Serious Thoughts

I hope you’ll forgive me a few minutes of serious reflection concerning the way we treat offenders in England. It’s a subject I have some firm views on, particularly after the attempted robbery.

We had some experience of this on the farm as we had both individuals and groups doing community service. I didn’t write about it at the time because there are questions of confidentiality to consider.

It was the normal farm mix-up. The farmer wanted to be seen doing good things, he wanted money and he wanted free labour. As usual, the government wanted something for nothing and so he had to do without the cash.

Lesson Number One is that if you want to provide a decent service you have to put money into it.

Lesson Number Two is that even if they had paid they would have been provided with the same second class service they got for free.

Quite clearly it’s not enough to throw money at the problem, as if that was ever going to happen…

The individuals who came often complained there was no meaningful work to do, which was true as no effort was actually put into providing anything. On the other hand, they weren’t meant to be there as a reward. Several of them were very bad at time-keeping and should by rights have been reported for it. They weren’t, because the member of staff keeping the time sheets couldn’t be bothered. He also allowed them to count the lunch hour towards their total. I think the word “shambles” fits the bill here. Eating lunch is not community service, though it could be cruel and unusual punishment, depending on who made it.

The groups were mixed, often depending on the quality of supervisor. One was great, and his people were lucky to have him (though they may not always have appreciated this). Others were not so good, just going through the motions and flouting the on-site smoking ban.

At one time they did a lot of work to hedges and woodland, but ended up doing paths around the centre and building a patio and barbecue. They also did some gardening but it was usually a case of trying to limit the damage they did rather than gaining any benefit.

The problem was that most of them just weren’t interested, and many of them refused to see that taking drugs, drink driving and hitting people were wrong. We tried to give them some useful skills, but it mostly didn’t happen. Several of them approached us on the side to ask about polytunnels and hydroponics. I will not speculate on the reasons for their curiosity.

One was less coy and asked one of our volunteers (we will call him “X”) if he would be interested in running a cannabis farm for him. “X” made his excuses and left.

On the other hand, several of them did use the experience to move on to better things. The “good” supervisor got several back into education and a couple got decent jobs – we were happy to help with advice and references and the farmer, to be fair to him, did find one of the jobs and take a couple on work experience.

Towards the end things took a turn for the worse when the service was put in the hands of a private business.

I’m not sure how many lessons there are in all that, and am now regretting starting to number them.

One is that you can’t help unless you have funding and a group of workers who are interested in doing a good job.

Another is that you can’t help people who don’t want to be helped.

I suppose it’s also true to say that we need to do some creative thinking to engage more of the offenders in their rehabilitation.

And if they still don’t take advantage of the opportunities they are offered maybe we could examine the concept of the chain gang.

I’ll leave it here. I’m not really political by nature, and this could develop into a rant.



21 thoughts on “Serious Thoughts

  1. tootlepedal

    Part of the solution is to provide as much for young people to do as possible to stop them getting into trouble in the first place, Like everything this costs money, youth centres, cultural events to participate in, playing fields, equipment etc etc but it costs a lot less than putting people through the courts and eventually into prison.

    1. quercuscommunity

      Totally agree, including the fact that even this will only help part of the problem. I’m glad I’m not a full-time professional in this area. It must be very frustrating.

  2. jfwknifton

    The first step is to administer the whole thing properly. Why not use ex-military people as the ones in charge ? It would give them a guaranteed job after after their service.

    1. quercuscommunity

      There have been some schemes with ex-soldiers working with difficult kids. This would be a logical development. I was talking to an ex-RAF Flight Sergeant a few years ago and was surprised by the amount of man management training he’d been given as he was promoted. They would certainly have the skills.

  3. The Belmont Rooster

    Sad but true… We have half way houses here for people who get out of prison but are still on probation. The half way houses help get them back on their feet, find jobs, and eventually move into their own apartments. I worked for a cabinet shop one time that employees several men from one of the half way houses and they did a fairly good job. If they are really serious about cleaning up their act they will succeed. I find the problem is that drug addicts and alcoholics hang around together and work together and then get back into the same old bad habits together and wind up back in prison together. I think they need to be separated and put into more positive environments around people who don’t have their habits so good habits will rub off onto them. It does take a lot of work and patients, more than most people have. It is hard to trust those who have been in prison, but trust is very important to them. If they know you don’t trust them, right away, you won’t be able to. If they think you do, most of them will work very hard for you and show that you can trust them. But, I still think they need more of a one-on-one for correct rehab, which is nearly impossible. Which is why so many wind up back in prison. AWESOME POST!

