The shadow of penal supervision

The story so far — and an invitation…

Thanks for all the positive comments so far about the short story element of this project. I’ve done some editorial tidying up and re-produced the whole thing with a new section — episode 4 — at the end. Finally, two of the characters get to meet and talk. Out of their conversations springs an idea on which the evolution of the plot will depend, but here’s the thing: I have no idea what that idea is.

This is tricky since I am supposed to be the author, but it is also provides an opportunity. Since I am trying to make the story reasonably authentic even if hardly ‘typical’, and since you’re probably reading it because you know about supervision, how about you suggest the next step in the story? You might even want to write your own version of what the next episode should be. Go on: It’s fun! And there are no wrong answers.


I           Waiting 

Joe sat on the bench in the waiting room. The bench was screwed to the floor. Not even the furniture here was free. Perspex screens and locked doors separated those waiting and those for whom they waited; distancing the untrustworthy from those to whom they were entrusted. The graffiti carved into the bench offered testimonies of resistance: small rebellions that made the place seem even more desperate.

Meanwhile, the walls shouted out their messages in pastel shades and bold print. They stupefied, promised and threatened. Problems with drugs? Problems with alcohol? Problems with anger? Just stay calm. Apparently, help would be at hand – or at the end of a phone-line. But those waiting must remember that abusive language and aggressive behaviour would not be tolerated. Not in this room that was itself an installation of abuse and aggression. To Joe and the others waiting it said: ‘You are pathetic, desperate or dangerous. You are not to be trusted. You must wait’.

Joe was one of several waiting restlessly, fidgeting under the weight of the room’s assault. His eyes downcast. Mostly he tried to avoid contact, to avoid hassle, to stay as unknown as possible in this shame pit. Better to be out of place here than to belong. This was not a place to make connections.

Joe wondered what she would be like — the unknown woman who now held the keys to his freedom. Her word had become his law: This was an ‘order’ after all. He was to be the rule-keeper, she the ruler – cruel, capricious or kind. She might hold to leash lightly or she might drag me to heel. Instinctively, he lifted his hand to his neck, but no one can loosen an invisible collar. At least it was not a noose. Joe swallowed uncomfortably, noticing the dryness of his mouth and the churning in his gut. He was not condemned to hang. He was condemned to be left hanging.

Joe wondered what she would be like.


II          Things Change

Pauline put down the phone. Apparently the new guy, case 59, was 15 minutes early. A sign of eagerness maybe, but also an irritation. She had too many other things to do and hadn’t had time to prep yet. She took off her glasses, rubbed her screen-weary eyes and gulped another mouthful of her now-cold coffee (black, of course; no one in the office brought in milk any more). Replacing her glasses in the twin dents on the bridge of her nose, she resumed her screen gaze, clicking the ‘casefiles’ icon and opening up no. 59 for the first time.

Joseph Earnshaw, aged 49. Divorced father of 2. Two previous convictions – possession of cannabis and public affray… but these dated from almost 30 years ago. The indiscretions of his youth perhaps? The standard format court report was light on detail and substance, but the account of his offence was interesting.

Having been made redundant two weeks before the incident, Earnshaw had returned to the offices of the accountancy firm where he had worked for 15 years. He was drunk and abusive, and proceeded to spray piss around the reception area before daubing the boss’s office door with the one-word epithet: ‘BLOODSUCKER’. The red paint had also found its way all over his former boss’s designer suit in the scuffle that ensued.

The report said that Earnshaw scored ‘low-risk’ on the Offender  Assessment Triage System (OATS). Pauline raised a single eyebrow; she was long enough in the tooth to be wary of that. She knew that these scores didn’t save their probation officers from shouldering the blame when things went wrong. Funny how the scoring system itself could never be at fault.

Joseph Earnshaw was either a bad case of an embarrassing and brief mid-life crisis or a man on the edge of a potentially violent meltdown who might lose Pauline her job – or worse. Maybe the court expected her to figure that out during the next 18 months.

Pauline sighed. When she had started out back in the 90s, she might have had the energy and enthusiasm – and the time – to suss him out and maybe even to help him get his head back together and his life on track. But caseloads back then were in the 20s or 30s not the 50s or 60s, and the seniors cared about and supported that sort of work. Now they cared only about targets.

