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Being on Probation

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 I’m delighted to host this post from @ZoeStaffsGMPT reflecting on her ten years as a practising probation officer. If you like it, you might like others by Zoe.


Being on Probation is all about learning new skills and knowledge and being encouraged to see things in a different way. But I’m not talking about the offenders. Oh no no no. I’m talking about me. A probation officer.

I’ve been “on probation” now for ten years – a considerable sentence I think you’ll agree. In that time I’ve worked with hundreds of people. And I’ll be honest and say that, in the first few years at least, they taught me MUCH more than I probably ever taught them.

So, to mark my move to a job where I don’t work face-to-face with people (unless you count the two probation officers who sit on the desks opposite me), below are a few home truths I’ve learnt.

Poverty is real folks

I have been on a lot of home visits. And for every house I’ve gone into where there’s the archetypal Daily-Mail-Rage-Inducing 50 inch Plasma telly or mountain of X-Boxes, I’ve seen other people living in abject misery. Bare floorboards. Fungus on walls that looks like it could jump off, shake your hand, and make polite conversation with you. Six grown adults living in a two bed council flat with a duvet-rota. Lads with trainers that are so old their soles are falling off, and each step they take looks like their feet are talking to you; probably asking for a good wash and some new socks. It makes you realise the safety-net that exists for most of us. If I get into trouble, SOMEONE I know WILL have a spare room, or a little spare cash. But when everyone around you has nothing,  living your life day to day never mind trying to make changes (like finally stop thieving and start relying on JSA alone) becomes a hell of a lot scarier.

Faaaaamily (as they say in Eastenders)

I thought my family were pretty close. But the physical and geographical closeness of the families I work with – generations all living streets away – makes for something that, let’s be honest, I’m a bit jealous of actually. There’s so much emphasis on getting out there, going to study work and live somewhere else; that the downside is it splits everyone up. I am not saying people on probation shouldn’t spread their wings, but the fact that a base remains make for enviably strong bonds. Having said that, if my mum is reading this it DOES NOT mean I want you to move in with me.

Offenders are an unhealthy bunch

It still amazes me how many people I work with have health problems. And I’m not talking about those illnesses people think others can ‘fake’ for benefits, like bad backs or mild depression. I’m talking real diseases you just don’t expect. Young lads with heart problems and cancers. Foot problems from being homeless, walking everywhere and having no washing facilities. (I remember one police officer calling me to say they’d stopped a lad I worked with, and were concerned he had gangrene on his feet). Hostel premises have fridges packed with medication required by the offenders living there. Also, the amount of people whose parents have died prematurely is shocking. So, I’ll just say, when people miss their probation due to health reasons, it might actually BE due to health reasons.

The real meaning of privilege

Finally, when I started in the probation service, I was an enthusiastic, but very (knowingly) fortunate young woman. I’d had a great upbringing, albeit with a few serious events that led me down the path of wanting to be a probation officer (as I think is the case for lots of us). Like many of my friends, I lived in a nice house, with enough money, and a good family.

I may have felt privileged then, but not half as privileged as I feel now. Through working with people on probation I have been welcomed into worlds I would have otherwise never seen. People have told me their deepest darkest secrets – sometimes for the first time. Told me they were abused by their mum’s boyfriend, but please don’t tell their mum (who’s sitting outside, by the way) as it’ll break her heart. I don’t know WHY people think they can tell me these things (or that I can handle them) but I must admit to spending a period of time at the beginning, looking in the mirror and perfecting my “listening face”, just to make sure I didn’t gawp in the middle of such confessions and leave people feeling awful.

Most of my friends have no idea what the inside of a council house looks like, or the length of a crisis loan application (about the same length as the Olympic torch relay, if you’re interested) never mind what horrors can be inflicted on the body by a desperate heroin user trying to find a vein. I have been at the maternity hospital bedside of someone who’s about to have their baby taken into care that day by social services. In short, my window on life is much, much wider by doing this job, than if I’d lived a life in a bubble, or worked in an office seeing only people “just like me” every day (may as well just stick up some mirrors and take the day off). Put it this way; instead of looking through a small bathroom window, I’ve been given a double sized picture window with patio doors. And for that I feel incredibly privileged.

Over and Out

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12 Responses

  1. Thank you for writing and sharing such a thought provoking and heart felt blog. Compulsory reading for new Probation staff, including those in corporate services. Makes us think about why we are here and the importance of Probation and its partner services.

  2. Great blog, find i can relate to your reflections strongly, especially the home visits, despite having now been away from the coal face and in probation management for some time.
    Does anyone recall Tailgunner Parkinson in ‘New Society’ magazine (1980/90s)? I think you have the skills to develop something similar Zoe, you have a real flair for communicating an all too often hidden area of practice with compassion, analysis and reflection.

    1. Yup. I well remember Tailgunner Parkinson. A great lad who like me was a thorn in the side of probation management and was suspended!

  3. Written with honesty and integrity, rarely have I seen a true reflection of my job and some of my thoughts.

  4. I share your decade of practice experience; your blog has sent me into an enforced period of reflection about my own experiences over this time (certainly not a bad thing!)In fact I too may have to make some notes just to organise these issues that are whirring in my head. Thank you for your honesty. I suppose for me in addition (and in contrast)to your blog is the absolute ‘ordinariness’ of some of the most serious and dangerous individuals I have met in this time. Looking forward to the 2nd instalment!

  5. When I joined the probation service in 1998 an experienced colleague said to me ” always sit on the edge of a chair / settee when you do a home visit ” but wouldn’t tell me why . On one occasion I forgot this advice and sat down . After a couple of minutes I felt my rear getting wet and thinking to myself ” l hope that’s spilled tea and nothing else ” I never forgot that advice again

  6. Hi, I have just been given a meeting with a probation officer before sentencing. Should I see this as a pointer that I won’t be getting a custodial sentence???

    1. Hi Alan

      In short – not necessarily. Probation reports are requested for us to assess risk of reoffending and risk of serious harm for the Courts. They can ask us to do that even if someone is going to prison. However, your probation officer and your solicitor will have an idea of the seriousness and potential sentencing range which will differ in each case/offence.

  7. At least you attempted to defend yourself, which is rather brave. I look forward to reading some more of your memoirs and assertions..and the flood of responses

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