John​ is one of more than 250,000 people in Britain living under the supervision of the probation service. He got out of prison in April 2018, when his sentence still had some years to run. I met him while I was reporting on the shortcomings of the law on joint enterprise. In 2005 he had been convicted for murder after a man died as a result of injuries received during a burglary John was involved in – injuries John did not inflict. Following a 2016 Supreme Court decision finding flaws in the law, John appealed and his conviction was overturned: he was sentenced to 18 years for manslaughter instead. Since he had already served more than half that time, he was released on licence.

John’s probation officer found him a room in a shared house in Openshaw, in Manchester. The landlord claimed housing benefit on John’s behalf, and sent a man round each week to collect a portion of his Jobseekers’ Allowance in cash. The company managing the property claimed to be providing ‘supported’ accommodation, but there was no evidence of any support when I visited. Its website gives no information about the services provided and the ‘About Us’ section consists of just a few stock photos and the letter ‘x’, as a placeholder. It’s a private company registered as a non-profit with the Regulator of Social Housing, but the house John was living in belongs to the father of the two men described as company directors at Companies House.

John had almost no money, and had to walk three and a half miles to his probation appointments, and a mile and a half to sign on, unless he could get cash for the bus from one of his sons. ‘It’s fucking burning my head out,’ he told me. ‘I can’t even get a haircut.’ One of the conditions of his tenancy was that he wasn’t allowed to work because this would mess up his housing benefit. When he got a job as a building labourer the landlord gave him a week’s notice. ‘Maybe next time I speak to you I’ll be in Strangeways,’ John texted me.

His probation officer wasn’t much help, and the room he eventually found in a hostel in Cheetham Hill came from a charity for ex-prisoners. For a while he was happier: the facilities were better and he felt validated by having work. He attended the graduation ceremony for the Open University degree he had taken in prison, an experience that wasn’t wholly positive: ‘It just seemed like I shouldn’t be there,’ he told me in a WhatsApp voice note, ‘that I was like the black sheep in a swell of good, law-abiding people … I felt I didn’t deserve to be there.’

He hoped to move to Cambridge, where researchers he had met through a prison education programme called Learning Together had promised to help him find a job. He had come across Learning Together at HMP Grendon in Buckinghamshire, where he also received therapy for the first time after a lifetime of anxiety and negative feelings about himself, exacerbated by years of addiction and grief over the death of his mother in 1988, when he was 17. The prospect of a job in Cambridge was vague – part-time gardening work at the university and perhaps a role in prison education – but he now fixed on it as representing a more hopeful future.

But his probation officer didn’t seem interested in helping him find accommodation in Cambridge, and he had no prospect of finding a room in the private sector without a substantial deposit, so he stayed in Manchester. At least once he let his frustration show by swearing at the probation officer, and she abruptly ended their conversation. When he missed an appointment because he was at work, she sent him an official warning and threatened to refuse to allow him to attend events organised by Learning Together. He felt bullied. ‘Why even mention the best things in my life? She scares the life out of me … sometimes I think she’s trying to fuck my thing up for Cambridge.’

He was signed off for depression and quit his building job. The hostel room was only for people in work, so he was faced with eviction again. He wrote to me:

I literally don’t sleep at night, thinking, WORRYING, not eating. I’m mentally and physically drained.

I never once envisaged getting out to be like this, still sitting in my room every night. On my tod every night just like all those years in jail.

It’s exactly the same??

For reasons that are unclear, in October 2018 his probation officer told him he had to take a drug test. This had never been a condition of his licence, and his lawyers advised him to refuse. John followed the advice, and 1 November he was sent back to prison – this time to HMP Manchester, as Strangeways is officially known.

Some sense of John’s experience is captured in Probationary: The Game of Life on Licence, a board game commissioned by the Liverpool gallery FACT from the artist Hwa Young Jung. Together with academics from Liverpool John Moores University and probation officers, she held a series of workshops with men on probation in Merseyside. They played chess and the original Game of Life board game, while Hwa Young talked to them and tried to get a sense of their life on probation. Some men drifted out of the group and one of them found Hwa Young’s curiosity too painful. ‘The way I work is with a lot of questions,’ she told me. ‘Is life fair? Why is it not fair? What is the purpose of prison?’

The game, for four players, begins with their release from prison. One character is released to his own home, two to a hostel, one to homelessness. ‘We had a lot of discussion about how much to factor in luck and skills in the gameplay,’ Hwa Young said. ‘We decided it’s mostly luck.’ Players roll dice, and pick up various cards and tokens under the headings ‘Emotional’, ‘Skills’ and ‘Relationships’. An ‘Emotional’ card might tell you that you feel upset because trains passing by your hostel keep you awake – you lose Emotion tokens as a result. Squares that help a player move forward, like ‘Get Forklift Licence’ are green; grey squares, like ‘Break Curfew – Warning Letter’ or ‘Lose Job’, will send you back. The four characters have to ‘check in’ regularly with the fifth player, ‘The Eye’, representing the experience of supervision, who can recall the four players to prison.

The probation system has suffered badly from the ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ reforms of 2014. Supervision of low and medium-risk offenders was taken out of the direct control of the public sector and contracted out to ‘community rehabilitation companies’, private bodies run by businesses such as Sodexo and Interserve. Post-sentence supervision was extended to all prisoners serving sentences of less than a year, adding around forty thousand people to the rolls but with no increase in funding.

