Monday, 14 June 2010

Probation Officers - Social Workers Or Agents Of Control?

By Charles Hanson,
HMP Cornhill
August 18th 2004

Today, like no other time in the history of the probation service, probation officers are increasingly being seen as taking on the role of agents of control with their remit as public protection officers as their function moves closer to that of a prosecutorial authority.

Gone are the days when the probation officer ethos was to befriend and assist offenders to lead a non-offending lifestyle and to encourage and intervene where necessary in promoting a sense of social justice.

The one time social work ethos of probation work has now been replaced by tough talk and policies that further increasingly marginalizes and isolates offenders with all the features of 'Big Brother' as extreme forms of monitoring - surveillance - supervision and control takes over from concerns about social equality and inclusion.
Those most concerned about social problems are not quite at one with themselves in their desire to change them. For solving problems would necessitate a change in the organisational mores from which they arise.

The liberal for all his or her allegiances to humanitarian mores remain members of our society and as such under its organisational mores.

They wish to improve the conditions of victims but not interfere with the structures which create them.

Until they abandon their attachment to those organisational mores and structures they must continue to be seen as the perpetrators of the social ills, injustices and inequalities and thus the causes they seek to remedy.
No one loses by giving verbal expression to humanitarianism and probation staff are perfectly adept at this but many would lose out by putting humanitarianism into practice and certainly someone would lose by any conceivable reform.

They must therefore continue to treat the symptoms without removing the causes.

Nowadays, released prisoners who are subject to parole licence and this accounts for a substantial number of prisoners re-entering the world outside of prison and more likely than not liable to be labelled as if they were still offenders. Thus seems to justify a total scrutiny of their lives in the community after the completion of their sentence.

I do not suggest that there are offenders who will not always pose a risk but to propose that all ex -offenders fall into that bracket which justifies blanket concerns and controls is misleading and alienist and closer to a Tory party conference agenda than social work practice.

Current probation practice is now characterised by the almost paranoid high level of attention it gives to the issue of risk. An interest more in keeping with Conservative 'moral panic' and exaggerations but unlike the conservative whose language is one of less government and less interference in the lives of people. The National Probation Service seeks an increase in the attention it gives to individuals thus aligning itself with the 'nanny state' of control from the cradle to the grave and always searching out those areas where people require the interference of 'experts' on how to live, love, work and play.

We now live in a world in which it appears that no place or situation is safe or risk free - the 'risk society' is now upon us with children being deprived of play activity because of some perceived danger, to the hysterical obsessions with diet, playing, loving, working even dying.

It seems that everything is a risk which probation officers have not been slow to adopt in dealing with ex-offenders and forever the world around us must be cocooned against those who are perceived as being a threat to it with the full might of the 'nanny state' being brought into play as a method of control.

This necessarily requires 'tough talk' by probation officers whose concerns are less to do with rehabilitation, reform, social justice and inclusion and more to do with policing and moral control. The service now largely directs its energies at the level of the individual offender, rather than the world around him or her. The idea that offenders should be helped has now but almost disappeared.

Gone also are the days of being 'tough on the causes of crime'.

By a disregard for the causes of crime and the encouragement it provides to probation officers to treat these as irrelevant. Social workers ill-equipped to argue on the basis of values, rather than of technical management, against the possibility of their being expected to take on a more overtly repressive, controlling role are being progressively excluded from meaningful participation in criminal justice.

An extreme example of the transformation comes from California where in the early 1990s probation officers had to choose sides - between being social workers attempting to stop offending and without jobs or crime-controllers with both jobs and guns.

They chose the Smith and Wesson Model 64 .38 calibre and ammunition that had the maximum stopping power.

The probation officer's vision statement then suddenly became rather desperately. 'Arming Probation Officers Doesn't Change the Agency's Mission'.

The point is not that British probation officers and social workers are imminently likely to be asked to choose their weapons, but that social workers who see their work in purely technical, systems management terms may not be able to argue coherently against changes which are plausibly presented as an aid to more efficient system management.

What is also emerging is the attack on both civil and human rights, by probation staff on those under their supervision, through the attachment of conditions to orders and licences. Which restrains offenders and in many instances prohibits the normal forms of rights and expectations which all other members of the community come to expect in a free and democratic society. Often based on no more than a perceived risk. a notion often arrived at on dubious criteria and suspect evidence that has no place in the order of natural justice or sentencing exercises, but sufficient to justify a revocation of a parole licence and further imprisonment.

