The shadow of penal supervision


Without You

Today is World Social Work Day and the theme of the day is relationships…

In this piece of writing, I reflect on ways in which I might have deprived people of their dignity (despite my best intentions) when working as a criminal justice social worker in the East End of Glasgow in the 1990s. I might be exaggerating a little; I’m not sure I was this bad a social worker, but I think it represents some of what was and is problematic about the ways that professionalism and professional services are sometimes constructed — and, more specifically, about the ways I worked.  It was written a few years ago, in the context of my then membership  of the Poverty Truth Commission (, and was prompted by my engagements with the expertise and experience of the other commissioners.  The Commission’s motto and mantra is that ‘Nothing About Us Without Us is For Us’.


Without you?


It was all about you

Respect for persons

Human dignity and worth



I was taught to understand you

‘Poverty, Discrimination and Disadvantage’

‘People in Adversity’

That bus to Barrowfield

My mind was trained

To empathise and engage

Building trust and rapport

Assessing and planning

In partnership, of course


My Interventions:


Task or person-centred?

Cognitive and behavioural?

Individual, group and community?

Clients, targets, systems


Evaluating ‘effectiveness’


And when we finally met

I tried hard to be for you

I applied my mind

Applied my skills

Counseled, motivated, advocated

Striving to change for the better

It, them or you

But not us

Not us



And then I drove home

In my bought-and-paid-for car

To my west end flat

My home improvements

My cookbooks and culture

My double income, no children

Mostly strife-less life


The next day I drove east again

Full of ‘preliminary empathy’

Figuring out how exactly to

Social work you better

In partnership, of course


You were allocated to me

Already a ‘case’; an orange folder

Bulging with your annotated problems

Already a case; pre-reported


In a pre-liminary way, of course

All subject to a negotiation

But one in which I wrote your story

Fabricating you

Under headings

Conforming to my structures


My story that rendered you;

Stripping the layers back to a

Hollowed out skeleton

That could fit my small coffin-shaped box of tricks


It was meant to be all about you

But most of you was missing

All the fleshiness

The strong sinews that held you together

And the mind making sense

Of the senselessness

It was meant to be for you

‘Promoting social welfare’

But nothing about you without you was for you.


Except in the rare moments when I saw you and knew you

And you saw me and knew me

And we made some sense together.Without