I’ve recently read a short book, Behind the Crime by Colin Ferguson, who has worked in the Probation Service and after retirement as a Family Mediator. The author’s intention is to set before his readers what lies behind their criminal behaviour which led to prison sentences, and the part probation can and may play in improving and stabilising the lives of those who have ‘done time’. He does this by styling the book in short chapters, each telling a short ‘case history’ type story concerning one character, their crime, their previous life, and their interaction as a probationer. All are based on real situations, with of course names and other details changed.
He himself experienced a complete change of environment as a small child, moving from Perth, Scotland, to Richmond, Surrey, which involved all the disruption of unfamiliar places, accents, a new school, and leaving the past behind. His career as a Probation Officer began after 9 years at the Bank of England, and his degree in Criminal Justice was taken as a mature student. All these, as well as becoming a Lay Preacher, shows Ferguson took with him to the job some real-life knowledge of overcoming difficulties, and is certainly a ‘people person’. His life has included many and varied experiences, as he has worked with and guided, where possible, many people encountering a chance and a challenge to change their previous life around.
The stories reveal what a patchwork of humanity is found ‘on probation’. In Holloway Prison, for example, he worked exclusively of course with female prisoners, whose crimes were mainly drug or alcohol-related. Holloway also had a large population of prostitutes or sex workers, some whom were in that business following into their mum’s career, or pushed into it by boyfriends. In another story, we Readers encounter a woman who had never actually done any real ‘shopping’ until her husband suddenly died. Apparently he had always walked around the supermarket instructing her in what to pick up, then, in his role of “bread-winner” moved the check-out, totally in charge of paying. The woman was compelled by his loss to at last run her own life, including handling money. In despair at how paying worked, she shoplifted groceries, and ended up with a short sentence. On release, she returned to the prison, begging to be allowed back into what had become ‘home’.
Many other crimes reveal themselves to be committed by people who are finding it hard to cope with the complexities of life, for a variety of reasons. Some are from desperately difficult backgrounds, families where criminality was the norm, or where they were subject to violent behaviour and cruel abuse. In most cases, probably all, it is very possible to feel compassion for these people, and indeed to admire the faithful work of the probation service in attempting to put ‘criminals’ who have suffered dehumanising and depressing lives into better place, a possible home and suitable work.
Ferguson writes with compassion and projects a practical, common sense attitude towards his clients, with eyes open to their lifestyles and problems, along with a positive regard. The very concept of ‘probation’ (officially begun in 1907, and developed from the ‘Church of England Temperance Society’ and other voluntary bodies which had begun to attempt to give offenders the chance of release under a system of supervision) and gave many prisoners a ‘second chance’. However, in 2007, after various negotiations and discussions, it was privatised. And has since become less effective.
It isn’t the job of a book review charting one Probation Officer’s career and experiences to comment further or go into details, but an article in The Guardian(cited by Wikipedia, and, additionally, the witness of a family member of mine who was at that time working in Probation) suggest that “privatisation of the probation service was done in haste, underfunded and is failing. Probation is being used less because judges and magistrates have lost confidence in the privatised probation system.
The probation service in London is understaffed and many probation officers are inexperienced. Probationers are seen too infrequently and some are overlooked.”*
To conclude my review, Behind the Crime is a not only an interesting read, taking us literally ‘behind’ what we read in the newspapers or in crime novels, to look into how and what motivates criminals, but an eye-opener into lives often already blighted by poverty, insecurity, neglect, addiction, poor education, or violence, adding up to what could be called ‘suffering’, although it is unlikely they might use that word of themselves. It is very much worth a read. And contains no ‘lay preaching’ of a ‘religious’ kind, but plenty of wisdom and compassion, laced with a realistic appraisal of humanity.