Given that I am no longer a number but a free woman it’s pretty unusual for me to find myself at the Probation office any more. Sure, I drive past it on occasion, en route to town or wherever, but it’s not exactly somewhere you’d choose to visit. You’ll not be surprised to learn that it’s a depressing sort of place, neutrally decorated so that all the marks show up on the walls and all the stains show up on the carpet, with posters up advertising all sorts of offending behaviour courses, schemes about giving up smoking/alcohol/drugs and information on what you have to do if you have a community service order. And a sign stating tops must be worn at all times. Lovely.
Today, though, for the second time in a few months I braved it because I had a meeting about some potential unpaid writing work for the Probation Service in my area. Writing the whole Porridge series for this blog has re-awakened my interest in matters of criminal justice, you see, so rather than sitting around on my bum (as you are well aware I am incredibly proficient at) I thought I’d get off it and do some good. Or something.
Portsmouth City Council has become something of a bastard in recent years, in particular when it comes to parking. It used to be that you would have to pay in city car parks during daytime hours only. Not any more. Not only do you have to pay extortionate rates whenever you park now, you also find that, rather like rats, you are never more than 6 feet away from a parking attendant. So, with 5 minutes to go before my meeting and as I was filling up the parking meter with about £450 worth of 10p pieces I was somewhat alarmed to see one of these attendants eyeing up The Beast (the Flaherty family car is big). I’d only been there for 20 seconds, for the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s sake! And where the hell did he come from? He must have been hiding behind that Corsa! When he started writing something down I panicked and loudly informed him, while still shovelling coins into the meter and giving him a Paddington hard stare, that it was my car. He looked very disappointed. Bastard.
All in all not the best of starts. And next came the walk to the Probation office door. I’ve been there many times, but if there are ever people outside smoking, and there usually are, it’s pretty intimidating. It sounds snobbish of me, and I don’t mean to be, but I feel out of place there. The people you see look as though they’ve fallen on hard times. The conversations you hear are not like any conversations I’ve ever had. Today three drunk people, two men and a woman smoked and talked about the job centre, manicures and breaching their licences. Who’s drunk at 2pm on a Wednesday afternoon, especially if they have a Probation appointment?
The problem is that I feel guilty for feeling this way. They’re people, just like me and you. And as I’m trying to style myself as some kind of ambassador for ex-offenders in the hope of altering the attitudes of the wider public, maybe I should have a little empathy, after all I’ve been through the system and then some. But it’s so hard and I realise my hopes for being able to do something positive in the fight to reduce re-offending rates are a little idealistic. This won’t stop me though and I’m determined to chip away at attitudes a little bit at a time. But next time I have a meeting I might suggest we meet in the coffee shop…