Every picture tells a story: Bratislava reflections
This post comes from Gwen Robinson, co-leader of the Working Group on Practising Supervision….
In our first year, Working Group 3 (Practising Supervision) attracted members from 16 countries and the focus of our work was the completion of an overview of empirical research on the practice(s) of offender supervision in those jurisdictions. The culmination of that work was a chapter which will appear in the collection Offender Supervision in Europe. The chapter was written by myself and Kerstin Svensson, along with 19 associate authors who, in close cooperation, produced thorough and thoughtful reviews of research in their own jurisdictions. Kerstin and I are immensely proud of the work of our group in its first year, and have had the pleasure of meeting and working with our many new colleagues. The picture below was taken at the end of the meeting of our Working Group in Bratislava, which took place over two half-days on 25-26 October 2013. The picture shows 16 of us, representing 12 jursidictions, and I think it is a good illustration of the warm relationships that have developed within the group, and which doubtless facilitate our effectiveness as a research team with a shared mission.
So, what is our mission in the second year of our work? In common with the other Working Groups within the Action, we are now turning our attention to the tricky but fascinating business of comparison, with a focus on methodological discussions. Prior to the Bratislava meeting, Kerstin and I proposed that our group might focus its discussions on some areas of practice that could be said to be universal – i.e. common across all jurisdictions, and therefore (potentially) viable topics for comparative research. As Kerstin put it, we have sought similarities as our starting point. In setting the agenda for Year 2 we were also mindful of one of the key findings of our review of research in Year 1: namely, that relatively little attention has been paid by researchers to the ‘everyday’ of offender supervision practice. Far more attention has been devoted to examining discrete processes, such as risk assessment and the writing of pre-sentence reports (to give just 2 examples). Our topics for discussion on the first day in Bratislava, then, were ‘the working alliance’ (between offender and supervisor) and ‘a day in the life’ of offender supervision, and we heard presentations from Andrea Donker (The Netherlands) on the first topic, and Kerstin Svensson (Sweden) and Anne Worrall (England & Wales) on the second.
On the second day, our discussions began to move firmly in the direction of exploring methodological issues, and we split into three sub-groups to consider the potential of three approaches – observation, practice diaries and visual methods – to studying aspects of the ‘everyday’ of offender supervision. In different ways, each of the sub-groups sought to think about how to expose aspects of practice which are normally hidden from view. This is a topic which chimes with some work I have been doing recently and which I elaborated in a paper at the European Society of Criminology conference in Budapest in September. This paper set out to examine and explain the relative neglect of community sanctions and measures in the ‘punishment and society’ literature, and one of its arguments concerned the relative invisibility of this part of the penal field – both literally and in the public imagination – especially when compared to prisons and imprisonment. I noted that a Google Images search for terms like ‘probation’ simply tends to confirm the lack of iconography in this area: what images there are tend to depict people doing what is presumably unpaid work in the community; or else two people sitting on either side of a desk , apparently engaged in discussion. Quite frankly, they could be just about anyone, discussing anything. These are far from memorable images, and highly unlikely to capture the public imagination. They seem to confirm Mike Nellis’s recent observation that “probation…is not very photogenic [and] the great majority of people have no source of information about what probation does” (2012).
With this in mind, our sub-group on visual methods has made plans to pilot a method which will involve asking practitioners to capture aspects of their practice and working environment using photography. We want to explore the ways in which practitioners, given the opportunity, would choose to depict and represent their work, and to explore what the images they produce might tell us about what is the same, as well as what is different, from workers’ perspectives, between jurisdictions.
With this project in mind, I spoke this week to a friend who works as a Probation Service Officer in a busy office in an English city. I outlined briefly our proposal, and was encouraged by his enthusiastic response to the idea of being one of a few of the ‘image-makers’ in our pilot study. In fact, he seemed eager to get started straight away, and was positive about the idea of finding one or two other probation workers to ‘have a go’. From my perspective, this is wonderful and exciting (though we can’t proceed until I have obtained ethical approval from my University). My friend is a very creative person and will, I think, enjoy producing images of his work. I also hope he will enjoy the small opportunity this project will offer to exercise some control and make choices in his working environment. Because at the present time, all probation workers in England & Wales are waiting for someone else to decide their future within the new structures for probation work devised by the Coalition Government’s Transforming Rehabilitation programme. Early next year, the 10,000 or so probation workers in England & Wales will learn whether they will be working in the newly constituted National Probation Service (principally working in the courts, conducting risk assessments and managing high risk offenders), or one of 21 new ‘Community Rehabilitation Companies’ which will be formed to take over around 70% of the work currently done by the 35 Probation Trusts with low- and medium-risk offenders (for further information about this, see: http://www.justice.gov.uk/downloads/rehab-prog/competition/target-operating-model.pdf). This is by far the most radical ‘reform’ of probation in its 101 year history, and a difficult time to be a probation worker in England & Wales. Whether we will, in our small pilot project, see visual evidence of this radical restructuring of probation work, and its impact on probation workers, remains to be seen.