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Soundscapes of Probation

These ‘building sounds’ convey something about what constitutes modern day probation. Through these sounds, probation becomes about security and risk: service users not being allowed access to officers’ spaces, panic alarms being situated around the building, buzzers and intercoms controlling peoples’ lives. It also highlights what it means to be a probation officer. Probation officers cannot be found by simply ringing their phone or walking to their desk: they need tannoying.

Jake Phillips

Many of the posts on this site have explored the sensorial experiences of punishment in novel and exciting ways. Most of them focus on the sights, sounds and smells of the prison as a site of punishment and these posts have got me thinking about how I might better understand probation and community sanctions (my own area of interest) if I take a more sensorial approach.

Probation has rarely been subjected to the kind of sensory analysis advocated by those who run and contribute to the Sensory Criminology project. The projects Picturing Probation and Supervisible (both undertaken as part of the COST funded project on Offender Supervision in Europe) sought to explore what probation looks like (as does the work by Rita Shah in the US). Yet probation offices are full of sounds and very few people seem to have explored them (as far as I know – please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong!). And so, as requested by the editors of this blog I have returned to my fieldnotes from an ethnographic study of probation (conducted 2009-2010) and reflected on more recent research which has taken me around both Community Rehabilitation Company and National Probation Service offices across England and Wales to think about what probation sounds like. A somewhat brief analysis of these notes has led me to identify three distinct ‘sounds of probation’: the sound of the office; the sound of the building; and the sound of conversation.

The first ‘sound’ that I identified when I looked back through my notes and thought about what I hear when in a probation office (bearing in mind I tend to spend time watching and listening rather than doing) is that of ‘the office’, by which I mean the space where staff sit and to which clients rarely have access. I have previously called this the backstage of probation and, in many ways, it’s where much of what constitutes probation practice occurs. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the main sound in this space is the computer and other technologies upon which probation practice increasingly depends. As I noted during the first day of observations in a probation office during my PhD:

The office is large with about 11 banks of 6 desks. It is open plan with privacy screens between each desk. Each desk has a computer and a phone … Most people are typing or are on the phone- there’s a bit of general chat/banter as people come in but otherwise there isn’t much interaction going on between people. Each desk has a coffee jar/tea bags on as there is no communal tea fund – it seems that milk is the only thing shared. The air is alive with the tip-tap of keyboards and the ring-ring of unanswered telephones.

The sound of telephones ringing was a constant during those hours I spent listening, observing, and chatting to people about their work in probation. In addition to the sound of typing, a related and very common sound was that of someone announcing that ‘The computers are down… again’. The computers in one office would go down so frequently that it just seemed part and parcel of probation practice in the late 2000s. I hear the new IT equipment invested in by the National Probation Service in the last 18 months means things are much more stable – and so this particular sound might be understood as an indicator of how things have changed in recent years.

When the computers went down, the sound, and so the atmosphere, of the office would change. Some people would take the opportunity to get out of the office – either for a break or a much-neglected home visit. Others would resort to filing (yes, this was in the days when there were still paper files) while others would start chatting – about work, or about home. Others would be stressed – the computers going down was no excuse for not getting that OASys done by the end of the day. My point is that when the network went down, the office would suddenly fill with different noises. I have always been struck by how the computer directs probation work, but analysing this work through sound changes that understanding. It alerts us to what replaces ‘normal’ probation work when a key tool is out of action, and it accentuates the underlying stresses of the job.

The second sound is that of the building. Again, this is dominated by technology, but this time overlaid with the sounds of risk and security. The sound of the building is the sound of people asking to be let in via an intercom or the sound of a door being unlocked remotely or with a fob, allowing service users access to otherwise locked rooms and corridors. Occasionally it’s the sound of a panic alarm, more often than not set off accidentally by a curious child who’s attending probation with their parent.

These ‘building sounds’ convey something about what constitutes modern day probation. Through these sounds, probation becomes about security and risk: service users not being allowed access to officers’ spaces, panic alarms being situated around the building, buzzers and intercoms controlling peoples’ lives. It also highlights what it means to be a probation officer. Probation officers cannot be found by simply ringing their phone or walking to their desk: they need tannoying. There can be few other public buildings which still make use of tannoys quite like probation offices. It puts them in the same realm as train stations, doctor’s surgeries, supermarkets. It gives the impression of bureaucracy, importance, and busyness.

