October 5th 2011 – Ship of fools

11 Oct

Today I really did not have any fun. Had the same officer as last week but as always was with a new gang of people to “work with”. We did three jobs in all today, two basic gardening jobs cutting hedges and the like and one litter picking. In the seven hour day we spent about three hours actually working and the rest of the time drinking tea or sat in the van. The problem today was being stuck with the most moronic, racist, sexist and unproductive humans i have ever encountered in my whole life. Screaming offensive things out of the window at lolly-pop ladies and OAPs that walked past while the probation officer just sat there in silenced and drove. By the end of the day I was so infuriated I wanted to strangle them to death! One interesting thing that did happen was the hours we spent driving around in circles trying to find where some of the jobs were. A satnav or at least a map would have added another hour or so of actual work time on the day and saved some petrol.

One other thing that has being playing on my mind over the past few weeks has been health and safety. The wire brushing of the metal railings we did on the second week was done without dust masks. It occurs to me that the railings were old and may very well have been painted in lead based paint. I wonder how much though into matters like this is done when the jobs are taken up.

Only a short one for this week guys but thanks for reading.

September 28th 2011 – Hardest but most productive.

28 Sep

By now you get the idea of how the day starts. Interestingly as it was 26°C outside today not many people seemed to have bothered turning up so we were put into groups of four rather that eight. We set off in the van up to a community center in a pretty undesirable part of the city where once again we did the hanging around and drinking tea for an hour before getting stuck in.

The place we were working today was a short drive from the community center and was a small area of grass within a housing estate. Around the outside of this area were thickly overgrown brambles, trees and bushes and also rubbish ranging from bricks to pram wheels. We spent a good hour or so clipping bushes, weeding, fighting with the thickest and sharpest brambles I’ve ever had the misfortune of encountering and clearing up all the dumped waste before heading back to the center for lunch. Our probation officer for the day was a nice guy in his mid to late 50’s and like the fellow from last week got his hands dirty too. After lunch we went back to carry on with the job in hand. The sun was quite high in the sky now and it made for very hard work indeed (the first time I can say hard work since this whole community service thing started for me). Across the road from us some travelers had tied up a couple of horses who seemed most unsettled by our presence but did not interfere with what we were doing. At about 2.30pm we had cleaned up most of the area and left all the debris in a large pile that looked suspiciously like a bonfire. I asked our supervisor what would be done with the huge pile of clippings, branches and rubbish and he assured me that the council would be there to take it away the next day, I hope he’s right as a strong wind would certainly make the area worse than before we had started. For once I didn’t have a bitter feeling about only working a few actual hours on site. Even with half the number of us there we seemed to have gotten twice as much done.

This is the first week I can see exactly where we have been and why it is of benefit to the local community. On the way back we stopped to pick up some other community payback people from the probation trust allotments, which I look forward to working in at some point. I went home this afternoon feeling as if I had actually accomplished something if only from the thorny battle scars and the sweat soaked clothes.

Until next week guys stay out of trouble :-)

September 21st 2011 – Cleaning steps with the nice guy

25 Sep

So week three and everything starts much the same way, except that up until now I have only seen males serving community service and today there were three women there too.

We still don’t leave the place until after 10am and once again I have a different supervisor a guy in his early 60s who seems remarkably upbeat. We all jump in a van and take off towards another mystery destination. One of the guys in the group asks a question that I wish I’d felt comfortable enough to ask: “Why do we have to sit around and wait an hour in the morning before we set off?”

The supervising officer laughed and said that, “10am was quick and most days you could expect not to leave before 11am”. He then told us that it’s because every morning they don’t know exactly who will turn up, and then once they are sure that everyone who is coming is there, they then have to put us into groups. Some people can’t do heavy lifting or can’t work in dusty places due to allergies etc, so everybody’s paperwork has to be gone through and matched up with whichever jobs are on the cards for that day.  This to me does seem like a rather long-winded system of doing things but, with the minimal information I have about the systems running behind the scenes here, it would be impossible for me to suggest how things could be improved, but I’m sure that with a bit of thought they probably could.

I had noticed that no tools had been put in the van before we had departed and was quietly quizzing myself as to what I thought we might be doing today. We show up at a small car park with flats on one side and a row of steel shutters on the other. We walk over to one shutter and our supervisor opens it. It appears to be some kind of field station with a table, chairs, and then around the outside of the room spades, shovels, folks, rakes, and brushes. We sit down and the kettle is put on as conversations about football and z-list celebrities bounce around the room, as do copies of The Star and The Sun. At this point I can’t put my finger on exactly why, but even in light, shallow conversation, today’s supervising officer not only doesn’t talk down to any of us but is rather friendly and even compassionate about our situation. It becomes apparent to me later why this is, and I shall explain later, but needless to say it would seem he has been doing this job for a long time and up until now is the only member of staff that I feel happy to be around.

