Frightened, underpaid and brutally overworked, probation officers have some of society’s most thankless jobs. Our insider explains why they do it anyway.
‘So you’re saying I have to leave here and sleep on the street? There’s nothing you can do?’
The man in front of me turns to stare at the grey concrete walls of the office, with its peeling posters and Blu-Tack stains. I know that he has no familial support and no source of income. Now, after a loudspeaker conversation with the uninterested local council worker, I know he has no place to stay.
‘I’m sorry. I can give you the number for StreetLink and I will call them on your behalf when you leave here.’
I am sorry. I really am sorry. He leaves, and I shut myself in a toilet cubicle with tears rolling down my face. I simply do not have the tools or resources to do my job.
I’m a probation officer for the National Probation Service (NPS) in a west London borough. My job is to protect the public, rehabilitate service users and enforce the law. That is achieved by applying appropriate safeguarding for potential victims, giving service users the tools needed to get back on track, but also by hauling them back to court, or even prison– if and when things go pear-shaped.
I took this job because I wanted to work with people whose lives had taken a different turn to mine. When I arrived, my new colleagues shook their heads at my eagerness. Just wait, they said. They had become jaded and cold towards the people we call ‘service users’ ( the term ‘offenders’ is no longer politically correct).
Two years on, I can feel that cold cynicism seeping into my bones, rolling my eyes as John* rings me for the fourth time that day. He suffers with mental illness, John, and he’s very unwell. His illness is unmanaged: he is often delusional, he tells me dark twisted tales, he believes that people around think he wants to have sex with his own mum and sister. Unfortunately, you can’t section someone unless they’re a risk to themselves or to others. He’s not a risk, he’s just very unwell. I’m no psychologist, but I know he’s got no one else.
I’m a probation officer, but I’m also a mum, sister, friend and carer. The lines are blurred, and they have to be. Who else can so many of these people turn to?
spat at, threatened and followed
If John had been released from prison ten years ago, he would have fallen straight under the NPS. But back in February 2015 the system changed. Since then, service users have been split between the government-funded NPS and the privatised Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRC), which are run with payment-by-results contracts. For John, the agency he is seen by now depends on what risk he is assessed as: low, medium, high or very high – despite his ever-changing mental health concerns.
The privatised CRC, with its lower-risk service users, has an easier time of it. Through its doors come the tax evaders, pub scuffles-gone-wrong and traffic offences. I work at the NPS. We get the tougher end of the scale.
High-risk individuals come with chaotic, unpredictable behaviours. Probation officers are spat at, threatened and followed. I’ve had a man sit in front of me and tell me he was going to hurt my family if I gave him a warning for breaching his licence.
The work takes its toll. You can’t switch off the feeling that harm is imminent. When I hear sirens I think: God, I hope it’s not one of mine.
The split has caused problems because an offender’s risk level can change throughout their time on probation – and often does. People are assessed on a sliding scale, which depends on their behaviour, circumstances and emotional well-being. For example, Alan* is a low-risk lifer who committed murder 20 years ago. He will be on probation for at least 25 years. He is stable, but as soon as he enters into a new relationship, that risk immediately rises because he killed his ex-wife. On the other hand, Ibrahim* is high-risk because of his negative, pro-criminal associates. But when he moves in with his grandmother in the countryside, he may well be reviewed to low-risk.
When the split occurred in 2015, over 500 staff left immediately, with many more undecided about whether to stick about or not. Dame Glenys Stacey, the chief inspector of probation, said the changes were ‘irredeemably flawed’. The latest U-turn came last year: both the NPS and CRC are to be re-nationalised. This was welcomed by probation officers. Those who were around before the split remember the ‘good old days’ of incremental pay rises and collaborative working. They are looking forward to a reunified service. But I’m sure there will be some teething problems: the National Audit Office said problems with the part-privatisation had cost taxpayers nearly £500m. It may turn out that those pay rises need to wait.
The amount of cases an officer has is recorded on something called the ‘work management tool’. It shows an officer’s capacity as a percentage, based on the number of cases they have and the offender’s risk level.
As expected, high-risk cases take up more time. A probation officer with 35 medium-risk cases will normally have more capacity left over than an officer with 20 high-risk cases. In theory, no one should be working at more than 100% of their capacity. Like many of the tools available to the probation service, it isn’t fit for purpose, because it doesn’t take into account the amount of work each case entails – and some cases can be extremely complex and drawn out.
In January 2020 it was reported by HM Inspectorate of Probation that 60% of NPS staff had workloads ‘that exceed their expected capacity’, while nearly three in ten had work piling up that was ‘more than 120% of expected capacity’.Currently, mine is sitting at around 85%, although this doesn’t reflect the half-week I lost working Brian’s case.
I have had Brian* in my caseload for a few months. Brian is a convicted paedophile and, as it was a historic offence (any sex offence that took place before 1 May 2004), he is assessed as medium risk of harm. We have a monthly session in which we talk about his circumstances, how he is spending his time, and also complete workbooks that help him to understand and manage the motivating factors behind his offence. He appears to be fairly open with me, engaging in his rehabilitation, compliant with his licence and I don’t have too many concerns.
However, in our most recent session, Brian told me that his partner was pregnant. My blood ran cold. Until then, I was not aware that he had a partner. The next few days are a whirlwind of meetings with the Metropolitan Police, meetings with social services and a very frank conversation with Brian’s partner, who in no uncertain terms tells me to ‘get fucked’.
It was all necessary work, though. Our motto is to ‘prevent future victims’, but in the back of my mind, I am thinking of the unopened emails, the unanswered phone calls and the pile of micromanaged reports I’m going to have to squeeze into an evening, while my partner asks me why I do it.
‘Just leave,’ he says. I can’t just leave. Who’s going to pick up the work?
a revolving door
Since I’ve been a probation officer, my colleagues have come and gone faster than when I used to work in a student bar. Newly qualified officers, having undergone more than a year’s worth of training, put in a couple of months before opting for prisons where they can leave their issues at the door. Either that or they take training roles, where they teach another wave of wide-eyed qualifying officers ‘how to have empathy with your service users’ – before booting them into an office with a cynical staff and a high-risk, high-volume caseload, where verbal or even physical assault is a daily possibility.
It’s not all bad. It can be rewarding, and often that gives us officers the boost we need to face the confusing guidelines, the ever-changing targets and the terrible pay we receive for the work we do. Sometimes there is light in the darkness.
When Steve* started his licence, he didn’t speak to me for two months beyond the occasional non-committal grunt. Three months after his licence ended, he dropped by the office to show me his new baby and tell me about the job he had landed after taking a training course I’d arranged for him. Later that same week, Alice* sent a card and letter with thanks after I secured permission for her to travel abroad and see family members who were sick.
In this job you rely on one another, because there’s no one else. Your friends and family don’t understand about having to terminate a session with a sex offender because talking about his offences gave him an erection.
Some people ask me how I can do it. How can I sit in front of child rapists? I do it because I believe that everyone needs kindness to function. It’s what helps you cling on when you’re in a dark place. If someone has committed a terrible act, their family has abandoned them and their daily lives are a mess of abuse from the public, they still need that human sympathy. It’s the best way to stop them doing what they did all over again. If that kindness needs to come from me, so be it.
*Names have been changed