Soundscapes of Probation

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.


A sense of home in prison?

Annie Bunce

When I sat down to write about my sensory experience in prison I hesitated. I have a lot of rich data from my participants describing their sensory experiences, which have greatly enhanced my knowledge and understanding of the prison environment. But my sensory experience? Having not spent extended periods of time in prison, I wasn’t sure I had a right to claim any significant sensory experience. During my first and most significant experience of prisons research, I spent approximately one year going in and out of four UK prisons interviewing prisoners who were participating in a rehabilitation programme, BrightHorizons, which was the focus of both my PhD and a wider evaluation study. Throughout these interviews I focused closely on what my participants said to me, and I have always considered the stories I heard to be the main source of my own knowledge and understanding. However, when I looked over my fieldnotes and data and reflected on my experience, I was hit with an avalanche of sensory memories. I realised that the sounds and tactile experiences that I had been surrounded by whilst in the prisons had hugely influenced my interpretation and understanding of my participant’s accounts of their experiences of prison and the programme.

BrightHorizons was a dual-purpose initiative that brought groups of at-risk young people into the prison estate and trained teams of prisoners to deliver interventions to them, with the aim of diverting young people away from the criminal justice system and supporting prisoners’ rehabilitation. The programme was delivered in four Cat C/training prisons in South-East England (three men’s, one women’s), with a designated space for the programme to run within each prison. This consisted of the main programme room where all the action happened, a kitchen area and/or office, and a toilet. Two prisons had their own separate portacabin, whilst the other two had designated areas within the main prison. I interviewed prisoners in either the kitchen or office, with the door shut and a view through a small window into the main room.

I was struck by how the sensory experience in the privacy of the interview space was sharply juxtaposed with that in the adjoining room, where the rest of the team were training. The presence and absence of sound and touch was particularly profound and are the focus of this blog post.  

Sound and its absence

I always arrived at BrightHorizons to a cocktail of sounds. There were usually between seven and ten men or women in the room, but it sounded like a far bigger group. There was layer upon layer of different sounds, which got invariably louder as each of the participants clamoured to be heard. Somebody would tell a joke and the room would rumble with laughter, there was a constant stream of what was popularly referred to as “banter”, hands slapped together in high fives and every now and again somebody would break into song or start rapping.If I closed my eyes I could have been standing in a school at playtime, or amongst a group of friends at a festival. I suppose such a lot of noise from a group of near strangers in an unfamiliar environment could have been intimidating, but instead all of these sounds bubbling over one another put me at ease.

Inside the interview room, however, it was the absence of sound that made the most noise. Participants spoke softly and slowly and there were regular, long silences as they considered their answers. The tone of the interviews was mixed- words dripped with sadness and regret, sighs were heaved and voices wobbled and cracked as participants spoke about their past. And then the tone would lighten, become animated and eager, and laughter would be shared as they regaled stories of their families, their time spent on BrightHorizons, and their hopes and dreams for the future. At times the tone was more serious- words carefully chosen, measured (other than the odd expletive!) and laced with frustration, as they reflected on the dark side of being in prison and the less positive aspects of the programme. Throughout the dynamic tones and relative quietness of the interviews, the constant muffled sound of laughter and banter could be heard from the main room- which felt like a reminder of the relief that the group atmosphere provided in the context of such complex individual life stories (Collica, 2010; Marshall and Burton, 2010).

Touch and its absence

Touch is one of the most essential elements of human development, a profound method of communication… and a powerful healing force.” (Bowlby, 1952)

Something that struck me straight away when spending time at BrightHorizons was the centrality of touch in prisoner’s interactions. Stereotypical depictions of the prison centre on iron bars, high razor-topped fences and heavy metal doors, which connote a physical separation, isolation and coldness antithetical to tactility. Touch in prison can be a ‘taboo’ (Houston, 2009). The BrightHorizons space was filled with high fives, back slaps, hugs, fist bumps and handshakes. Touch was obviously a vital aspect of participant’s interactions, and it strikes me as I write this how deeply people in prison must be missing such sensory experience during the current Covid-19 lockdown (Douglas et al., 2020). But it wasn’t just about touching and being touched by others. One warm and sunny day when I was interviewing at the women’s prison, I sat outside the portacabin with the women on the surrounding field at lunchtime, feeling the grass between our toes and the sun on our faces. This felt quite significant for me, as I felt a little bit less of an outsider. From my fieldnotes:

“M popped in while I was writing and said they were sitting in the sun for a bit and I was welcome to join them nice to be involved as can feel a bit awkward when just hanging around not sure where to plonk myself.”

If I closed my eyes I could have been in a garden or park. None of the men’s prisons had green outside space, and this example highlights the differences in sensory experience depending on the specific prison environment the men and women were in. When I asked Anthony what he was most looking forward to upon release he said:

                 “Four and a half years behind a door, just get a bit freedom, even just to do a walk, like I don’t know, walk on some grass or something (laughter).”

