Six months on probation

When Ian signed up to become a probation officer in June, he didn't realise just what he was in for. Here, he describes his 'adventures with the addicts, the abusers, the hard-done-by and the misunderstood'
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Every Monday at 10pm, I drive back into town after dropping an offender home in his one-horse hamlet. On the main drag, I always see the same character: he's about 60, well presented in a sports jacket. He's always in a hurry. He sprints down the pavement, glancing anxiously behind him. Where he's going and where he has come from, God only knows. He's plainly as mad as a hatter. But, after six months of working for the National Probation Service, I find myself wondering, as he fades from view, who is really insane and who is sane in this provincial England.

Every Monday at 10pm, I drive back into town after dropping an offender home in his one-horse hamlet. On the main drag, I always see the same character: he's about 60, well presented in a sports jacket. He's always in a hurry. He sprints down the pavement, glancing anxiously behind him. Where he's going and where he has come from, God only knows. He's plainly as mad as a hatter. But, after six months of working for the National Probation Service, I find myself wondering, as he fades from view, who is really insane and who is sane in this provincial England.

I joined the service because I had grown tired of office life. I wanted a job that involved meeting interesting people and driving around a beautiful part of the country. My new job fitted the bill perfectly, and the Probation Service prides itself on being open to all. It's a tough job: a degree in the school of life is much more valuable than a First from Oxford. Trainees can be left in tears, and hard-working officers go sick and are never seen again.

Our job is to encourage "clients" (ie, offenders) to keep turning up to their designated courses, with a positive word here and a guiding hand there. The pay is, at best, average; the clients can be difficult; but to keep someone out of prison is no mean feat. And so, in June, I embarked on my adventures, supporting the drug addicts, the drinkers, the wife-beaters, the shoplifters, the racists, the violent, the argumentative, the hard-done-by, the unlucky, the misunderstood. Every working day is different, but some stand out more than others, and these are just a few of those days.

THE RUGBY MATCH

DTTO stands for drug-testing treatment order. Offenders have to prove to the Probation Service, the judge and themselves that they can stay clean for a year. Drug use accounts for the majority of the distressing, pointless crimes that bedevil modern society; the car break-ins, the shoplifting, the bag snatches. Addicts will do anything for a fix. Some addicts in nearby Newcastle will give blow jobs for £6, the going rate for a bag of heroin. Prison or death awaits those who fail DTTO. Offenders get as much help as it is possible to give from an under-staffed, under-funded service. They are fed with sandwiches (a lot of these people never eat), they are encouraged to play football, to walk in the fresh air.

The lads on the DTTO programme (95 per cent of them are men) tend to know each other of old. They were thrown out of school together and ended up on their own magical mystery tour of dependence, crime, imprisonment, ill health. On DTTO they meet every morning to take their turn to give a sample in the whitewashed cubicle. It's examined for heroin, crack cocaine, amphetamines. If two positive samples are taken in a year, they're heading for jail. It's the last-chance saloon for the lads, attired in their uniform of hoodies, pencil-thin blue jeans and black trainers. They cough a lot. They're cocky in a group, invisible as individuals. If you blew hard enough they look like they'd fall over.

Someone on this order came up with the idea of challenging the county drug squad to a rugby match. They must have been high at the time. The drug squad agreed, and so on a rainswept, muddy afternoon, It's A Knockout met The Sweeney, and I was given a whistle.

The police, suitably in all blue, charged round with the ball, and if an offender got in their way they were run over like a cat on a motorway. It was like watching the Sex Pistols go over the top at the Somme. It finished 134-0. To the police. I blew the final whistle 10 minutes early because most of the partisan DTTO crowd had gone home. But the match was a success. The police and the offenders usually spend their time chasing each other like Tom and Jerry. This time there were handshakes, pats on the back, shared bottles of water. It felt good for both camps.

