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.