Within the realm of the interview touch was far less salient. I sat opposite participants, with a table where the audio recorder was placed physically separating us. Generally, this physical space felt appropriate and comfortable, and did not appear to impede rapport or interview depth. Male participants, particularly, appeared conscious of maintaining boundaries, and were outwardly apologetic and embarrassed if they felt these had been crossed. For example, from one interview:

I:               Okay, that’s interesting, thank you.  So, a little bit about the future now, so you said your parole’s pretty soon –

R:             Sorry –

I:               – that’s okay (laughter).

R:             – I’m playing footsie with you under the table (laughter).  Sorry (laughter).

I:               That’s okay, that’s alright.  So, parole is due relatively soon did you say?

When interviewing female participants the absence of touch felt more palpable. Perhaps due to the shared experience of being female and increased relatedness and empathy associated with this. The interviews with the women were generally of a more emotional nature and I often felt the need to physically comfort them. I felt torn between maintaining professional and ethical boundaries, which made me feel that it would be inappropriate to hug my participants, and responding with care, which made me feel guilty for not huggingthem, as this felt like the most intuitive response to a human being in distress (Dickson-Swift et al., 2007; Cowburn, 2010). I did my best to communicate care, compassion and empathy through my voice and eyes. From fieldnotes:

 “Most harrowing interview yet- she cried at one point and I very nearly did on a few occasions. When she cried I didn’t quite know what to do as was the first time it had happened- she carried on talking and seemed like she wanted to finish what she was saying so I got up and got her some tissues but didn’t interrupt what she was saying and then she kind of pulled herself through it. I wanted to hug her at the end and tell her how amazing she is but I knew that would be inappropriate, so I complimented her on her English (which she was clearly self-conscious about) and wished her all the best instead.”

Concluding thoughts

Tuning into the senses helped me to understand the importance of the programme space in terms of providing sensory and physical stimulation that my participants did not generally experience anywhere else in the prison. This contributed to one of my most dominant findings, that BrightHorizons provided participants with a sense of home. BrightHorizons appeared to function as a sort of sensory bubble. Having somewhere to go where they knew they could relax and unwind gave them the space to recover from general tiredness induced by the prison environment, detracted from the stresses of daily prison life, and made it easier to deal with the rest of the prison (see also Stevens, 2012; Frank et al., 2015):

“it was very like a home, not a home but it’s like a home within prison if you understand what I mean, a go to place to escape sometimes”. (Keira)

Having a space perceived as ‘theirs’ and access to a few ‘home comforts’ seemed to have provided prisoners’ with a community of their own (Stevens, 2014; see also Lloyd et al., 2017), away from the “absolute chaos” (Jonathan) of the rest of the prison:

“To tell you the truth, since I’ve come to BrightHorizons I don’t even think about the rest of the prison.” (Marvin)

But it also occurred to me that there is an element of a sort of sensory time/space trap. Due to the highly structured nature of BrightHorizons and predictability of the prison rules and regimes that programmes are bound by, these sorts of sensory experiences seem likely to lose their significance eventually, as they risk becoming as monotonous as the rest of the prison. This was reflected in my finding that participants who had spent some time on BrightHorizons had found themselves less stimulated and were pursuing other experiences alongside it. Yet they all carried on participating, because groups of youngsters and professionals visiting every week added a much-appreciated element of spontaneity and meant no two weeks were identical. This underscores the importance of people in prison being able to interact with a diverse group of people- including staff, family and friends on the outside, and fellow prisoner- and participate in various creative activities to provide ongoing growth and learning via sensory experience (Houston, 2009; McNeill et al., 2011).

Bowlby, J. (1952) Maternal Care and Mental Health: A report on behalf of the World Health Organisation. Geneva: World Health Organisation.

Collica, K. (2010) ‘Surviving incarceration: two prison-based peer programs build communities of support for female offenders’, Deviant Behavior, 31(4), pp. 314–347. doi: 10.1080/01639620903004812.

Cowburn, M. (2010) ‘Principles, virtues and care: ethical dilemmas in research with male sex offenders’, Psychology, Crime & Law, 16(1–2), pp. 65–74. doi: 10.1080/10683160802621974.

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McNeill, F. et al. (2011) ‘Inspiring desistance? Arts projects and ‘what works?’’, Justitiele Verkenningen, 37(5), pp. 80–101.

Stevens, A. (2012) ‘“I am the person now I was always meant to be”: Identity reconstruction and narrative reframing in therapeutic community prisons’, Criminology and Criminal Justice, 12(5), pp. 527–547. doi: 10.1177/1748895811432958.

Stevens, A. (2014) ‘“Difference” and desistance in prison-based therapeutic communities’, Prison Service Journal, (213), pp. 2–9.