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How probation service work with convicted offenders in Wales explained

A CONVICTED offender is having his first meeting with a probation officer in Swansea after being sentenced for stealing a substantial sum of money from his employer.

He was given an eight-month sentence suspended for two years, meaning he will stay out of prison as long as he complies with the Probation Service. He must also carry out 130 hours of unpaid work as part of a two-year community order.

The man is in his late 20s and it is his first offence. He sits down opposite probation officer Laura Gray for an induction meeting – and so begins another case for the Swansea Neath Port Talbot probation delivery unit, one of six such units in Wales.

Probation officer Laura Gray at her desk in the Swansea Neath Port Talbot probation delivery unit, Orchard Street, Swansea (pic: Richard Youle)

Housed over three floors of a dark-bricked office building on Orchard Street, the Probation Service works with prisoners – both those locked up and recently released – and those handed community orders for lesser offences. There are probation officers based at Swansea Prison and also in the city’s courts.

As of November 2021, the Swansea Neath Port Talbot unit’s total caseload was 1,900 – 977 people on community sentences, 525 individuals being supervised post-release from prison, and 398 still in custody.

The service sets out to protect the public from harm and also help rehabilitate those who pass through its doors. Assessing and updating risk is a vital component.

“You’ve got to come with an open mind and not be judgemental,” says Laura. “You’re working with them because you’re trying to prevent future victims. With support, most people have got the ability to change their lives and be functioning members of the public.”

Back in the meeting room, Laura explains to the first-time offender that a colleague of hers will be assigned to him, so she fills out some but not all of a lengthy pack which will form the basis of a sentencing plan.

She takes contact details, where he is living and with whom, whether he works and if so doing what, and what both parties can expect from one another over the course of the next two years.

She also asks him if he understands the sentence and how it came about. There is a pause. The man provides the information. It turns out the crime was committed in London a number of years ago.

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She tells him that a home visit will take place in the next couple of weeks, and stresses that keeping in touch and turning up to appointments on time are key.

“The whole point of being on probation is to support you so that you don’t end up in this situation again,” she tells him.

The unpaid work will be arranged in due course and might involve litter picking, cutting grass or painting.

It emerges that the man’s wife lives overseas and that the plan was for him to join her. That won’t be happening now for two years.

A few minutes later we are in another meeting room where Laura is talking to one of the 34 mostly medium and high risk offenders she has on her caseload.

Probation officer Laura Gray (right) takes a team meeting (pic: Probation Service Wales)

He lives with his partner, their daughter and a new-born son. There have been some noise complaints from a neighbour, which are being looked into.

Laura asks the man, who has assault convictions, about his drinking – he previously had to wear a sweat-sampling alcohol tag around his ankle for 72 days – and is encouraged by his response. “Seeing people drunk around Swansea, I think, ‘That could be me.’ I just want to be with my family,” he says.

Laura says he has engaged well with social and housing services, and that his risk category has dropped from high to medium. She is constantly asking questions, assessing risk and, it seems to me, looking for solutions.

She tells me later: “I know so much about him, he has talked to me about things that have happened in the past, I have been to his house, I have met his partner. You become so involved with these people. You’ve got to be constantly curious.” She says “professional curiosity” is integral to the role.

The probation service runs programmes and works with organisations to deliver others. They cover substance misuse, employment and housing support, mental health services and domestic violence awareness, among others. Running the service in Wales costs just under £80 million per year.

There is additional probation officer training for managing sexual offenders, which is managed in partnership with police.

Laura, 32, qualified as a probation officer seven years ago. It was while studying sociology and criminology in Manchester that she first came into contact with the probation service – in what was then called Strangeways Prison.

“I thought it was really interesting,” she says.

Returning to Swansea after graduating, she volunteered at Swansea Prison and later completed a 15-month professional qualification in probation.

Asked if there was one thing that offenders really benefited from in their lives to make progress, she replies: “It’s hard to say one thing.

Having employment gives someone that sense of purpose, and a structure to the day. Support networks are such a huge thing. Then accommodation is another factor – it makes everything more settled for them.”

Laura says cases where offenders have turned their lives around were very rewarding. She gives an example of a man who had been in and out of prison since he was 17 and had now hit 50. Prison, she says, had become much harder for him. She says he has dealt with his drug problems, that he has a flat, and has re-established contact with his adult children.

