With great power comes great responsibility
One year into starting work as a Probation Officer, our Longford Scholar graduate Lawrence shares some impressions about what he has seen first-hand – and the power of lived experience in probation
The first person to serve as a probation officer is not known for certain, though some sources record this as being the American bootmaker John Augustus, known affectionately as the ‘Father of Probation’. A campaigner for more lenient criminal sentences, Augustus believed rehabilitation was achievable through understanding, moral appeals, and kindness. As a result of his humanitarian actions in bailing and rehabilitating those convicted of offences, probationary programmes were eventually adopted by multiple states. Almost two centuries later, such services worldwide continue to operate with similar principles and objectives.
WORKING IN THE FIELD
My work in the field of probation inevitably started long after Augustus’ death in 1859, but I tell my story because I am now a Probation Service Officer (PSO) with lived experience of prison and probation. In my role, I supervise low and medium-risk people on probation who are sent my way by the courts. I took up my post out of a belief that positive change is achieved when those with varying perspectives come together. I am committed to tailoring probation to the often-complex needs of those serving a sentence in the community, and I encourage engagement with people on probation as part of wider reform efforts. Furthermore, my past struggles are useful in the sense that I can guide others away from similar difficulties.
ABOVE AND BEYOND
I speak highly about probation, having seen the commitment of colleagues who go above and beyond for those whom they supervise (known as ‘PoPs’ – people on probation). Together, I and my colleagues work to support those serving a sentence in living a law-abiding and content life. My own time on probation, on post-prison licence, was a positive experience; my first officer in the community wrote a reference for me to undertake university studies. The following probation officers who supervised me were supportive of my continued endeavours, providing valuable guidance on my goals and how I could reach them.
LONG AND WINDING ROAD
I have since spoken to one of my old officers who expressed only positive sentiments about my recent achievements. To get to where I am now, I had to study hard, volunteer my time, and work multiple jobs (some of which I severely disliked). I should stress there are multiple routes to this kind of role, and there is no correct path to take, just so long as that path does not include committing crime, which I can say from experience is no proper life. There is a wealth of talent residing in this country’s prisons, hidden away from the world like a diamond in the rough. There is always a need for talent, drive, creativity, and resilience in industry, and I am happy to say on record that some of the most impressive people I have come across in life have also experienced the emotional rollercoaster of a prison sentence.
WHAT’S IN A NAME
In recent times, the term ‘probation practitioner’ has been regularly substituted as a title for those in that responsible position (other titles include ‘reporting officer’ and ‘offender manager’; though, on the latter, the term ‘offender’ has been deliberately phased out within the service). I particularly like the inclusion of the term ‘practitioner’ because that word, by definition, means the holder of a role is actively engaged in their discipline. There is no half-heartedness at probation, though there is exhaustion and fatigue as a result of high caseloads and emotional stress.
Neither I nor my colleagues do this work for the money. The real reward is the sight of an empowered, optimistic character whose life may have been, at the time of receiving their criminal sentence, in a dire state. I have a capable colleague who speaks with joy about a book she received a mention in; the author of this book is a man whom she used to supervise on probation.
THE PAST AND THE FUTURE
I am somebody who, having been confined by tall prison walls while serving a four-year sentence, does not feel defeated by societal boundaries. Even when my trusted confidants said I had no chance at this position of responsibility and should pick a new role to strive for, I ignored that advice and submitted my application anyway. I took my degree, earned with the valuable support of a Longford scholarship, and turned it into one of the most secure jobs I can think of – where I swiftly took on added responsibilities including representing probation at police and council forums – and was even published in the renowned Probation Journal. Even though I must remain impartial as a civil servant, I will not stop campaigning for reform of criminal records, and my advocacy of higher education opportunities for ex-prisoners continues. As an esteemed officer of the probation service, I see myself as a small part of the wider effort to break down the ‘us and them’ culture that is deep-rooted in the criminal justice system.
If you would like to share some thoughts or experiences on our Longford Trust blog page, contact Clare Lewis, our scholarship manager