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What’s it like being on probation?


An intriguing new report by Professor Wendy Fitzgibbon and Carolyne Kardia for the Howard League for Penal Reform gives an insight into what it’s like being on probation supervision.

Supervisible is a pilot study which uses photography to understand the experience of being on probation.

An intriguing play on words, the short document uses the “photovoice” methodology where participants take a number of photographs over time and use these as the springboard for group discussions facilitated by an experienced artist, to reflect upon and explore the reasons, emotions and experiences behind the photographs.

Mass supervision

The report starts by arguing that very little attention has been paid to “mass supervision” with the focus of researchers and pressure groups focused much more on mass incarceration.

Supervision in Europe has grown rapidly over recent years (both in scale and intensity); in England and Wales there were 218,671 people under probation supervision in March 2014, a figure which is expected to jump by at least 45,000 this year following the changes brought in by Transforming Rehabilitation which means that all short term prisoners will receive mandatory supervision.

The study

The pilot study was undertaken by ten women from Alana House Women’s Centre in Reading and their discussions centred around seven main themes:

  • Rubbish
  • Heath and wellbeing
  • Judgement and representations
  • Help and support
  • Time
  • Money and cost
  • Hope, growth and nature

I strongly recommend reading the report yourself as it’s not easy to summarise individual experiences. However, the images and quotes below give a flavour of some of these discussions about being on probation.


From that course the Thinking Ahead for Women, I did that and I did another group called The Steps Programme for people with borderline personality disorder, yeah, amazing… because when you’ve been told you’re rubbish … when you’ve been affirmed that you’re not good enough …which brings you to do the negative things we’ve done in our lives because we are screaming out for somebody to say…


Judgement and representations

So he mask, by being on probation…you are being someone you are not


Money down the drain

money down the drain

Light at the end of the tunnel

hope growth


The pilot study showed that photovoice allows interaction between co-researchers that proved to be meaningful and insightful for those involved. It is potentially an effective and visceral means of enlightening the public and practitioners as to the lived experience of supervision.

The methodology has an aspirational dimension in that it enables service users to tap into their latent creativity and recognise the potential for change. It can facilitate empowerment and greater confidence whilst supporting desistance and generating social capital. Not only do the photographs speak volumes in themselves but some of the comments and discussions they elicit allow for potent appreciation of the participants’ experiences.

The photographs and the accompanying discussions provided a strong sense of the pains of community punishment, covering both moments of active supervision and also the pervasive nature of the all-seeing eye of punishment in the community.

Those experiencing supervision and support in the community have their lives laid bare and exposed to others who have power over

To some extent, their lives are halted – their real life suspended or on hold during and sometimes after supervision.

I hope the pilot is continued so that we can be allowed to share the perceptions of other people on the meaning and impact of being on probation.

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