After a while we drink up, load the van and set off again. In a few minutes we get to a wooded area and get out. We are led to some steps leading up to a footpath and told that all the mud and soil that has clearly been collecting on the steps for a while needs to be shoveled up and cleared. So we set to work. Interestingly, our supervising officer – who I am growing quite fond of – picks up a shovel and works along side us. In the previous two weeks I have been hawked over by chain-smoking officers looking grumpy but today this guy is whistling and getting stuck in. After a while, I start asking him about this supposed privatisation of the probation trust and he tells me quite openly that it’s already started and the switch over is slowly happening. He goes off on a rant about work load increase and pay freezing for all staff except his boss and one other manager, who are both lessening their responsibilities whilst receiving a healthy pay rise.  It is interesting, although not surprising to me, to find what I hadn’t previously thought of as a company would still have your standard, poorly-run-company problems. After an hour or so he stopped us told us we’d done a good job, thanked us and we jumped back in the van to go have lunch. The conversation had now turned to the subject of cannabis and the sentencing laws around it. One guy who had been to jail for dealing was serving a community order now for dealing again was very happy to admit he was still dealing now,how much he had at his house and would anybody like to buy some from him. This was all said  in front of out community officer who sat there completely unbothered by the conversation.  Another guy took his phone number and agreed on an ounce of blueberry skunk to be dropped off at his address on Friday night. Here I thought is some more proof that getting people to do unpaid work isn’t a deterrent to reoffend. It turned out later again in light conversation that two guys in the group had been in an out of probation since they were 16 and 14. Once again I can’t see how getting them to clear soil from steps would be of greater benefit than educating them! This guy didn’t finish school and openly says he deals because he can’t buy “all the nice shit I want” on dole money so I make the rest up selling weed. He now has been to prison and probably will again because its either risk that or live poor. He could earn at least as much money a week being a plumber without the risk of jail if he were given some incentive or support to do so. I maybe wrong about all this and I am still new to the whole community service thing and I haven’t experience nearly enough to damn the whole process and say it doesn’t work but this early on and that is really how it appears to me.

During lunch I talk to a 6ft4 black guy with size 13 feet about what he’s here for. He had already struck me earlier as being a bright guy and it turned out he was much more than that. This is a guy sentence to 200 hours community service for vandalism that he maintains he did not do, but in his spare time runs a youth club and mentors inner city kids. As he talks about his work (that he does for free) the passion and sense of importance comes flooding out. This is a guy who cares about what kids are doing with their future he’s talking to them as people and helping them find the right path but here he is now sat opposite me in a probation field office between a guy who was driving drunk whilst disqualified and another feller who punched his wife in the face. There are clearly a lot of different characters who end up here and I don’t think we should all get lumped in together. Some need the education or skills giving to them, some yes could clean some steps in a wood but people like this guy have precious skills that he is already giving to the community. The work he does in a month would outweigh one thousand hours of community service as actual service to the community. We head back after lunch to do some more work on the steps and clear some of the path at the top. One guy finds an old dilapidated bandstand which we discover you can get into round that back and is full of cider bottles, make shift crack pipes hundreds and hundreds of used needles and a burnt out motorcycle. Our probation officer makes a note and tell us he’s call the council and report it as a site to clean and them possibly remove.

We leave at about 3pm to go back at wait at the main building until we can leave. Once again we’ve only done 3 or 4 hours of actual work but I am signed off as apparently working 7.15 hours today. At least the work seemed like we’d actually accomplished something however slight. Oh yeah I forgot to mention why our probation officer seemed to treat us as equals. It turned out he use to be a policeman. He had witnessed the police be deliberately heavy handed towards suspects, he had seem innocent people stopped and harassed by his collogues for there race or appearance. He once witnessed a fellow officer strike a deal with a known drug dealer that instead of arresting him he should recruit some young idiot a week to sell some weed for him and then call the officer  with his address to make the arrest so the main dealer was safe and the police officer’s record looked brilliant. He said criminals and scum bags live on both side of the law and he didn’t want to be part of it so he came here to give some sort of encouragement to some of the people who had ended up in a situation they didn’t want or in some cases ask for. He told me his boss was an idiot and the place was run badly but that he felt a certain level of duty towards the convicted that ended up here. I’m not entirely sure why he feels this. I imagine that most of the people here knowingly broke the law but it is reassuring that there is at least one guy here that actually wants to help in some capacity rather than just punish.

