To mark the launch of the book, Life Beyond Crime: What do those at risk of offending, prisoners and ex-offenders need to learn? We have conducted a series of Q&As.
Heather Munro OBE has thirty eight years’ experience in the Criminal Justice Sector and was most recently Chief Executive of London Probation with responsibility for 70,000 offenders until her retirement in 2014. She was awarded an OBE in 2015 for services to probation. She was an Honorary Lecturer at Leicester University from 2009 to 2015. She is now involved on a voluntary basis with several local and national charities.
What is the one thing you wish all probation clients knew before they started community supervision?
Unfortunately offenders often have little information before starting community supervision about what will be expected of them. Very little time is now spent interviewing offenders before such a sentence is passed, usually because a report has been complied after only one interview. Though this may save time at a certain point in the criminal justice process it can cause more time delays and cost when offenders fail to turn up or breach their orders. Offenders need to have a reasonable level of motivation to complete what can and should be an arduous and challenging order. So, I think offenders need to understand that a community order is meant to be both a punishment and an aid to turning their lives around. Those who see it merely as a punishment may lack the motivation to make use of the support on offer and those who see it as a form of help are often shocked by the commitments they must make and keep.
In your extensive experience in probation, what was the most inspirational work you saw or were involved aimed at improving service user skills and education?
There has been so much good work done to improve offender’s skills and education that it is difficult to pick out specific projects. What is clear is that offenders as a group have very high rates of truancy and exclusion so their experience of education has not been positive. What is also striking is the low level of literacy and the high levels of dyslexia when assessed. Some of the best work I have seen both in prison and in the community is to tackle this but unfortunately cuts in the system have meant that there is much less investment. Seeing the difference it can make to someone who has never been able learn this skill is remarkable. Community punishment orders were also a useful vehicle to teach more employable skills – one memorable projects were a cafe run by offenders who gained catering skills which are valuable in today’s economy. But often it is just the pattern of having to turn up for work on a regular basis and engaging with skilled supervisors that can make all the difference. I often attended ceremonies to hand out certificates to offenders who received qualifications or awards and it was generally a very moving experience to hear offenders talk about how significant this was for them. Perhaps one of the most moving conversation I had was with an offender who was at a parenting course run by probation – this sort of course is not normally run by probation and I doubt it is run anywhere now – who learnt so much about himself and things he could change to have a better relationship with his children. Unfortunately the changes in probation have not helped the assimilation and sharing of good practice so often the most inspirational work is lost.
Offender education can often focus on formal qualifications and skills for future employment. Do you see a role for broader education programmes in probation, such as engagement with the arts, which can improve self-knowledge and help develop self-confidence?
I definitely think engagement with broader education programmes is essential mainly because of the poor experience most offenders have of formal education. Prisons have been quite inspirational in the past in providing things like resident writers and poets or working with drama groups or musical charities. Also the Koestler charity has been working in this area for many years and I have seen some fantastic works of art at their exhibitions. When I worked in probation in Leicestershire we employed an art therapist to work with drug and prolific offenders and this had seemed to have some really good results in engaging a difficult group. But perceived public opinion of “treats” for offenders usually puts a stop many of these projects!
What is the most important lesson you learnt from working with service users and probation clients?
This really is a challenging question. My best shot at an answer is that as a worker you have to stick with people, sometimes for a long time, to see any change. Many offenders have had very damaged lives and therefore to expect them to change all that around during a short order with limited intervention is unrealistic. Yet as a worker you must always keep that “hope” and belief that it is possible for someone to change. Often offenders have to reach rock bottom before they are prepared to make the changes necessary to live a law abiding life. Sometimes it is just about intervening or being there at the right point – perhaps when someone reaches maturity or they get into a serious relationship so they become more motivated. I have heard ex-offenders say that at a certain point they remembered something a probation worker said to them years ago that helped them make the right choice. You definitely need to be a glass half full sort of person in this line of work!
Life Beyond Crime
Life Beyond Crime brings together in an insightful and passionate debate, through prose, poems and pictures the assembled first-hand experience and wisdom of more than 60 contributors responding to the question What do those at risk of offending, prisoners and ex-offenders need to learn? Contributors include current and former prisoners including the work of artists and poets who have been recognised by Koestler awards; criminal justice practitioners; educators and academics; as well writers from the voluntary and arts worlds including theatre director Phyllida Lloyd, lyricist Sir Richard Stilgoe and sculptor Sir Antony Gormley. Learning and understanding are discussed in their widest sense, covering not just formal learning and learning skills, but also – and most importantly – learning about yourself, your past and future identity, your family life and your aspirations and role in society. These types of understanding are explored in the contexts of diversion from crime, young people, adults in prison, and returning to the community.