She cast her eyes across to Norman’s ‘pod’, wondering if her supervisor was even now watching her screen on his, or analyzing the IT system’s reports of the time she had spent in each of her casefiles in the last month. Glancing at her watch, she realized that she was probably already a quarter way through the monthly time allowance for a ‘low-risk’ case. She’d better go and see the guy before his time was up.

She just hoped he wasn’t going to be a pain in the arse. She had enough of those to deal with already, with Norman top of the list.


III         Pragmatists not Puritans

Norman stopped the video clip and leant back in his chair, stretching his back and trying to unfurrow his brow. He clicked open Pauline’s quarterly appraisal form, took a deep breath and contemplated the section of the pro-forma entitled ‘Video Practice Quality Audit’.

Norman exhaled noisily. Pauline’s performance in 59’s induction interview was entirely typical of the problems he associated with ‘lifers’ (as he liked – wittily, he thought — to refer to his more experienced staff). Grudgingly, he admitted that she deserved a #4 for her ‘relational skills’. She put 59 at ease straight away — as simple as a warm smile, the offer of a hot drink and a firm but welcoming handshake (despite, he noted disapprovingly, the latest health and safety memo about reducing risk of  transmission of the winter vomiting bug).

The problem was that, like most of her peers, Pauline’s interviews often lacked appropriate pace, focus and purpose. True to form, she had let 59 talk too much instead of cutting to the chase. Did she really need to know the ins and outs of his divorce or his worries about how the conviction would affect his struggle to see his kids? Worse still, letting him bleat on about the injustices of his dismissal from his job just gave him time and space to repeat excuses for his offences instead of taking responsibility. If ever there was a moment for an ‘appropriate challenge’ of his distorted crime-prone thinking, that was it – and Pauline had either missed it or bottled it. So at best a #2 for ‘structuring skills’.

These lifers really were stuck in their ways. Ironic, Norm thought, since they considered themselves the experts at supporting change, always stressing their hard-earned experience at the frontline. But what good, he mused, were decades of experience of doing things badly – or, at best, inefficiently? Norm had done the courses and read the research (well, the summaries at least). Cases like 59 needed, at most, brief, focused, structured interventions with prompt onward referral to interventions and services that addressed any ‘criminogenic’ factors. It really wasn’t rocket science… Nor was it social work, whatever the old-timers thought.

No, this was court-ordered supervision and its purpose was simple; reduced reoffending at reduced cost. The tag could take care of keeping him away from his ex-boss, his ex-wife and his ex-life. 59 just needed to know what to do, what not to do, who to go and see, and who to keep away from. Pauline’s cheery encouragement to ‘Look after yourself and keep out of trouble’ really didn’t cut it. It was a #1 for ‘appropriate use of authority’ then.

Norman re-opened the video file and checked the clock-counter. 37 minutes and 14 seconds. The contract allows 1 hour of contact time per month for low-moderate cases during the first 3 months of the order. Yet, Pauline had promised to visit 59 at home in a few days. So, a #1 for ‘appropriate use of resources’ then. Plus, the home visit raised another health and safety issue; another unnecessary risk.

Norman totted up Pauline’s score. Nine out of a possible 20. This appraisal wasn’t going to end well – not for her. Norm needed 85% of his staff scoring 15 or better to trigger his results-related bonus payment. And for that he needed fresher, younger, hungrier staff. Pragmatists not puritans.

No wonder the furrow in his brow had become a trench.


 IV        Any chance of a refill?

Pauline wondered if she had earned the right to ask the next question, and then ploughed ahead in any case:

 “Look Joe. Let me be honest with you. I can understand why you were so pissed off with your boss; he sounds like a total dick. And I can see that the red painted slogan made a point about him bleeding you dry over the years. I’m not saying it was justified but I get it. But – to be blunt– pissing on the reception floor? What was that all about?”

“I know,” Joe replied, his head in hands and eyes fixed on the bare floorboards below, “I’m totally mortified about that. I did send Tracey some flowers by way of apology. She’s the office cleaner. Lovely woman. I hate the thought of her having to mop that up”.  

Joe took a deep breath, lifted his head, looked Pauline in the eye and continued:

“Look, the simple fact was that I had drunk 5 or 6 pints winding myself up for the confrontation. Confrontation is really not my thing — nor is beer. But, in the heat of the moment, and finding myself with a bladder fit to burst, spraying piss around like Michael Douglas in that movie Wall St just seemed like a great way to reassert myself and mess with Steve’s massive ego. Needless to say, it didn’t look so clever on the CCTV – but then none of it did.”