The third ‘sound’ of probation acts as a counterpoint to the previous two. During the many hours I’ve spent in probation offices the sound of conversation is a constant and, indeed, conversation is present in both the ‘sound of the office’ and the ‘sound of the building’. In spite of probation becoming increasingly reliant on technology, probation staff still overwhelmingly (in my experience) do the work because they want to help people. Moreover, they believe that the way to do this is through the officer-client relationship. Without conversation it is hard to create relationships and so we can see the sound of conversation as being at the heart of what many people would describe as ‘quality’ probation practice. Thus, the sound (or, conversely, lack of) of conversation (including both content and tone) between a client and member of staff tells us something about how probation functions.

But it’s the more casual, ad hoc conversations which I find particularly interesting. Many of these take place in the waiting room and all tell a story. Such conversations may take place between staff and former service users, such as in the following example, taken from my fieldnotes:

Accompanied Jim on a home visit. As we went through the waiting room he stopped and chatted to a former service user:

Jim: Oh no, you’re not back here are you?!

Former service user: No [laughing] – just here with me mate

Jim: Oh good – you did so well when you were here, good to see you again

Former service user: You too [they then had a brief catch up before departing with a shake of the hands]

In the car Jim told me about the service user, how he’d ‘properly turned his life around’ during and after his time no probation. He seemed genuinely pleased to have bumped into him.

But the waiting room is also home to conversations between service users, or between service users and their family members and they all tell us something about what probation is all about. I’ve heard conversations between old cell mates who haven’t seen each other since they were last in prison, or friends from school who, similarly, have not been in touch for many years. The probation office brings people who would otherwise have remained estranged together – perhaps only ephemerally, perhaps permanently: my snatched sounds are not enough to tell us any more than this. But I also hear people bemoaning the fact that they have to attend, complaining about the wait or asking for help with their bus fare home. For these people there is no doubt that probation is a hindrance. In a probation office, the sound of people worrying about being late for their appointment is also the sound of the power that probation officers hold over their clients. These are the sounds of liberty versus incarceration; a powerful reminder of how being under probation supervision can be experienced in painful ways.

The sound of these conversations – in the waiting room and in the office – suggest probation as a place where lives mingle – sometimes briefly, sometimes after a long period of absence and – in many cases – over a long period of time. And so, they are about how important the probation office can be in some people’s lives. The probation soundscape of probation can be the difference between freedom and incarceration, an aural manifestation of what Fergus McNeill calls the ‘malopticon’ but also, importantly, a place of human encounter.

A few years ago, I wrote about the architecture of probation offices, suggesting that the layout of an office and the way people use it reflects probation policy and shapes staff and service users’ experiences of probation. It is worth reflecting on what the sound of a probation office tells us about probation and how people may experience it. The noise of the office and the widespread use of technology seems to suggest – to me at least – an organisation which is predicated on efficiency and bureaucracy but which has encounter – both positive and negative – as an underpinning notion.

The ‘sound’ of probation, therefore, can represent both the good and the bad of how probation in England and Wales has developed in recent years. It reflects the bureaucratisation and technologisation of the service as well as the constraints it places on service users’ lives and relationships. But it also reminds us that at the heart of probation (for most of the staff and many of the service users who I have spoken to over the years) sits the relationship: that bond between people which is so important, whether engaged in the criminal justice system or not.

I write this in the middle of a global pandemic: probation offices will be sounding very different indeed at the moment. A few people are going into work, but most are working from home. What does the sound of probation at home tell us about community sanctions in a pandemic? Fewer chats and no incidental conversations will be limiting the connection that occurs within and through the probation office. But equally, there are no locked doors, intercoms, or tannoy announcements trying to find people who may be otherwise busy. People have talked to me about how they have been having more meaningful conversations with their service users, especially on socially distanced walks: in my mind, the sound of probation in these circumstances becomes the sound of cars, the weather and bird song rather than computers, tannoys and locked doors. Perhaps these are sounds which take us back to the days of ‘advise, assist and befriend’ where it was considered normal to meet a service user in a café or even, according to some of my more ‘old skool’ participants, the pub. As with many aspects of this pandemic, probation at home presents both opportunities and challenges – the key will be to hang on to the positives as things return to normal.

Above all, this brief reflection reinforces the point – already encapsulated by other posts on this blog – that analysing penality and penal institutions sensorially complements and augments existing knowledge about how that system of punishment functions. Paying attention to the ‘sound of probation’ has told me something about what probation is, how it functions and how people experience it and I hope that others respond to the editors of this blog by analysing probation and other forms of punishment in this way.