losing a life – me or the other person.”
David, Graham’s Probation Officer says, “I met David in early 2008 in the Balham probation office, just before the half-way point of my sentence. I remember being nervous after the meeting. I’d wanted to ask whether he was going to recommend me for parole. I left the same way I went in; not knowing one way or the other. And that was hard.
“I nearly dropped off a ladder when I found out I’d got parole! (I was a decorator and painter for the prison.) A prison officer came up to me with a brown envelope and said ‘Graham do you want to open your mail?’ It was unusual, because normally we collect our mail from the pigeon hole, but this time the officer came to give it to me and he had a smile on his face.
“Probation has been good. At the end of the day I have to say you know what? The man (David) knows his job back to front. He can only be straight. He is just straight down the middle and he will just tell me something, whether I’m gonna like it or not. He will just tell me how it is. How the rule is.
“For me to keep my parole I needed to have a place and a job. It just gives you a better chance. I had both. It’s all a part of acceptance, you know. At the end of the day, I thought to myself if I didn’t have anywhere to go, I was more likely to end up back in prison.
“With the place I got now, I was the second person in David’s mind. He told me, truthfully. The first person didn’t answer their phone. Straight protocol. So I knew I had to work that way, straight, with him. That’s where I found myself having to accept the way probation was running.
“He gives me that feeling when I walk away; knowing that this will benefit me in the long term. I’m only on once a month visits to the office now but sometimes I say to him ‘Am I going on too much?’ and he just says: ‘No but we will have to stop soon!’”
David, Graham’s Probation Officer said, “He was one of the older cases who had to apply to the Parole Board half way through his sentence, rather than getting automatic release. I wrote his report and he was approved for release at the first time of asking. I felt he was ready: he’d been in prison in open conditions, kept clean of drugs and been in steady employment working through an agency.
“Graham didn’t have the best start – he was made redundant around the time of his release. But credit to him, he contacted his employers and persuaded them to reinstate him. He is still in full time employment. He is still drug free. He is living in stable accommodation. His probation attendance record has been excellent and he has complied with all of his parole conditions, including attending a community drug programme.
”I think Graham’s success post release can be attributed mostly to his own level of motivation. He is committed to self-improvement. He’s failed his LGV test more than once*, but that hasn’t stopped him from trying and taking it again. He seems 100 per cent motivated and committed and there’s no shirking of his responsibilities or blaming of others.
“It’s almost impossible to help someone without housing. Other things can wait. I helped Graham into his own accommodation. I felt this was very important. As an addict, he’d been going from place to place; a return to those conditions might have made it more likely he’d fall back into taking drugs and offending.
“It’s difficult, especially for people who have been in custody for a long time, to adapt on release. People can struggle to do things for themselves. Even though we are limited in the services that we can physically provide here, there are still things we can do, people and services that we can put people in touch with.
*Graham has since called to let us know that he passed his LGV test – at the seventh attempt!
“ One of the conditions of my release was to attend a community drug treatment programme, which I did. My work while I was in prison didn’t need to test me for drugs as they knew the prison was testing me. But I get tested at work now.
Graham may have been clean for six years, but he still goes to a convention for ex-addicts every year. “I’ll be going again. It’s a nice feeling there. When you sit down in a little room with so many other people – addicts. It can be a little bit embarrassing still but when they start off with the number of years you’ve been clean, it’s such an uplifting feeling to know that people are still maintaining it.
“It was a struggle tryin’ a catch up again. I had to catch up in two ways you see. One way was like my mind had obviously started to grow because I’d stopped taking drugs. And secondly, life in general had changed while I was off the streets for those five years.
“There’s more ‘no entry’ signs now; more traffic laws; more one way streets, just…how can I put it? It’s just, the way that the town has grown. I find myself saying ‘Is it like that now?’ ‘So that’s changed has it?’ Formalities have changed and you have to get used to it. ‘Acceptance’ is a big word.
“When I first got my place, I went to buy some things and they offered me a storecard to get 20 per cent off. I had no ID apart from my driving licence and that was enough. A week later, a letter came through telling me my application had been rejected and I was told to check with a credit reference agency. I checked to make sure I had no outstanding debts or fines but because I had been away and out of the system I had no credit score.
“It’s the little things like this that you need people to tell you how to deal with.”
Graham said, “My advice to anyone who is coming out of prison and on to probation is to really just try and keep trying. It can be very difficult, because everyone is a different individual.
“If you are truthful with yourself and be honest and if prison has taught you anything you will be accepting and learn that doors will eventually open for you.”
*Name changed to protect identity.