Pauline smiled and shook her head: “Pretty moronic, eh? Any chance of a refill?”

While Joe re-boiled the kettle, Pauline took in their surroundings. Joe’s place was not, she imagined, a deliberate effort at Scandinavian minimalism taken to extremes; more likely, it revealed that lack of self-care that sometimes accompanies depression. The living room in his one-bedroom apartment boasted only a large beanbag, an easy chair (bottom of the range Ikea) and a small coffee table. An old TV sat in the corner. The un-curtained window looked out over the courtyward of what was a converted 1920s fire station. A gated community, sealed off from the city life outside. She’d seen much worse places, but she couldn’t imagine Joe’s kids (or their mum) being keen on sleepovers, unless they shared their dad’s newfound ascetic tastes.

Joe placed a cup of instant coffee in front of Pauline and resumed his place awkwardly on the beanbag, sitting cross-legged and trying not to feel like a wayward child.

“Anyway”, Pauline continued, “enough about what happened. Let’s talk about now. And let’s talk about the future. We’ve got 17 months of this order to get through; and you have the tag and your 7-7 curfew for the next 5. I suppose there are really just two or three questions: How do we get you through this without any further bother, and what do you want out of it – what do you want your future to be?  

Joe felt blindsided by the last two questions. The future? What future? He hadn’t really been able to think clearly since the wheels came off the cart. It wasn’t just that he wasn’t driving the cart, it was that he hadn’t seemed to stop falling since his life crashed. There didn’t seem to be any solid ground from which to take a view, just a constant tumble of words and images. Was Pauline going to help him find some solid ground?

“The first question is a lot easier to answer than the other two. I’m fine with the tag – I haven’t really had much of a social life since the divorce. It turned out that most of the friendships that we had kept up since we married were really my wife’s – sorry — ex-wife’s. I have a couple of old pals, but we don’t see that much of each other; the odd football match or night in the pub – at least, before all this happened. I’m totally off the drink for now – and not missing it.  I have the TV and the radio.”

Joe took a sip of his tea, looked out the window and continued:

“To be honest, the days are harder than the nights. Work was such a habit that I can’t get used to the sheer emptiness of the days. I miss the action and the sense of purpose much more than the money – though my ex and the kids might take a different view about that. I am looking for work, but it’s not easy at my age. It’s all pretty tricky explaining to your potential future boss why you assaulted your former boss. On the two occasions when I have got as far as interviews, I’ve seen the colour drain from their faces at that point.” 

“Work isn’t the only possible kind of action and purpose, though, is it?”, Pauline interjected.

“No, I guess not: I still want to be a proper dad, but it’s hard when that amounts to a trip to the movies and a KFC Family Bucket once a week.”

Pauline could feel herself sinking into Joe’s hopelessness. The emptiness and desolation of the flat wasn’t helping, nor was the sense of being locked in… but it was giving her the germ of an idea.

“Look Joe: You’re an experienced accountant with a hell of a lot of skills and resources. You’re not broke – you still have some redundancy money, even after paying for the office clean-up. You said it yourself: You need some action and some purpose. You need to break out of this cell.” A smile crept across her face, and Joe raised an eyebrow in trepidation or curiosity. “And I have an idea about how we might spring you…”   

 [Over to you! FM]


  1. Kirstin Anderson

    Fergus, the section on Pauline’s appraisal is disheartening and just plain wrong. It’s good to see other ‘characters’ in this scenario as we often do focus on the person who has offended. What’s to happen to Joe? Pauline could connect him to a third sector organisation that needs his skills and allows him to find some friends in the process.
    By the way, I think this medium is a great way to illuminate the intricacies of the processes and relationships that take place in criminal justice scenarios in a way that traditional academic writing can leave out. Looking forward to reading the next installation!

  2. As I was reading I thought back to my time as a volunteer manager, and had the same idea as Kirstin – that lots of small organisations struggle to keep their books, produce accounts, budget for funding bids, and so on. It’s pretty common to have a glut of volunteers for some roles, and a dearth for others. It’s also common that if someone comes along with particular skills, you can suddenly notice a role for them which wasn’t obvious before – though it can be hard to integrate them quickly. I am sure there would be local organisations which could find a space for Joe.

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