Brighton TV company shines light on probation officers

Posted On 05 Feb 2013 at 7:52 am

There are some criminals in Brighton and Hove who are particularly troubling to the Public Protection Team.

Some they would even describe as scary.

The Public Protection Team includes probation officers who are often criticised even though few people know what they really do.

A Brighton documentary maker set out to find out. The result is being screened on BBC1 tonight (Tuesday 5 February).

Emma Wakefield, from Lambent Productions, soon learnt that the Public Protection Team in Brighton has to manage 30 paedophiles.

The team also routinely handles murderers, rapists and armed robbers.

Their job includes managing offenders who have been released on licence from prison having committed serious and disturbing crimes.

Emma Wakefield

Few people would be surprised to learn that probation officers need empathy. But they also need to be remarkably robust.

Emma Wakefield, the executive producer of the documentary, Out of Jail and on the Streets, said: “This is a ground-breaking film with unprecedented access to busy probation teams and the offenders they manage.

“We all know about criminals in prison. We know nothing about what happens when they come out.

“We have no idea about the way they are controlled, supervised and monitored. We know nothing about what it might take to change them. And we never see what it takes to keep us safe. Until now.

“This film uncovers all of that through the detailed work of officers at the Surrey and Sussex Probation Trust.

“Beyond the bars and locked gates of prison it’s hard to keep tabs on offenders.

“And back in the community, it’s often difficult for them to keep on track too.

“The probation officers in this film walk the tightrope of control, care and supervision of some of the most high-risk offenders.

“I shadowed some probation officers to see what they do to make sure we represented them properly.

“What we wanted to do was show the real life and work of probation officers.

“What people don’t understand is the rigour around their work. People have a perception that they just talk gently to offenders.

“It is very far from woolly. They are the most extraordinary people and rigorous to the nth degree.

“They protect the public from people that you would never want to meet really. And they do that with a calmness and a real care, from offender management to public protection.

“I have the utmost respect for them and what they do. Although it’s a one-off documentary, I think the subject merits a lot more.”


Linda Kelly, Mark Burden, Rick Bridger and Liz Carter from the Surrey and Sussex Probation Trust

One probation service insider said: “The trust, and the staff involved, took quite a brave decision to let the cameras in – the probation officers in particular, opening up their professionalism to public scrutiny.

“They did it because they believe passionately in the value of the job they do and wanted the public to see the real work of probation behind the tabloid headlines.

“It’s not very visual. We don’t lock people up or bash down doors. It’s complex and multi-layered.”

There was a belief though that showing it as it is would enable more people to gain a greater understanding of a much-criticised aspect of the criminal justice system.

The documentary was filmed last year but it is being screened less than a month after the government proposed sweeping changes.

The professions most senior officers have spelt out doubts about those changes. They include allowing private companies to take on probation work.

Similar changes have been seen in schools, medicine, policing and prisons.

Plenty of people among the public as well as in the professions themselves have serious concerns about the impact of the profit motive on the way these services are provided.

In the documentary, Liz Carter, a probation officer and member of the Brighton Public Protection Team, said: “My world consists of murderers, rapists and armed robbers.”

Another, Rick Bridger, said: “We work with very extremes of human behaviour – the most dangerous people in society.”

Vicki Brown, a probation officer and member of the Chichester Offender Management Team, said: “It’s a difficult balance. You’re an enforcer but you’re also helping them.

“If they’re before the courts again it’s not anyone’s failing but their own but yet there are all those issues there – you do want to help that person.

The day I no longer believe in a person’s capacity to change is the day I hand in my notice.”

Emma Wakefield said: “These are extraordinary professionals who have dedicated their lives to the most troubling individuals – people most of us would give up on.”

What drives them to do it? And how do they manage the daily challenge of controlling people at the extreme edge of society – those who are used to breaking rules and challenging authority? And who don’t like being told what to do?

This is what she and the crew from Brighton-based Lambent Productions set out to find out.

The results can be seen on BB1 tonight at 10.35pm.


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