The shadow of penal supervision

Landmines or second chances? The enforcement of mass supervision

On 17th November 2017, the New York Times[1] carried an op-ed by Jay-Z entitled ‘Jay-Z: The Criminal Justice System Stalks Black People Like Meek Mill’. Meek Mill is a 30-year old rapper who, at the age of 19, received an 8-month sentence for convictions related to drugs and firearms. Since his release, ‘for his entire adult life’, he has been on probation.

Meek Mill had been arrested in March 2017 after an altercation at an airport but all charges had subsequently been dropped. In August 2017, he was arrested for ‘popping a wheelie’ on a motorbike on the set of a video he was shooting. Those charges, Jay-Z reports, will be dismissed if he stays out of further trouble. But that didn’t stop Meek Mill being sentenced to two-to-four years in prison for probation violation.

Meek Mill’s case led Jay-Z to argue that, more generally:

“[i]nstead of being a second chance, probation ends up being a landmine, with a random misstep bringing consequences greater than the crime. A person on probation can end up in jail over a technical violation like missing a curfew”.

As well as focusing on the story of one famous probationer, Jay-Z paints this bigger picture with numbers:

“As of 2015, one-third of the 4.65 million Americans on some form of parole or probation were black. Black people are sent to prison for parole violations at much higher rates than white people. In Pennsylvania, hundreds of thousands of people are on probation or parole. About half of the people in city jails in Philadelphia [Meek Mill’s hometown] are there for probation or parole violations. We could literally shut down jails if we treated people on probation or parole more fairly. And that’s what we need to fight for in Philadelphia and across the country”.

One month later, on 18th December 2017, the non-profit website Next City ran a more detailed story headlined ‘Parole and Probation Reform is Bigger than Meek Mill’, opening with the line ‘[o]ne in every 52 American adults lives under court supervision, costing taxpayers and making it harder for families to move on post-incarceration’[2].

These stories raise some crucial issues. I’ve already written in previous posts about the scale of supervision and about who is subject to it. The third dimension that these stories surface concerns how supervision is constructed in practice (as a ‘landmine’ or as a ‘second chance’); pointing to the issue of enforcement and thereby to the complexities of probation and parole’s relationships with mass incarceration.

In my recent blog post on ‘Blankface’ and the ‘Malopticon’ (link below), I shared an article which, in a sense, explores the experience of supervision when constructed as a landmine rather than a second chance.

But thinking about the Meek Mill story and the theme of second chances, I was also reminded that in the same song-writing workshop, I co-wrote another song with a friend of mine called John, who is also subject to post-release supervision. John had quite different thoughts and feelings about supervision. I’ve reproduced the lyrics of his song, ‘Helping hand’ here:


Was going down a rocky road

No one to help me on my way

I wish I’d had you by my side

Stop these feelings deep inside


Hold my hand and let me go

The things I know, I can’t unknow

Let me go, please hold my hand

It’s time to fly, I know I can

It’s time to fly, I know I can


Now I have you by my side

Making sure I do no wrong

I am glad that you are in my life

Though it’s only for so long


Hold my hand and let me go

The things I know, I can’t unknow

Let me go, please hold my hand

It’s time to fly, I know I can

It’s time to fly, I know I can


Time to move on in my life

I’ll take the next steps on my own

I will take you with me, in my heart

That way I’ll never be alone


John says of the song: “This song is about not having someone there that could have helped me in a time of need in the past. Verse 2 is about how grateful I am about having someone who is here in my present. The last verse is about how I would like to move on the future — not needing a helping hand — but still taking in the things that I have learned.”

Clearly, this is a much more positive and optimistic take on supervision than Teejay’s in ‘Blankface’. John welcomes the help he is now receiving — and wishes it had been available to him earlier in life, before he got into trouble. Even so, there is some ambivalence in the chorus’s first line ‘Hold my hand and let me go’ — which captures both the comfort of being held and the desire to be free. If you are interested, there is a short podcast about the workshop in which both songs were written, which you can access here:

Supervision: Seen and Heard


Thinking about the difference between Teejay’s and John’s experiences, and between landmines and second chances, seems topical today with the publication of a report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation (in England and Wales) based on a thematic inspection (of the National Probation Service and the [privatised] Community Rehabilitation Companies).


In the foreword to the report, Dame Glenys Stacey (the Chief Inspector) suggests that:

“…good enforcement relies on good quality probation supervision. CRCs [Community Rehabilitation Companies] focused on contract compliance, but not seeing people often enough, or not engaging meaningfully with them, are inevitably behind the curve on enforcement, as staff may not know when enforcement is called for, or when purposeful work to re-engage the individual would be better for them and for society. I suspect this is the biggest issue undermining effective enforcement today: that, in many CRCs, the case management itself is insufficient to enable good enforcement decisions. Instead, poor supervision is more likely to lead to reoffending and, for some, another round of imprisonment”.

There are some important clues here about what might make the difference between landmines and second chances.