“He came out (of prison) with a different mindset,” she says. “He really worked with us. We are helping somebody to help themselves.

That’s when the satisfaction comes.”

Equally, there was disappointment in other cases, particularly when someone’s actions or behaviour warranted being remanded to custody.

“It’s difficult not to feel we have not let them down in some way,” says Laura. “We do try to work with people, but it’s ultimately down to them to decide if they do it.”

Kristian Hooper, 36, qualified as a probation officer in 2020 after stints as a play worker, youth worker and drugs charity worker.

“I always had an interest in criminology and psychology, and had a higher education certificate in counselling,” he says.

Probation officer and former youth worker Kristian Hooper (pic: Richard Youle)

A good probation officer, in his view, had to be able to build a good rapport with someone and have an understanding of complex needs.

His 26-odd cases are mainly high and very high risk. “It is a difficult job,” says Kristian. “You do read about what people have done, which can be pretty horrific, but you need to be able to compartmentalise that. Most people would run away from them – we try to run towards them.”

He says 60-70% of his time was spent on reports, the remainder on meetings with offenders.

Trying to prioritise his work when “multiple things” were happening with “multiple cases” could be challenging.

“It is relentless,” says university graduate Kristian. But it suits him. “I don’t think I would ever have a normal job,” he says.

The Swansea Neath Port Talbot probation delivery unit was scrutinised by HM Inspectorate of Probation in autumn 2021, when Covid and the discovery of asbestos in the office building severely hampered operations.

“The impact of both these events cannot be underestimated,” said a foreword to the report by chief inspector of probation, Justin Russell. To have “kept the show on the road”, he added, was to the credit of senior managers.

But the report said the quality of work undertaken with people in probation was weak, and that there were shortfalls across all elements of case supervision. The unit was rated “inadequate”.

Strengths were cited though, such as relationships with partner agencies, the positive impact of certain specialist teams, and senior management’s high profile and commitment to improve.

Inspectors made six improvement recommendations, and an action plan with target dates for completion was drawn up in response.

Staff and managers at the unit say the disruption during Covid of face-to-face meetings with people in probation was immense.

“We were operating in a different way, which is inherently challenging,” says head of the unit, Deanne Martin.

“The impact of not being able to see people and rely on technology instead – it worked for some people, but not for others. Risk assessment is a really intuitive process. You need all your senses.”

Deanne has worked for 20 years in probation. Her role includes liaising with police, prisons, and councils, attending safeguarding meetings, and understanding the needs of staff and what pressure they might be under.

A recall to custody – something not taken lightly, she says – or returning someone to court, would require her attention.

The unit has 139 staff, around three-quarters of whom are probation practitioners and senior probation staff.

Trainee probation officers Jessica Hook (left) and Emily Fraser

“Our colleagues come from all different walks of life, and for some people it’s a second career,” says Deanne. “It’s still a vocation for a lot of people – they’re really committed to it.

“The most important thing for us is protecting the public. Having a real emphasis on risk and understanding risk is really important.

“We have a dual focus on rehabilitation. That takes a lot of skill, time and effort. You’ve have got to be optimistic, but not unrealistic.”

Deanne says she has seen people “come out the other side” that she didn’t expect to. “That’s wonderful,” she says. “I see the worst and I see the best, and often I see the best.”

She adds: “I do think probation staff do an incredible job. It’s a field which is really quite skilled. It’s not always visible, but they really are true public servants.”

Trainee probation officers joining this coming September will earn £23,637. Once qualified, the salary increases to £35,130 plus allowances.

There were 240,674 offenders supervised by the probation service in England and Wales at the end of last September, 2% more than a year previously. All these offenders have different needs. At a team meeting early in the day at the Swansea Neath Port Talbot office, a member of staff says one man she supervises rang her 10 times before 9am.

Laura is taking the meeting and goes through a list of questions, with input from a senior probation officer. Numerous acronyms are bandied about.

A more recognisable word, “pancakes”, also crops up a couple of times. I’m reminded later that it is Shrove Tuesday – considered in Christianity as a day for confessing and being absolved of sins.