    1. quercuscommunity

      Thank you. My younger son is currently at University and has survived various scrapes including breaking a hand in a fight. It could well have ended with him in hospital or in court.

      One of his school friends, at the age of 21, has a three-year-old son, a broken marriage and a year in jail after a group of friends decided to commit a robbery.

      The difference – poor exam results, an unsettled family background and one bad decision.

      Fortunately the friend did some thinking, got a job (not easy at the best of times these days) and is planning a career for himself.

      Not sure who, or what, helped him work this out but he’s been fortunate.

      It would have been very easy to have gone the other way, particularly after a few rejections from employers.

      I think this bears out what you said – a job, some trust and he’s working things out. But if he’d just returned to his old friends he’d be on the slide.

  4. arlingwoman

    This is interesting. I’ve had some experiences with ‘community service’ folks and have seen both those ready to pitch in and those who stand around. You’re right that someone has to plan the tasks. And you’re right that it might help and might not. Still, if you turned a few to different lives, that has to be good.

  5. Mr Benjamin Hamilton

    Hello Simon. I’m a new reader! You’re down in my neck of the woods, but I currently live in West Yorkshire. I’ve work as a maths teacher in two very unsettled schools. Sadly, I see the same cycle of people come through the schools year after year. I’m not sure what the solution is – I’m usually a big advocate for education, education, education, but for some young people, it doesn’t appear to have an impact.


    1. quercuscommunity


      My instinct tells me that education is the answer, but I’m not sure what sort of education. From what we’ve seen over the last 50 years the government isn’t sure either.

      Just like young offenders, there’s a percentage of young people who don’t respond to what we offer and a percentage that know it all.

      Until we design that perfect system I think we just have to be happy that we help as many as we can.

    2. jeffpermie

      Whilst I am not claiming that ”bad influence” comes only from music and movies / tv, I would like to direct you to listen to an ”old school” UK Hip Hop DJ Mark Devlin, I can’t remember which interview I heard him speaking about a meeting in the US where I suppose Private Prison investors or owners as well as local or Federal government officials had met with a group of some of the biggest current Hip Hop stars somewhere circa late 80’s early 90’s.
      In this meeting the claim is that the Hip Hop stars were asked (most likely told) to change their music and lyrics from uplifting / positive to gangster driven, drugs and violence to ensure that the music would influence people with the end result or agenda being that the prisons would fill up (rememebr, most if not all prisons in the US are privately owned). He goes into more detail in that particular interview but I honestly don’t know which one it was (I’ve listened to around 5 of his podcasts). Here is one to get you started, it could be this one:
      (I don’t use the above website so if it doesn’t work or allow you to listen without an account, then head over to Podomatic and search alchemy radio / mark devlin)

      He even goes to mention that one of the last times a mainstream Hip Hop group made a good uplifting song was Black Eyed Peas’ ”Where IS The Love” his observation of this was that shortly thereafter, the group only and since then, played junk music with worthless lyrics, he feels that they must have been given the whip after pulling that one.

      Just take a look at current Hip Hop lyrics from mainstream groups and then listen to older more uplifting music from the 80’s from artists such as Grand Master Flash or even ”The GB Experience” by Gary Byrd (10 min song on youtube).

  6. Clare Pooley

    A very interesting post, Simon. My brother works as a tutor at an open prison which holds young offenders as well as male adults. To get the good results he achieves he works long hours often without sufficient breaks and not much support from the warders. He has to prove to the men that he is fair and trust-worthy as well as not being soft and a push-over which is a difficult course to run. He manages well and a good proportion of his former pupils find work when they are released. There are a few caring people in the prison service but not enough.

  7. Laurie Graves

    Lots of lessons to a sticky problem. I expect that most people, no matter the circumstances or crimes, do not do well in a forced labor situation, which, when you come right down to it, is what community service is. I don’t have an answer, that’s for sure.

    1. quercuscommunity

      I fear the only solution for some people is to let them mature a bit. I’ve been told that 25 is the cut-off point – if you haven’t been in trouble by then you are unlikely ever to come to the attention of the police.

      1. quercuscommunity

        In my 60th year, and with a big bald patch, I’m not sure dreads are a good look for me.

        On the other hand, if we encourage the younger generation to grow them they won’t have so much time to get into trouble.

        Have been looking at some of the hairstyles in the Athletics World Championship (Nafi Thiam being a good example) and have found myself muttering “You could have someone’s eye out with that.”

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