Photographs by Andy Aitchison at PRISONiMAGE, (@prisonimage)

Photographs by Andy Aitchison at PRISONiMAGE, (@prisonimage)

An open letter to Michael Gove from ‘A probation officer (15 years to retirement)’

Rt Hon Michael Gove MP

Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

Dear Mr Gove,


As a Probation Officer I thought I’d share a few ideas with you. I appreciate that you have only been in this post for two months, and are still learning, but I am an experienced Probation Officer and have direct experience of the inner workings of our prisons (the Probation Service and Offender Management).

In your recent address to the Prisoner Learning Alliance, you emphasised the importance and value of education within prisons, which is very positive. In your own words, the current prison estate is ‘overcrowded, insanitary and inadequate’. I do believe that you’ve been very open in citing the Chief Inspector of Prison’s report into HMP Pentonville as an example of the decrepit prison estate. The blood-stained walls, the piles of rubbish and food waste, the increasing levels of violence, the absence of purposeful activity and the widespread drug-taking.

It is also well known that there are prisons where prisoners are routinely confined to overcrowded cells for 22 or 23 (and sometimes 24) hours each day, the growing numbers of elderly, vulnerable prisoners and those living with serious mental illnesses, the high rates of assaults on prison staff, the high rates of suicide amongst prisoners and, as you also referred to, the many inmates being bullied and assaulted – including sexual abuse – by prisoners [and prison staff].

I am sure most will agree with you that these problems in our jails must be rectified if we are to begin to prepare prisoners for a better, more law-abiding, life. It is unacceptable that figures can be quoted to suggest that 45% of adult prisoners re-offend within a year of release, rising to 58% for those serving short term sentences. I do not, however, think the answer is in building new prisons, which has worrying parallels with the highly criticised claim of Michael Howard in the mid 1990s that ‘prison works’. Unless our sentencing and penal approaches are radically reformed ‘a modern prison estate’ will ultimately result in the same old problem of overcrowding where there will always be ‘dark corners that facilitate bullying, drug-taking and violence’ that can not simply be ‘designed out’.

I am sure most will agree with you that prison should be a place where people are sent as a punishment, not for further punishments. This brings me to your points on rehabilitation, and on education playing a vital role. I wholeheartedly agree with access to adequate education, training and employment opportunities during imprisonment and into the community. Success also requires prisons to be properly resourced with available rehabilitation programmes, drug and alcohol services, healthcare services, therapeutic communities, accommodation support, life skills, social visits, community outreach, resettlement programmes and more.

I am sure this would have already been the case if the history of Ministry of Justice budget cuts and poor sub-contracting had not left prisons [and probation] with inadequate resources and provisions. In terms of your suggested education reforms the reality is that many prisoners live with literacy and numeracy problems and have previously failed in school, and would perhaps avoid being forced into prison classroom settings. The cynic in me wonders how many younger prisoners and their former school-teachers would trace blame for their deficits towards your previous ‘reform’ of the educational system? It should also not be ignored that prisons have on average a small number of well-educated inmates and those from good career backgrounds, just as there are those that are already rehabilitated at the point of entering prison. I’d suggest finding ways of using these prisoners in a positive way to encourage learning and rehabilitation in others.

It is unfortunate that you have omitted Probation Officers from your list of the ‘so many people’ that contribute to the work of rehabilitation in our prisons and into the community. While prisons do work in isolating dangerous offenders from the rest of society, contributing to safer homes and streets, so do we.

Previously more accurately known as the Probation and After-Care Service, we have probation workers based inside prisons and in community-based offices. These are key professionals in implementing sentence, release and resettlement plans to manage and supervise low, medium, high risk and dangerous offenders in custody and on release into the community.

Learning curve
In terms of your single reference to the Probation Service I am surprised at your welcoming of ‘more providers into the care of offenders’. Frankly ‘thanks’ to your predecessor Mr Grayling we now have organisations involved in offender management and rehabilitation that are far from ‘visionary’ and have not ‘improved probation’. As you are well aware, based on Mr Grayling’s ‘reforms’ 70% of the Probation Service has been outsourced to private providers that have no real interest or experience in working with offenders or improving outcomes. The ink on these contracts are barely dry and already Sodexo, which owns six of the probation Community Rehabilitation Companies, has announced plans to cut 600 probation jobs which includes many Probation Officers that have been professionally trained at university degree standard.

And this is just for starters!