With violent crime on the increase, the subculture of violence might continue to be seen by some offenders as being a more powerful response to societal injustices and inequalities than the controls like public protection which seeks to curb it thus promoting and producing more harm that it sets out to remedy.

For offenders to have any confidence in probation officers, there ought to be a closer relationship than currently exists, rather than the employment of coerced offending behaviour programmes, which are considerably closer to control and removes the necessity for any relationship between probation officers and those under their supervision.

Those most at risk of current probation practises are released life sentence prisoners whose sentence never expire and renders them liable to recall to prison at any time, based on a perception of risk arrived at, on no more more than a value judgement, but for the lifer it can amount to many years of further confinement from which he or she may never again emerge.

This in spite of the fact that lifers as a group have always had the lowest reoffending rate of all offender groups and is at presently at 2%.

Concerns of probation staff which might render a lifer to recall may involve prohibitions and restrictions which are now seriously open to challenges in the courts under the Human Rights Act and may yet render them as being incompatible with the Act.

The 1953 Royal Commission on Capital Punishment reported that lifers on release ought not to have blanket requirements attached to their licences and that such conditions were a retrograde step and that save for notifying a change of address to the Central Aftercare Association, released lifers should be able to make a fresh start without interference and this was allowed uncontroversially.

Today, lifers can be recalled at the whim of probation officers for behaviour construed as being 'a risk' of offending even if the likelihood of such offences can in no way be linked to or of the nature of the index offence or considered a risk to life or limb.

The Stafford judgement (ECHR 2002) went some way in challenging recall criteria when the applicant who had been on a mandatory life sentence licence had been reconvicted of offences of fraud and sentenced to a term of imprisonment which also revoked the life licence.

At the expiration of the fixed term. Stafford remained in prison under the terms of the life licence recall.

The ECHR took the view that as Stafford had originally exhausted the punishment part (tariff) of his life sentence. That it would be difficult to understand why he had been released in the first place from the life sentence, if he had still posed a risk and that further detention for the fraud could not be justified beyond the fixed term. Simply because the Home Secretary considered Stafford at risk of committing further non-violent crimes or the type of criminal conduct unrelated to the original offence of murder.

As the liberal elite fascists dig in deep with their visions of a society under continual surveillance, monitoring, assessments of individuals. The indeterminate incarceration of the mentally ill and psychologically disturbed there are now moves to bring the children of prisoners within the sphere of risk assessment.

On the 16 August 2004, it was announced that Home Office Minister Hazel Blears was proposing the introduction of legislation to monitor the activities and behaviour of children of prisoners and that such monitoring and supervision involving social services and public protection officers (probation staff) would continue until the child's 16th birthday.

It was estimated that at the present levels some 125,000 children are likely to become subject to fascist nannies.

There has already been some disquiet in 2004 with the Probation Service's role in the proposed administering of polygraph (lie detector) tests on convicted sex offenders.

Whilst the public would reasonably argue that children have a right to be protected from paedophiles and that we should endorse any measures to curb such offences taking place The reality is that there has already been condemnation of this proposed measure and none more so than from experts in the USA where the use of polygraph results have yet to be admissible in the American courts.

Yet, in the UK such a measure would give probation officers the clout they would require to order the recall to prison of a sex offender who appeared to render positive results without the protection of the courts. Put simply. an unacceptable form of surveillance would imprison a suspected offender.

The implications of the acceptance of polygraph testing is not that it might come to be seen as an acceptable form of monitoring for suspected sex offenders but begs the question. who next, the unemployed. the homeless. the socially excluded, the mentally ill or benefit claimants?

Also in 2004, we saw the introduction of two unelected bodies - The Multi Agency Public Protection Panel (MAPPs) and the Multi Agency Risk Assessment Panel (MARAPs).

These will comprise of police officers. probation officers, social workers and representatives from other bodies whose remit will be to monitor the activity initially of sex offenders but has now come to include all lifers.

Many offenders who now have less faith in probation staff than perhaps they once had might also believe that as long as they conform to the conditions of their parole licence that they should not engage probation staff in social problems or concerns for fear of them being misinterpreted as a 'risk' and of them being taken into custody, that probation staff no longer being social workers cannot be trusted to assist them in addressing their needs and might by being too open and honest unwittingly become victims, victims of arbitrary probation practice.

Charles Hanson
VV 1638
HMP Cornhill
Shepton Mallet

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