September 14th 2011 – Wire brushing some metal railings

20 Sep

Much the same start as last week. Sign in be made to feel like an intellectual inferior (although I have at this point yet to meet someone here who does not seem like a brain-dead zombie) and then put into groups and stuck in the van. This time our destination is quite close but work is still preceded by cups of tea and coffee and does not being until about 11am. We are at a block of council flats which have a latticework of white metal railing zing -zaged around the grounds. We are told that they need painting, but before painting they need undercoating and before that they need all the rust and flaky paint taking off them. This seems reasonable I think, right up until I am handed a pair of old gloves and a flimsy wire brush. I walk up to the railing and have a go. It may sound strange but I actually want to work hard at this. I can’t help that this whole stupid mess happened, I can’t change the judges mind and I can’t help that I am taking one day a week off from my actual work (where not only do I earn more I actually do something worthwhile) to come to a probation office and do community service. So if I have to spend my time here once a week I may as well not waste it! Helping the community should be a positive thing I might gain some sort of satisfaction from making the place I live a slightly nicer place to be. But no. After 5 minutes with the flimsy wire brush it became very apparent that this was the wrong tool for the job. I had a brush when what I needed was a grizzly disc or a power sander. The wire brush did less than nothing I mean no matter how much elbow grease you put in it really did do fuck all! I decided to talk to the officer a different one from last time. He told me to shut up and get on with it. I did shut up and get on with it for another half an hour. It was like removing graffiti with the eraser on the top of a pencil. I called him over to show him why this really was a waste of time. He wasn’t interested and wandered off. It was now that I met and spoke to the first person doing this community service and had a proper conversation. He was a guy in his 50s and seemed quite intelligent we had apparently been busted for selling knock off DVDs, which in all fairness is a hard crime to commit, by accident but all in all he seemed like a nice guy. We both complained about how stupid this all was as we worked away on the railing still to no avail. And it was at this point that I decided that all this needed to be written down and sent to the government or a newspaper or something and it was my father who suggested I blog it. Why was I here? Well it was because in one capacity or another I broke the law. Ok fine lets accept that for the minute. Now let’s ask it again. Why was I here? Was it a mindless task given as punishment? Is that all it is? If it is that’s fine but don’t call it community service by the end on day two I would have done nearly 15 supposed hours and not a single one NOT A SINGLE ONE! was in anyway service to the community. Up until now the tax payers (which since the age of 18 has included me!) have paid to give people community service. We pay for the building and the staff and the vans and equipment and for what? For nothing of any value at all! This of course will change when they privatize the probation trust which then means that the unpaid work will go to which ever companies pay most for it and being of no possible use to the community again! It will in fact be legal slave labor at that point. The thing that got me so worked up as I stood there with my shitty little wire brush and a railing on irremovable rust was why if we could not be found relevant places to work and then made to work all the hours we were supposed too rather than do 4 or 5 in what is meant to be a 7.15 hour day. Why instead are the people here who don’t have a job, didn’t go to school and will never learn a trade being squandered with wire brushes and railing? The probation office building is a big one. Give them a choice! You can tickle a fence with a brush or get there at 9am sit in a classroom until 4pm and pass your English or math’s GCSE! Or learn some computer skills and get a recognized qualification at the end of it. Or be made to show up for some sort of apprenticeship to learn brick laying or plumbing. That would be community service wouldn’t it? Moving people off the dole and into work as tax paying member of society? Would that not keep them from reoffending much better than a wire brush and rusty rail will? Either educate and help the uneducated and helpless or give us something more meaningful to do than fucking NOTHING!

September 7th 2011 – Weeding an old peoples home

20 Sep

I had been given a date to go see my probation officer who ended up not being there when I arrived for my meeting and so was met by someone else who spent half an hour getting me to sign forms and then arranged my first day of unpaid work which would be September 7th. I was told that I should arrive at 9am and stand round the back.

