Locking people up is easy. Getting them out, so that they don’t come back to prison is much more difficult and the one thing that continues to challenge the system and exacerbate politicians, media and the public.

There are some people around who might just about remember SWIP, Social Work in Prison, and the days when each wing of a jail would have a probation officer attached to it led centrally by a senior probation office who would likely be a member of the Governor’s senior management team. Relationships were not always cordial. Some probation officers saw a secondment to prison as their punishment posting to be endured and completed as soon as possible. And many prison staff resented the ‘do-gooders’ who ‘always said yes to prisoners’, although it was usually the other way round with probation officers engaging with the very difficult issues of risk assessment and release planning.

The people business
I remain grateful to an excellent team of probation officers at my first posting in HMP Maidstone as a raw junior trainee governor with little idea what I had let myself in for. I learnt about ‘the people business’ and hung on to the coat tails of some highly skilled professionals as I sought not to be outwitted by experienced prisoners. Many prison officers, too worked with, and contributed to, multi-disciplinary working, but there was always a gap between the two services with very little movement at any level between the two professions at senior level. Both groups would have been better served by cross postings, but they were exceptionally rare.

Then came NOMS, the National Offender Management Service, heralded as a bringing together of the services to promote ‘end to end offender management’. It would be an end to silo thinking and working, and at last an integration of all those agencies struggling to reduce reoffending rates.

Whilst the principle was welcomed the management of the reorganisation fell short and as the bureaucracy kept reinventing the model the probation service slipped from being a partner in the process to a mere department within a department.

Probation trusts just about kept their head above water but as the gradual contracting out of ancillary services within probation continued talk of widespread contracting (aka ‘privatisation’) reached a cacophony culminating in Chris Grayling’s new proposals. Everything that the probation service held as sacrosanct to its own skilled workforce is effectively now up for grabs.

The government mantra that the work is available for ‘Big Society’ as well as ‘Big Business’ is as disingenuous as ever given the persistence with payment by results which rules out all but those with large cash reserves. The fact that many charities are either living off their reserves or don’t actually have any and are teetering on the brink of extinction passes over the heads of the ideologues. So too does the concept of evidence-based policy.

We are told that this new system will reduce costs, be more effective at reducing reoffending and transfer risk away from Government. That evidence just does not exist. The nearest thing to evidence comes from Grayling’s earlier venture, The Work Programme, where doing nothing was more effective than handing millions to the likes of A4e.

Lack of continuity
But one other thing is being forgotten. The phrase, ‘the people business’ needs repeating. If we go to the doctor or dentist we want to see the same individual. If we go to the pub or to a restaurant we like it much more if we recognise the landlord or the waiter and are even more pleased if they recognise us. It is a natural human need for continuity of contact. It starts at birth with parents and children.

The criminal justice system has suffered for many years from this lack of continuity between practitioners and clients, in this case offenders. Many prison officers will maximise their weekly working hours in as few days as possible, perhaps as little as three and often only four. They do this for many reasons which might be to minimise travel time and costs, to provide time for other jobs and for a minority to minimise the contact with difficult prisoners. For many years teachers and drug workers in prison have been provided through external contracts with further education colleges and drug charities. These contracts are renewed every three years. Contracts change hands, head office changes, managers come and go and workers in prison wings face perpetual change and barely 18 months of stability before the next bids are prepared.

One drug worker I know, employed in the same jail, worked for three different organisations in four years. As terms and conditions, pay and opportunity is reduced motivation drops through the floor and individuals move roles continually to maximise their likelihood of staying in employment. Some organisations bid low to get the work and find themselves unable to deliver the contract leading to default of emergency measure. Temporary staff fill gaps as permanent staff dodge redundancy. If the work is emptying bins, maintaining buildings or parks and gardens then we might get away with it. As we have seen in old people’s homes or hospitals, other ‘people businesses’ the results can be catastrophic.

Many offenders are difficult, dangerous, chaotic and disordered and their behaviors will not change if they meet a new face each week and have to spend each appointment getting to know yet another ‘key worker’.

They need continuity with committed, motivated and highly trained and well paid professionals.  It is work that cannot be done effectively on the cheap by an evanescent group of amateurs, however well meaning. We are not talking here of olympic security guards unless Chris Grayling thinks he can bring in the army for offender management.

Profile photo of John Podmore About John Podmore
John is Professor of Applied Social Sciences at the University of Durham, author and freelance criminal justice consultant. He worked in the Prison Service for 25 years and governed three prisons – Belmarsh, Swaleside and Brixton - and spent three years as an inspector of prisons.

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