Posted in Master's blog

My erstwhile PhD student Dr Amy Ludlow organized a wonderfully stimulating discussion day on this subject last week. It was well attended by perhaps 100 people from prisons, probation, coroners, academia, and the Ministry of Justice. Professor Alison Liebling kicked off with a brilliant review of the research in this area area – much of it carried out by her and her colleagues in the Prisons Research Centre of the Institute of Criminology over the last thirty years. Her message that if you reduce distress in prison you reduce not only suicide but also reduce re-offending is a powerful one.

I spoke on the report on Deaths under Probation Supervision, of which I was a co-author four years ago. Loraine Gelsthorpe, Jake Phillips and I undertook an analysis of data for the Howard League  which they had obtained under Freedom of Information requests on the number of adults who had died under probation supervision – including deaths following release from custody and on probation licence over the period from 2005-2010. This data had not previously been published. We subsequently obtained further data, following another FOI request. Despite the fact that the quality of the data was (astonishingly?) poor, we counted 2,275 deaths of men and 275 deaths of women under probation supervision between 2005 and 2011. Suicide accounted for not less than 13 % in each year. Other important causes were alcohol issues (8% in each year for which there are figures), unlawful killing (5% in each year), and misadventure/accident (not less than 8%). Also, a large number were classified as ‘unknown’ cause (not less than 15%). The suicide rate in prison in shocking – but the deaths of those under supervision in the community is much higher, and apparently largely ignored.

We noted then what seemed like defensiveness on the part of probation staff in terms of what and what is not recorded on the forms, and a focus on staff management issues (support for staff). There was much ambivalence and ambiguity when it came to what might have been done differently; e.g. it was not clear how far probation staff were equipped to support families, nor indeed, how far they were prepared to do this within the context of other duties and constraints. We asked, at that time, some challenging questions:

  • Was there an ethics of care? Was prevention a priority?
  • What factors connected deaths: e.g. are they related to length of prison sentence or licence conditions?
  • Which other agencies beyond Probation Service were involved at the time of death?
  • Were different agencies aware of the vulnerabilities of this group of people?
  • Did the prison authorities inform the local Probation Service where people were perceived to be particularly vulnerable upon release?
  • What information, if any, was received from prisons to inform probation practice for those on licence?

These questions were impossible to answer from the data we had. It felt very different from deaths in custody, which seem to be investigated much more ‘seriously’. That was five years ago and the probation world has changed almost out of all recognition with privatisation and the new Community Rehabilitation Companies.This is reflected in the new Probation Instructions which have replaced earlier circulars. I was shocked to learn, as a result of an email to the Ministry of Justice, that, despite “greater emphasis on learning and improvement” and a statement that “a national report will be published by the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) each year (on deaths under probation supervision) in PI 01/2014”, the Government has decided not to make the data available to the public.This is really disappointing: no progress in five years? Perhaps we’ll embark on more FOIs…

Meanwhile, the Howard League is carrying out a new Inquiry into suicide prevention in prisons, with the Centre for Mental Health. It is of course difficult ‘learning’ within a culture of blame: a number of speakers spoke of the very negative impact on staff confidence (and therefore competence?) of inquests and of police investigations into deaths in custody. There were powerful thoughts on how organisations and individuals must feel enabled to do more to prevent suicide. All agreed that our common humanity should commit us to involving prisoners and their families in reducing the risk of suicide in prison and in the community. An inspirational day.

Nicola Padfield

About Nicola Padfield

Nicola Padfield MA, Dip Crim, DES became Master of Fitzwilliam College in October 2013. She is a Reader in Criminal and Penal Justice at the Law Faculty, University of Cambridge, and has been a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College since 1991.

Posted in Master's blog
Nicola Padfield by Beka Smith_8BA0477_DxO (Medium)

Nicola Padfield by Beka Smith (Acrylic on board 65x47cm)

No-one has ever had the task of painting my portrait before and Beka Smith rose magnificently to the task. (More to the point, I have never gone through the process of being painted before). She was a real pleasure to work with: always positive, and always smiling. I found the process interesting: would I sit or would I stand? Would she seek to convey specific messages through the portrait? Beka and I spent some time together as she worked out how she wanted to present me. She worked largely from photos so I didn’t spend long periods ‘sitting’: she came and snapped and snapped and snapped, and then worked away in her studio. The end result is brilliant: it captures something of my personality (though am I looking rather sad?) as well as the physical pose. And the details are fascinating – the details of the eyes, the hair, and things like the stray thread on the blouse sleeve button. (I chose that blouse because my husband Christopher (Engineering 1968) had recently made it for me: a tribute to his endless hard work behind the scenes as Master’s consort.)

I found the ‘unveiling’ very funny. Many people congratulated me on the portrait – but it was of course all Beka’s work. More importantly, the painting is very realistic: I couldn’t stop looking at that person pretending to be me, in the corner of the room … my alter ego, perhaps? She is not exactly as I see myself – but that is part of the intriguing business of portraiture. I am very happy with the ‘statement’: sitting down, leaning forward and listening. But she’s not entirely me: or maybe, she’s just one snapshot of me.

I was very interested at the time of the unveiling to learn of the work of alumnus artist Gerald O’Connell (Economics 1970). He has been painting homeless people, and his frank discussions of the painting processes (on the website which tracks his artist-in-residence project at St Mungo’s Broadway Trust) are, to me, intriguing. They are fabulous portraits, and it is fascinating how he comments on details: for example, ‘As I make small changes it becomes apparent that the area of the mouth is most important in conveying Richard’s personality. His face settles naturally into a quizzical half-smile, as though there is a private joke that he is permanently on the verge of sharing with us. Keeping hold of this impression will be an essential aspect of establishing and retaining the likeness.’

 

The three stages of painting Richard

The three stages of painting Richard (Gerald O’Connell)





Nicola Padfield

About Nicola Padfield

Nicola Padfield MA, Dip Crim, DES became Master of Fitzwilliam College in October 2013. She is a Reader in Criminal and Penal Justice at the Law Faculty, University of Cambridge, and has been a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College since 1991.