On top of this, you have announced the closure of 91 courts that is bound to impact not just on the National Probation Service based in these locations, but on all present in these court settings. And yes Mr Gove, following these cuts it may well be that ‘more than 95% of citizens would still be able to reach their required court within an hour by car’, but most will not have had a 10% pay rise or access to a free travel, let alone a chauffeur driven car.

It would be nice if as part of your learning curve you committed to understanding the role of the Probation Service based in prisons and in the community. It is perhaps ‘right up your street’ that much of probation work is ‘rooted in solid evidence, respectful of academic research and has been developed over many years and after rigorous testing and study’. Therefore here lies an opportunity for you to ‘ask the right questions in respect of developing prison, rehabilitation and resettlement policy’ by speaking to those at the forefront of delivering these services in custody and the community. So while you applaud the professionalism of prison governors, as do I in many cases, please do not forget the professionally trained Probation Officers, the prison and probation frontline [offender management] staff, and all those in organisations delivering successful rehabilitation services.

We currently have everything crossed in the hope you’ll be the Minister to end the dismissive and cut-throat approach to the Probation Service – our achievements, contributions, intrinsic value and magnificent staff. You would have been briefed that the Probation Service won the British Quality Foundation Gold Medal for Excellence in 2011. Prior to privatisation no Probation ‘Trust’ was deemed to be failing or in need of emergency measures; we were meeting our targets on the production of court reports, victim satisfaction and the successful completion of orders or licences; and the Probation Service was acknowledged for carrying out its work efficiently and effectively.

The contribution of the Probation Service to society in preventing reoffending should not be underestimated (or undermined by misrepresenting statistics). The Government’s own statistics published in 2014 showed that reoffending for those given community orders under probation supervision was 34.0%, a drop of 0.2 percentage points compared to the previous 12 months and down 3.9 percentage points since 2000. Probation Trusts across the country, achieved year on year reductions in the levels of reoffending. This was in contrast to statistics for those released from short term custodial sentences of under 12 months, who received no probation supervision, and had a significantly higher proven reoffending rate of 57.7%. Recent statistics published in 2015 reinforced that the Probation Service [prior to privatisation] was working. This included that between 2011 and 2013, the number of repeat offences was down 8 per cent and the number of reoffenders fell 11 per cent.

I may not be able to trump your quotes by Sir Winston Churchill, but Lady Linklater of Butterstone once said that the ‘core value of the Probation Service is far from understood by all those who presume to reconfigure it’. I am not privy to the input of probation directors (NPS and CRC’s) in the current direction of ‘probation services’, but Lord Ramsbotham has for some time expressed concerns that instead of being separate, probation is (still) subordinate to prisons, which is ‘absolutely the wrong way round’, and worryingly there is still no dedicated Minister for Probation.

Despite the introduction of the (confused) Rehabilitation Activity Requirement and (possibly illegal) Post Sentence Supervision over good old-fashioned ‘probation orders’ and probation supervision, we on the frontline are battling to keep the support and rehabilitation of offenders at the centre of probation work. It can not be denied that keeping in touch with a good probation officer (with access to resources) throughout custody and on release does help people to cope with and overcome their difficulties, and change for the better. Community sentences are cost effective alternatives to imprisonment, probation supervision is effective in reducing offending, and some we have supervised have been known to become employed as mentors, volunteers and rarely even probation workers.

I’m going to put this last ‘seed’ out there as I am a Probation Officer and it’s the type of thing we do. The ideal destination of an ex-offender can be described as the point where an individual has shifted from not wanting to offend and actively avoiding criminal opportunities, to a position where offending is never contemplated as an option and ‘criminality’ a past state of mind. It would be incorrect to think that desistance from crime only begins with arrest or conviction, or that it can only be achieved following punishment, enforced sanctions, risk management or the contact of rehabilitation services (although rehabilitative support and interventions do significantly help to reduce reoffending).

In my humble opinion, to successfully desist from reoffending is not only the responsibility of offenders to seek and achieve by complying with the expectation to address their motivations and needs, but also for the state, justice system and the receiving community to ensure an adequate and consistent framework to individuals to change for the better and to assimilate as citizens [based on evidence].

Prisons may have been failing in this respect, but the statistics show that the Probation Service surely was not!

Yours sincerely,

A Probation Officer
(15 years to retirement)

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1 Comment

  • Martin Wright July 21, 2015 2:55 pm

    Well said. See also letters ‘Time for radical action on our failing prisons’ 17 July 2015 at . The primary object of sentencing should be to persuade and enable people not to offend again.

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