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From “two sides of probation” to a solution - compassion

Grand Avenues is a radical pilot project to which Telescope is providing our expertise in facilitating collaborative workshops. Grand Avenues seeks to co-produce better outcomes for people on probation in Cardiff and, in the process, redesign the future of probation in the UK. We’re delighted to be working with HMPPS Wales, WRAP and ACE on this project, bringing together probation officers, community organisations with expertise in restorative justice, and people with experience of the probation service to design these new approaches.


As part of this work, we are doing a deep dive into the justice system, interviewing probation officers, people who’ve been on probation, and others who are working hard to improve the justice system and outcomes for its users.


Through our programmes, events and blogs, we are committed to using our work to give a platform to people with frontline and lived experience of social challenges, so we will be sharing these insights, stories and experiences of the diverse voices in the justice system over the coming months.

 

Omar Wilson

Director of Beyond Recovery & Community leader at Breakthrough, helping to recruit and mentor students on apprenticeships.


“I want to combine a lot of people from different walks of life, have them learn together and find out they’re all the same.”



Omar Wilson is the director of Beyond Recovery, a leading social enterprise providing support for those impacted by addiction, mental health issues, and offending behaviour. The primary aim is to help people build a sense of self. Recognising that mental wellbeing and resilience come from within, Beyond Recovery works to teach the skills that allow individuals to tap into their own wellbeing, identity and potential. This, in turns, allows people to empathise with others, and realise our common humanity.


We recently spoke to Omar to hear more about his experience of the justice system, to better understand the challenges and how he thinks it could work better.


Omar’s story


“I have been through many probation journeys.


The first time I was on probation, it was just a couple of hours of community service. I happened to meet a guy through this who worked in construction, who got me on a course to get my CSAS card so I could do labour work. That was super helpful - and that was through probation.


The next time I came out of prison, I’d previously been a drug dealer and my probation officer clearly had strict guidelines to follow to stop me doing that again. She had a process to follow and stuck to it, which was a bit of a problem sometimes.


I found it a bit difficult to get used to the super strict conditions of probation, for example not being allowed WhatsApp on my phone - some of them felt like really major punishments for a small breach of protocol.


But my new probation guy, Nigel, has just been so cool and calm. He rings me every 3 weeks or every month, he knows what I’m doing, and offers me projects that might fit for those hours. He advises me well. Even over Covid he showed me a website with courses that could take off the hours.


“Just do it bro, just do it”, he tells me - he’s proper cool and down to earth. With him I feel comfortable. I know he’ll sort me out. I know he’s here to help me get those done.


So I’ve seen two sides of probation - the people who are here to help me, who find me jobs and sort me, versus the people following the strict guidelines which didn’t help me at all. Probation can make stuff happen, but it’s crazy because it depends on the individual.


I also noticed that a lot of them don’t have lived experience (it wouldn’t have to be them, but a family member or a mate or something), it doesn’t go as smoothly as when they do have that experience. When people stick to the strict guidelines and look only for “x y z” as it says on the paper, it just blocks them from connecting with the individual.”

 

Omar’s observation of these “two sides of probation” made him see the potential solution: compassion.


The work Omar has gone on to do with Beyond Recovery led him to better understand himself and others around him: “Once you know yourself properly, you gain compassion for others and how they create their situations and see certain things as real,” he explains. What Beyond Recovery does is create compassion in that gap, so that rather than the relationship being “probation dealing with criminals”, instead it's “people dealing with people”.


Omar’s story is one that resonates strongly with many of the people we know who work in or have experienced with frontline services. They know that when it’s simply “people dealing with people”, outcomes are usually better. But adversarial relationships between budget-constrained local authorities and central government, mistrust between people going through the justice system and those who run it, and sometimes even an inability to understand someone else’s story can make it even harder to solve some of society’s most complicated problems.


Building trust and empathy between people delivering frontline services and the people using their services is vital, since it can allow the kind of flexibility Omar benefited from so much. As Omar found in his experience of probation, guidelines and rules in the system are typically designed for the generic case, but sometimes people on the frontline need to have the agency to be able to innovate and adapt these to a specific context for each individual.


Even with those trusting relationships, we’ve seen that innovation is also vital, giving frontline practitioners the tools to be able to tailor generic guidance to an individual human being. As Andrew Greenway highlights in his summary of Jonathan Slater’s recent report on policymaking in the civil service, “good teams are bringing user-centred approaches to government, and have done for 10+ years”. We’ve seen amazing examples of innovative, user-centred work being brought to government and public services by people like Janet Hughes, Tom Horton, Sam Villis, and others. But these examples remain few and far between.


“Once you know yourself properly, you gain compassion for others and how they create their situations and see certain things as real,” he explains.

As Omar’s story showed us, compassion is important because it reminds us that everyone is a human being with their own perceptions, preconceptions and baggage. Omar is sanguine about how he was perceived by people during his various journeys through probation: “it shocks people when I tell them I haven’t changed. I listen to the same music, I’m still the same guy. I could go down the same route tomorrow and start selling drugs again - but I choose not to, because I see things differently now. It’s not that I’m changed, I just see different things”.


Since learning to see differently, Omar has worked hard to build the support that Beyond Recovery can offer to people in prison. He explains that he can use the story of his own transformative journey to help others - but only if they are curious. “When you are the change, someone sees that, curiosity sinks in, and then they’re open to listening. It doesn’t matter what you think or hear, if you’re curious enough, you’ll listen to me explain my story”.


Curiosity is one of the key tenets of active listening, which we always work carefully to build into our programmes. We know that building empathetic relationships relies on participants being willing to actively listen and learn from someone else’s experiences. It is important to cultivate this curiosity to see others’ perspectives as it opens them up to seeing something new. That way, we can create more compassion across people with vastly different perspectives. Omar reminds us that this process of seeing something new might just be the pathway to building something different, and better, in the future.




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