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Comparative Penology

Institute of Criminology

Role conflict in Approved Premises and post-prison supervision

Keir Irwin-Rogers, The Open University, UK.

Whilst most people leaving prison in England and Wales return to private places of residence, a significant minority are required to live in hostels (officially referred to as Approved Premises (APs)). All residents are instructed to observe strict night-time curfews. During the day, people are usually able to leave the hostel, although residency can include a range of mandatory programmes and activities designed to increase the likelihood of their successful reintegration into the community. In addition, people are expected to engage in regular supervision sessions with hostel and probation workers. Failure to observe curfews, attend programmes and supervision sessions, or generally be of ‘good behaviour’, can result in people being recalled to prison.

In 2013, I spent a period of six months visiting three APs, conducting periods of observation and interviewing residents and members of hostel staff. The research generated a number of interesting findings,[i] one of which concerns a fundamental role conflict that threatens to severely undermine the legitimacy of APs and post-release supervision, particularly in light of current resource pressures. The conflict stems from hostel and probation workers being tasked with providing help and support to AP residents, whilst simultaneously monitoring and controlling their behaviour to reduce the ‘risk’ they pose to members of the public. An interview with one resident, Paul, provides a good illustration of this issue.

Paul had initially hoped that his time in an AP would be useful in supporting his reintegration into the community. He was open and honest during his first supervision session, placing trust in his probation worker and going into depth about his hopes and anxieties for the months ahead. He divulged details about a recent evening during which he had been drinking with an old friend. As the evening progressed, his friend became heavily intoxicated, and Paul told his probation worker that he was concerned the friend had developed an alcohol addiction.

A few days after the meeting, a member of hostel staff approached Paul to inform him that his probation worker had decided to insert a condition onto his licence that prohibited him from drinking alcohol. Paul was furious and felt that his trust had been betrayed. He immediately disengaged from his supervision sessions, informing me that in future he would simply ‘smile and nod’ in response to his probation worker’s questions, and that he would no longer share anything that might result in him being subjected to additional licence conditions that further restricted his liberty.

Some academics and professionals commenting on this case have argued that it was simply a particular instance of a probation officer doing their job badly. Analogies are often drawn to parenting – if parents are able to provide help and support to their child whilst punishing bad behaviour, why should supervision be any different? The problem with this analogy is that parents invariably (or ought to) have the best interests of their child at heart. The same is not true in the case of supervisors and their supervisees: what is perceived to be in the best interests of members of the public may not be in the best interests of someone subject to post-release supervision – in other words, whereas a parent’s loyalties are clear and undivided, a supervisor’s are not.  

It is also worth highlighting that Paul’s subsequent game-playing approach to supervision was far from atypical. Stories like Paul’s frequently circulated through the shared living spaces in APs, and people soon learnt to adopt a healthy scepticism regarding the notion that their hostel and probation workers were there to help. Indeed, how can we expect AP residents to openly discuss the challenges they face – their concerns, anxieties and setbacks – with someone whose overriding priority is to protect members of the public and who may therefore respond by imposing further restrictive licence conditions and/or sending that person back to prison?

Highly trained and experienced supervising officers with relatively low caseloads and the time to reflect on a complex set of factors may well be able to ameliorate some of the tensions that arise from the task of balancing help and support with monitoring and control. Presently, however, supervisors are often not provided with adequate training, increasingly lack experience, and are under enormous resource pressures owing to caseloads that have reached unprecedented levels. In this environment, the legitimacy of post-release supervision is under severe threat. Once lost, it may be very difficult to regain – the consequence of this will almost certainly not be in the best interests of members of the public.

See Irwin-Rogers, K. (2017) Legitimacy on Licence: Why and How it Matters. The Howard Journal of Crime and Justice. 56(1): 53-71; Irwin-Rogers, K. (2017) Staff-resident relationships in Approved Premises: What a difference a door makes. Probation Journal. DOI:

logo The Comparative Penology Group is led by Dr Ben Crewe and his research team who, since 2016, have been working on a five-year project titled: 'Penal policymaking and the prisoner experience: a comparative analysis'.

The research is based in England & Wales, and Norway, and involves four inter-related studies of (a) penal policymaking and the penal field (b) the experience of entry into and release from custody (c) the daily experiences of female prisoners and imprisoned sex offenders, and (d) prisoners in the most secure parts of each jurisdiction's prison system.

This project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC).









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