I arrived at 9am to a small crowd of adidas and knock off burberry not the usual crowd I would stand around with if I’m honest. At 9:15am we are lead into a waiting room where we give our names pick up so old stinking steel toecap boot and then wait. All everyone is talking about is how many hours they each have left to serve and how much they hate doing this every week. After about 45 minutes we are finally put into small groups of between 6 and 8 and then handed orange jackets with “Community payback” written in big letters on the back.  It is impossible not to feel like a lesser person when in this situation. I couldn’t believe hat woodcarving had landed me in what felt like a school detention. Being talked down to as if you were a complete idiot. It made me feel quite angry. Why should my supposed crime make me a moron? Just because I somehow ran afoul of the law does that automatically mean I’m an uneducated delinquent? Steven Fry went to jail and he’s a nation treasure! Anyway all this aside we are then piled into vans laden with tools and we’re on the road. At this point none of us know what it is we’re going to be doing or where. We arrive half an hour later (about 10:30am) at an old people home we unload the van and then are walked around to a little staff area where we are given tea and aloud to smoke if we so wish. Here we sit with our one community officers who is also drinking tea and reading the Sun for another half an hour. We finally start work just after 11am. The officer is pretty vague about what it is the 8 of us are supposed to be doing. “Get rid of weed and that” is the only real direction we are given. So I get on my hands and knees and start pulling up the unwanted flora. One young guy has already lost interest and is idly hacking at an old tree with a set of garden shears. One or two of the other lads seem to be working relatively hard and everyone else just seems to be stood staring into space. Then it starts to rain. Not heavily just a light spit and instantly all tools are dropped without as much as a word said and everyone heads back for the staff room. I kneel up to see the community officer gesturing to me to follow. I do and we sit inside for another hour drinking tea while the light rain passes (it is at this point interesting to note that the light rain that obviously was unworkable in didn’t stop anyone including the officer from going outside for a smoke). We go back outside and carry on for about 20 minutes before it is apparently time for lunch. So back inside for another hour to eat the food we have been told to bring with us and also the home made soup that the people at the old folks home have made for us. At just after 1pm we head back outside to do some more work. So far even with 8 people it’s impossible to see if any work has actually been done at all. We carry on as before for about another hour when suddenly there is a yelp from over by a bush after the commotion has settled it is apparent that one man has upset a bee’s nest and has been stung twice on the back of the head. He is told to sit down which he does for 10 minutes or so before a decisions is made that he must be taken to hospital so we all pack up the van leave all the dug up weed all over the ground so that in fact the old people home looks in a worse state than it did when we arrived and head for the general infirmary.  Some people get dropped off near there houses on the way to hospital but are told that they will not be able to count an hour or so as worked if they don’t stay, this doesn’t seem to stop many of them so most leave. We get to the hospital and the man goes in three of us and the officer sit in the van and wait when it get to 3:50pm we are told we can go and given a little green slip to say we have done 7.15 hours work for the community. Hang on a minute! How is that right we have done barely 3 hours work and in those 3 hours actually made the place look worse. I walk home feeling perplexed and wondering if what I had just experienced was a typical day of community service as it turned out by next week things got even more ridicules.

Arrested, court and sentencing

20 Sep

Earlier this year I was arrested for position of a bladed article in a public place. As the court heard and understood I was sat on a bench whittling a piece of wood (as was my want on that occasion as it often is or I suppose now was). To cut an incredibly long story short after my arrest I was charged and had to appear at magistrate’s court as it appeared the knife I was using was 1/8 of an inch over the three-inch limit for pocketknives. The knife itself was a small wooden handled DIY wood knife that I had purchased many years earlier in a small fishing shop in Whitby and in good faith and completely unwitting to me was apparently not lawful to have anywhere other than inside your own home. My solicitor explained to me that pleading guilty to the charge was the best course of action for at no point did I deny having the pocketknife only that I was using it as a tool for a hobby and that I had no idea it was not an ok thing to do. To my horror I suddenly found myself possibly facing a jail sentence despite the fact that it was obvious I had not threatened anyone and that I had never been in trouble for anything before. So here I was sat in court my freedom balancing on the scales of justice in a situation I had never thought myself possible to be in. The dreadful case went on for months until on the final day (after a probation report in which the officer made the conclusion that I was little threat to anyone and unlikely to fall foul of the law again) I was given 150 hours community service.

So why am I writing a blog? Blogging is not something I’ve done before and not something I was ever planning to do but after a couple of weeks of “serving the community” I feel what goes on in this unpaid work and how probation officers and the law deal with people who have been given a community order an what they actually do is not really known by the average member of the public. So here it is from me! I have decided to write this under a fake name and not disclose any locations so that what is written in this blog can remain utterly honest. So I shall be assuming the name Abel Magwitch.

Hope you find what i have to say of importance or at least of interest.

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