THE ROMANTIC WIFE-BEATER

Tuesdays is domestic violence day. Offenders (known as DV-ers) have abused one, maybe more, partner to the extent where the police have become involved. They are referred to us by the domestic violence unit, and after meetings with both perpetrator and victim (who inevitably stay together) it is decided whether the man (and therefore his partner) would gain from the programme. Unless they go too far with their fists, DV-ers rarely end up in prison. There's a national backlog of men waiting to go on these programmes, a shameful waiting-list that receives no attention.

The offenders attend a nine-month programme on how to prevent their fist meeting their partner's face on a regular basis. These are the middle-class probationers: businessmen with state-of-the-art mobiles and luxury saloons.

Most are going through the motions in class. The partners inevitably forgive them, the men drop their fists for a few months, and then the police are called again to the mock-Tudor estates when the frustration becomes too much for the man, and the violence too much for the neighbours.

Marcus Hartson* was such a case. He was also a convicted drink-driver, and so it fell to me to give him a lift home. We developed a routine: we'd talk about the football, how players were paid too much. We'd stop at the garage so Marcus could buy the most expensive flowers in the plastic bucket, and I'd drop him off. Mrs Hartson would get carnations on Tuesdays, and a right uppercut on Fridays. After all, we all need routine in our life.

FOOTBALL NIGHT

England are playing a big game. It's a 7.45pm kick-off, but it clashes with the Asro group. Asro stands for Alcohol & Substance Related Offending, and the offenders are addicted to drink or drugs. The group gathers at 7pm and leaves at 9.30pm, just in time for the final whistle. Excellent. All offenders can miss two sessions without the danger of Breach (being sent back before the judge as having failed their order) and it was the perfect opportunity for them to play one of their "get out of probation free" cards. But they arrived in dribs and drabs, accompanied by the familiar undercurrent of passing the blame; "Fucking typical. Trust them to ruin it". We were "them", and it was our fault they were missing the football. Not theirs, for helping themselves to a bottle in Somerfield. Or for smashing in a few windows after an afternoon on the piss.

Jamie Todd* was a cheeky beggar. He turned up demanding petrol money. His partner brought him in and then normally collected him later. However, on this balmy evening Jamie had a cunning plan. The room where we met was stuffy, and so the windows were always left open. At 7.42pm Jamie's partner parked their battered Ford beneath them with Radio 5 Live blaring out. Jamie sat beside the open window, bouncing back on his chair like a third-former. England lost. But Jamie didn't care; he'd got one over on probation and that's what really mattered.

THE DEATH OF SEAN CONNORS

James Dean, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison. There can be a certain romance about dying young. But there was no romance in the death of Sean Connors.

Sean was on the DTTO Programme. A habitual drug user, who'd burgled a few homes to feed the habit his older brother introduced him to. He could have been sent to prison for two years, but Sean was only 18 and the judge was feeling lenient: he unwittingly signed Sean's death warrant. He'd gone off the rails and DTTO allowed him the chance to get back on them. It's nearly impossible to do that in prison: once the door's locked, it's downhill all the way. Sean knew DTTO was his last chance. He attended meetings, stayed clean, lived at his girlfriend's and watched telly. He'd played in the rugby match, joking with the police that they'd been lucky. Sean's luck ran out a few days later.

Boredom is a killer, and Sean got bored. That Friday night the old crowd were out in town, having a laugh, looking for kicks. The temptation was too much for Sean. Five months into the order he smoked some dope, then injected crack cocaine. The old confidence flooded back into his veins. He could do anything. But instead of doing anything, him and a friend stole a Mondeo from outside the multiscreen cinema. There's a fast road down to the river. A bit dangerous with some blind corners, but Sean was a good driver and had never had an accident. His mate was retuning the radio when Sean lost control at 75mph. The Mondeo smashed into some trees. Sean was pronounced dead at the scene. His friend was admitted to A&E with a broken collarbone.

Sean was a popular lad from a large family. His girlfriend loved him and he had mates on every street in his part of town. Flowers were laid where Sean left the road and this world. And a little wooden cross his uncle knocked up.

A few days later I passed the scene, on my way to pick up an alcoholic. Winter was coming, the trees were shedding their leaves. The river looked bleak and unforgiving. Grey and flat, like the sky above. Not a great place to die.

All names have been changed