Reforming probation from the inside

Author: | 20 Sep 2022

In May, we shared the news that a Longford scholar had gone full-circle, moving from prisoner to probation service officer.  His experience is proof that doors can open in unexpected places and offer surprising opportunities. 

That same scholar, Lawrence, has written for Longford Blog about his inspirational journey…

I recently enjoyed a ‘catch-up’ with some serving prisoners for a lengthy conversation about disclosing criminal records. In an attempt to inspire optimism, I talked to them about my own career opportunities and the positive experiences I’d had with employers who were prepared to overlook my prison experience and conviction.

The most recent employer to do this was none other than the probation service. Yes, that’s right, after two years in prison and a chunk of time on probation, I, with a First-Class Honours degree, am now employed as a probation service officer.

I am as surprised as anyone, as my early experience of probation didn’t get off to the best start.

In prison, my relationship with the probation service started poorly when they sent me some information from a formal risk assessment known as OASys (probation love an acronym). I had been classed as a ‘high risk of re-offending’, contradicting my own belief that I had offended under rare and unusual circumstances, not as part of a routine or lifestyle. Just to explain, I had never actually met the professionals behind this assessment, so the judgement felt unfair and harsh. The assessment also set out that I must refrain from contact with my lifelong best friend, as he had previously been my co-defendant during the legal process. If I did initiate contact, I could be recalled back into custody – a frightening prospect that often caused me vivid nightmares.

From that point, I distrusted probation less and less, seeing them as my enemy who would hinder my progress. My impression was reinforced by fellow prisoners who felt you could never win with probation, so there was no point in trying.

Things got worse before they got better.

I was convinced my successful future depended on going to university after prison.

For me, I was determined a degree was the key to avoiding life as an unemployed ‘former criminal’ who had disappointed family and friends. Imagine my delight to receive an offer to study for a degree. I felt I was about to get life back on track. And then probation suggested I might have no choice but to refuse the offer due to restrictions and licence conditions.

Any hope I’d had for the future swiftly faded away. I experienced a severe mental breakdown and I partially attributed it to conversations with probation which had drained all my hope. I was angry and blamed probation for my downward spiral, commenting that if I were to re-offend, it would be their fault.

Thankfully, the day of my release was when things started to change.

Wearing a suit, which I’d last worn on my day of sentencing, I made my way to a local probation office, as instructed. A helpful staff member held open a door for me and I walked into a large office, where I was told to sign in and ‘choose a desk’. It quickly became clear that the probation staff had mistaken me for a new member of their team – not a newly released prisoner!

My probation officer later remarked that one day I could maybe work for probation. To be honest, I took that with a pinch of salt. After all, I had been convicted of, and imprisoned for, a serious offence; I wasn’t aware of anybody with such a history becoming a probation officer in this country. I pretty much ruled out the idea from the start.

Things continued to look up with probation.

My probation officer wrote a supportive reference for a university panel hearing which scrutinised my convictions.

She said I would be ‘an asset to their establishment’. Her reference was instrumental in me being confirmed as a student; I think she’d be proud to know I successfully completed my studies with a First as a Longford scholar, after pouring effort, energy and enthusiasm into my degree. Probation also played their part in my academic success. To make studying easier, instead of time-consuming face-to-face appointments, probation permitted less time-consuming telephone appointments.

It’s fair to say that I no longer bear a grudge against probation; quite the opposite.  Professionals working in the probation service, which itself has been through a radical overhaul, regularly go above and beyond to support those sent that way by the courts, and I say this to anybody who is anxious about their upcoming period of supervision.

So here I am – a graduate signed up and working as a probation service officer. I am committed to using my lived experience of the criminal justice system to further reform it from the inside.

In time, I will be able to comment on whether that pledge has been a success or a failure. My colleagues have welcomed me warmly from the outset, and enthusiastically explain the acronyms so common in the service (OASys is just one) – without knowing that as an ex-probationer, I know them all too well!

I feel that my opportunity in the world of probation is, perhaps, an experiment of sorts, but I’m OK with that. I’m ready for the challenge. I encourage anybody reading this article not to write off any job role that seems inaccessible because, in time, situations change. There is always a need for talent, drive, creativity and resilience – qualities that can often be found in surprising places. Scholars and other graduates who have studied in or after prison have these in abundance. I have found a meaningful and fulfilling role and I intend to stay at probation for the long haul.

Find out more here about our new employability scheme for Longford scholars.