Nobody involved in probation is happy with the situation as it stands. Staff are overworked and often asked to do tasks for which they aren’t properly trained. In the north-west, for instance, the latest report by the Inspectorate of Probation found a 20 per cent shortfall in the number of probation officers. Morale is at an ‘all-time low’, the House of Commons Justice Committee found last year. Some of the 2014 reforms will be reversed from 2021 under the terms of a new plan released over the summer: community rehabilitation companies will be scrapped and responsibility returned to the National Probation Service, which will supervise all offenders, regardless of the severity of their crime or whether they have served a custodial sentence. This has been hailed in the Guardian and elsewhere as the ‘re-nationalisation’ of probation, but the reforms do not represent a return to the status quo ante. Each NPS region will have an ‘Innovation Partner’ from the private or voluntary sector, to which they will be obliged to contract a wide range of services. These include Community Payback (under which offenders do things like clean graffiti and pick up litter), but also accredited programmes like Building Better Relationships, aimed at male perpetrators of domestic violence. ‘The marketised model that was a driving rationale for Transforming Rehabilitation is not to be dispensed with,’ an editorial in September’s Probation Journal argues, ‘but rather reformulated.’

Meanwhile the profession is being hollowed out. In the year to 31 March 2018 an 8.4 per cent increase in the number of frontline staff disguised a 5.3 per cent fall in the number of probation officers, while probation services officers, a lower paid and less highly trained job, increased by 37.9 per cent. Last year the House of Commons Justice Committee recommended that the government develop a ‘probation workforce strategy’ to protect staff retention and morale, and set down expectations for training and maximum workloads. The proposal was rejected.

John spent almost ten months in Strangeways after his disagreement with his probation officer. It wasn’t like Grendon, where he had therapy – Grendon is one of only two prisons in England and Wales dedicated to this purpose – and finished his Open University degree. He had liked the shared kitchen there too; Sundays, he said, were – in a good way – ‘a free for all, fighting over rings and shit’. There was none of that at Strangeways, an ordinary local prison, where he had to stay in his cell for all but one and a half hours of the day. The prison has ‘a growing vermin problem’, according to its last inspection, and two-thirds of prisoners reported feeling unsafe at some point, but his biggest problem was boredom. I sent him Malcolm X’s autobiography, which he tore through, and Jackie Wang’s Carceral Capitalism, which made him so angry he thought he shouldn’t read it before his parole hearing.

He has been out on licence again since late August. This time round he is in a better situation: he is now living in Cambridge, with a part-time job in one of the college kitchens and accommodation in a hostel run by a charity, to which probation referred him at his own suggestion after a friend found the hostel online. He’s doing a creative non-fiction course at the Institute of Continuing Education, and has been given a bicycle to help him get around town. But he still has money troubles, few friends, and no feeling of security. He registered for Universal Credit, but new claimants receive nothing for about five weeks. This is hard enough for a person who’s lost a job – at least in theory they might have put some money aside while in work – but it’s absolutely impossible for a person leaving prison. He requested an advance on his first payment, and an additional sum to help with the move from Manchester to Cambridge , but these are repaid through deductions to subsequent payments. On top of that, more money is being taken to pay back benefits he was overpaid last time he was out. This leaves him with £226.99 a month, from which he has to pay £50 a month to the charity to top up the money they get from his housing benefit. This figure will come down by 63 pence for every pound he earns in the college kitchen, once his pay cheques start to come through.

Recently, we were chatting on WhatsApp when he became agitated. I could see that he was typing, deleting and retyping for a couple of minutes. Finally he wrote:

I know I’ve fucked u about and had a lot from you, but I’ve got docs appointment at half two, for sick note for work. And go ahead from probation to go to [his partner’s] for few days maybe week. Hoping once I get paid and have money to live, stand on own two feet things will be different? I can at least go out to try find these new friends?? I don’t wanna call as I feel like a rat! Bottom line is I was wondering if u can sub me £20.

Systems, whether probation services or board games, encapsulate and encode the values of their creators. The original Game of Life is won by the player with the most money at the end of the game. What’s the goal in Probationary? ‘We had a lot of discussions around this,’ Hwa Young told me, ‘because traditionally in board games you try to get home. But for a lot of the men, home was where their troubles started. So the last square is just called “Safe”.’

Learning Together held its first workshops at Grendon in 2014, under the direction of Ruth Armstrong and Amy Ludlow, from Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology. John had been sceptical at first. ‘The lads were always talking about it, “Oh they’re just studying us like lab rats,” but as the weeks went by … Ruth and Amy, you just have to meet them and see them in action.’ Each week there was a lecture on a topic like sentencing guidelines, or long-term imprisonment. Working in small groups with a facilitator, students and prisoners presented ideas related to the subject. One week, John’s group had to come up with ideas for improving the criminal justice system. John proposed pairing up officers on the beat with ex-offenders. ‘A lot of people don’t like talking to the police, the kids and that. If I’m there, from the estate, they’d maybe trust me a bit more. That way the police can get their information, and I can keep my eye on the police that they’re not bullying the kids. That makes it a bit more legitimate.’ The response from the academics – encouraging, thoughtful, respectful – was gratifying. He had already spent a fair bit of time studying, in fact he was the prison’s Open University orderly, helping other prisoners navigate their way through their studies, but Learning Together meant more to him because it gave him the opportunity to work with others and to be validated with and by them. ‘I’ve always struggled with self-esteem. I tried arguing with it, but I couldn’t hide from the support and the care that was there.’ At the end of the course students from Learning Together gave him a legal dictionary, and after he left Grendon one of the staff members visited him in HMP Preston during his appeal.

All this led John to join other former prisoners at a celebration of the programme’s fifth anniversary at Fishmongers’ Hall on 29 November. Ruth and Amy were there. So were Saskia Jones, a volunteer John knew, and the course co-ordinator Jack Merritt, who had come to his Open University graduation ceremony: the two people killed when Usman Khan launched his senseless knife attack.

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