Getting back on the straight and narrow

Portsmouth Voice member Graham Butterworth, senior probation officer Rob Marsh, and Portsmouth Voice member Kabir Breathen
Portsmouth Voice member Graham Butterworth, senior probation officer Rob Marsh, and Portsmouth Voice member Kabir Breathen

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For more than a year offenders have been telling probation how to treat them.

And it has proved so successful that reformed criminals are helping each other get work and succeed in life.

Portsmouth Voice was set up so people on court-ordered probation could inform the service.

One of the founder members Kabir Breathen told how his life had been damaged after being taken into care aged seven.

The 38-year-old’s faith in public services – including probation – were not high.

He believes such services have an ‘them and us’ divide between staff and service users.

In the case of probation, he thinks this has hampered chances of rehabilitation.

‘The services have failed me since I was put in care at seven years old,’ he said.

‘It doesn’t work – they need to change the way of thinking.

‘It’s just I saw probation as once a week to keep me out of prison.

‘It was just a tick in the box that kept me out of prison.’

But through the new groups he is involved in he has found new meaning in life.

‘I’d been on the order for a year and a half and I’d already started turning my life around,’ Kabir, of Alhambra Road, Southsea, said.

He added: ‘This group has helped to breakdown the “them and us” view of probation and offenders.

‘It’s helped us to work together.

‘As a group we’ve helped each other, it gives me a real buzz when a group member achieves like getting a job.’

The group meets monthly and aims to reduce reoffending rates and improve the probation service.

It has been so succesful that a spin-off group – Open Door – has been launched.

That group, set up by the founding members of Portsmouth Voice, sees offenders support each other.

In one case, a teenager was found an apprenticeship through the members and he is now starting a job teaching.

‘It’s just being involved and being positive,’ adds Kabir.

‘If you start going to a place of positivity, you’ll start doing the right thing.’

Another member of Portsmouth Voice, Graham Butterworth, joined near the end of his probation period.

‘I’d finished the courses but was on to the end of probation,’ the 59-year-old of Earlsdon Street, Southsea, said.

‘I was just selected from there, I support the group and help it out.

‘For me, I’m talking to positive people, I’m giving something positive back to people.’

Senior probation officer Rob Marsh, who was shortlisted for a national award for establishing the group,

‘Portsmouth Voice is a feedback group on our service delivery,’ Mr Marsh said.

‘The way in which we deliver supervision used to be one-on-one in a room just sat across the table.

‘Now what we’ve said to them is we’ll think about probation if you think it’s bad we’ll listen.’

He said the group has helped changed the service, including with some members having input into the probation officer recruitment process.

But he said it was key to match the right officer with the right offender.

‘If you didn’t get the right person or officer that person can be lost,’ he said.

‘They didn’t feel we valued, it’s about making sure you’re doing it with the right person.’

The group he set up has celebrated its first anniversary in October.

Members got together to share their experiences – with top officials from Hampshire and Isle of Wight Community Rehabilitation Company attending.

The company was established in June last year when probation was privatised.

Head of operations, Barbara Swyer, said the group is leading ways of better working with offenders.

She said: ‘Portsmouth Voice is an exciting initiative and it was really touching to hear accounts from the group about how they have been able to make real, positive changes in their lives.

‘Members described how the group empowers them and how it motivates them to engage with the probation service.

‘We are listening to our service users views and with this insight we can all find better ways to work with offenders and reduce re-offending.’

Nick Day, Interserve’s regional transformation director for Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, also praised the group.

He said: ‘The voices of service users are increasingly important, now that the CRC is part of Purple Futures, an Interserve-led partnership.

‘The CRC is committed to listening to those involved with probation and will ensure that their views are at the heart of the ways that services are delivered.’

PANEL - Achievements

In just a year the group has:

n Started a drop-in group – Open Door – a peer support group where members signpost each other to organisations to help with employment, housing and other needs.

n Designed a poster to encourage offenders to come to the group on a voluntary basis

n Advised the CRC on better ways to allocate service users to probation officers

n Reviewed the staff recruitment process for the CRC

n Helped more offenders to engage with probation, to accept help and to pursue the goals set out in their probation plans

PANEL - What is probation?

PROBATION officers work with criminals handed sentences by the courts.

Offenders can be ordered to complete a range of programmes including drug treatment, unpaid work and behaviour training.

Officers monitor offenders who are not sent to prison in the community.

They can also assess them before they are sentenced by magistrates or a judge.

That gives the court information about the person and helps the judiciary decided a sentence.