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What’s it like being on probation?
An oral history of the experiences of being on probation in Ireland.

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‘Helping, Hurting, Holding and Hands Off’

There’s a fascinating article in the latest edition of the Irish Probation Journal. ‘Helping, Hurting, Holding and Hands Off’: Preliminary Findings from an Oral History of Probation Client Experiences of Supervision in Ireland presents the first findings from the ‘Histories of Probation in Ireland’ project which aims to provide an extensive, detailed account of Irish probation practice from the 1960s onwards.

The core objective of the paper is to highlight patterns emerging from client participants’ lived reality of probation, which is achieved through the application of an oral history methodology. Findings are presented from interviews with current and former probation clients who experienced probation in the 1980s up to the present day.

The research

The study is based on semi-structured oral history interviews conducted with twenty-five men who experienced probation from the 1980s to the present day, some of whom had been several experiences of being on probation supervision both on community orders and post custody licence.

The findings are structured following four themes, some of which were developed by the criminologist Fergus McNeill in his earlier work: helping, hurting; holding and hands off.


Helping experiences were described by many of interviewees  who tended to characterise supervision in positive terms if officers offered advice and practical support, attempted to build rapport, put a clear supervision plan in place, and actively sought out rehabilitation opportunities.

Probationers also valued officers who demonstrated empathy, were caring but assertive, were willing to advocate on their behalf, and communicated a belief in their ability to change. They appreciated
officers who listened, took the time to get to know them, and communicated clearly. 


By contrast, probation supervision was also characterised by some interviewees as hurtful when perceived as intrusive, inflexible, and focused on monitoring and punishment, rather than support.

Hurtful experiences often arose from relational issues; for instance, some participants described their encounters as disrespectful, while others found it difficult to build trust with Probation Officers because of personality clashes.

Frustration also emerged when participants felt that officers did not listen to them or failed to recognise attempts to change.


‘Holding’, ad characterised by McNeill, describes a sense of being monitored and restricted or, more positively, a kind of harm-minimisation strategy where a chaotic life is safely contained, albeit temporarily, within the confines of a probation order.

For this theme, findings were often more complex and tended to overlap with the helping or hurting themes. Some people experienced the structure of probation supervision as helpful, particularly in changing routines, exposing people to law-abiding lifestyles and generating a sense of calm and security. 

Others experienced both positives – reassured by probation attempts to keep them out of prison – and negatives – frustrated by the knowledge that post-release supervision would tie them to a criminal past they wanted to leave behind.

Hands off

Some interviewees said that probation meetings were rare and/or brief, or that their officers seemed
detached and laissez-faire in their approaches to supervision. Others admitted that they themselves were disengaged from the supervision process. Many of these supervision experiences, particularly if they took place many years earlier, were only half-remembered. Some appreciated the hands-off approach, largely because they preferred not to engage with the Service.

Such experiences generated little emotional response in those subjected to probation supervision. However, there was another side to this “hands-off” approach described by other interviewees. Several of this group wanted and needed assistance, and even asked for help on multiple occasions, but found that none was forthcoming. In such cases, strong emotions were provoked, including resentment, feelings of helplessness, and anger.

The polarities of “holding” and “hands off” might be compared to Jane Dominey’s description of “thick” and “thin” models of probation supervision in England:

  • ‘thick’ supervision refers to a productive relationship with the person on probation, embedded within the community
  • ‘thin’ supervision is predominantly office-based, with poor links to the community.


The voices of people on probation are rarely heard and these interviews provide a vivid account of the many, often contradictory, ways in which probation supervision is experienced by those who enjoy and/or endure it.


Thanks to Mathias Reding for kind permission to use the header image if Dublin which was previously published on Unsplash.

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