Taking the shackles off probation 

UNISON’s Operation Protect campaign demands urgent action on probation workloads in order to protect the public. By Janey Starling

Operation protect: probation workloads campaign

“My caseload hasn’t been below 150% for 10 years.” Kevin* is a probation officer supervising some of the most dangerous men in the country after they’re released from prison. “I work with sex offenders or people who pose a high risk to others and sometimes I get less than five days’ notice that someone will be released. I have to find them housing, sort out their health needs and put a plan in place. It’s a huge amount of responsibility.”   

Kevin has worked in probation for almost three decades and knows he’s not alone in shouldering an impossible workload. “I don’t know anyone working in probation who doesn’t go well beyond their hours, and I don’t know anyone who actually takes a lunch break. We’re caught in the teeth of the prison system’s failings and we simply do not have enough staff. It’s all hands to the pump.”    

Operation Protect is UNISON’s joint union campaign (with Napo and GMB) demanding that the government fixes the back-breaking workloads that probation workers like Kevin are carrying, workloads which have reached record levels since the government introduced its new prison ‘early release scheme’ last summer.   

The new scheme, brought in to ease the prisons overcrowding crisis, is seeing some people released from prison up to 70 days early. The government did not consult UNISON or other unions on what implications this policy would have for probation, which means probation workers have been blindsided by an influx of unexpected work. In November 2023, a Ministry of Justice report found that probation staff were managing more than 70 cases each, despite the recommended workload being 30 to 60.   

Three men in orange high vis jackets doing community payback work

Three men doing community payback work. Image: Graham Bedingfield

Neil Richardson, a probation services officer and the chair of UNISON’s probation sector committee, describes the scheme as “totally unworkable.”  

He explains: “We’re having to deal with people released from prison with less than 24 hours’ notice, often released homeless and without prescriptions. If high-risk individuals are being released from prison but the probation service isn’t given the resources or time to properly manage them, there’s a direct impact on our staff but, also, potentially the public.  

“Probation is there to protect the public. But if anything goes wrong, it’ll be the probation service that gets blamed. The prison service is passing risk onto us.”

Measuring not managing

Probation workers use an automated measurement system that monitors their caseload. However, as Neil keenly points out, measuring someone’s caseload does not equate to helping them manage it.  

“I regularly see UNISON members working at 140%. The highest I’ve seen is someone who was delivering 186% of their caseload. It used to be the case that, if someone was working over 120%, active measures were put in place. Now, the employer does not accept that excessive workloads are their responsibility. Instead, there’s a focus on telling staff they should be ‘resilient’, but that’s not possible. It’s extremely stressful.”  

In practice, this means that workers are becoming unwell with stress. “Probation workers care about the people we work with,” Neil explains. “We want to help, and we feel responsible for people. Which means that we put our work above our health.”  

Disastrous reforms

The devaluation of probation is nothing new. The service has been repeatedly restructured by successive Conservative governments, most notably by former justice secretary Chris Grayling, whose disastrous 2014 probation reforms dissolved 35 local probation trusts across England and Wales and privatised half of the service. Though his changes were reversed seven years later, with the service brought back into public ownership in 2021, the probation workers that are still in the job are reeling from the disruption.  

Neil has worked in probation for over two decades. In his view, the greatest impact of such restructures and removal of funding is that probation workers don’t have the time to do the job that they need to do. 

“Probation is a relationship-based profession,” he says. “It’s about the personal connection you build with someone, showing them you actually care about them in order to empower them to feel like they’re important, that they’re a member of society, and like their life is worth something. That’s what motivates people to turn their life around. Often, people who commit crime have often been victims of horrendous things that have moulded them into who they are and what they do. 

“With probation, there has to be a plan to manage someone’s risk factors and stressors. The relationship that you build with someone is the vehicle to get that person to the end of the plan.”  

Operation Protect

The Operation Protect campaign is driven by the union’s desire to bring probation back to these foundational values. “Operation Protect is about protecting our members in order to protect local communities”, says UNISON national officer for police and justice Ben Priestley. “If probation workers aren’t given enough time and resources to properly support people, and they go on to commit further offences, everyone loses.”  

Group of people standing in a town square with yellow placards that read 'Operation protect'

Probation workers at a rally in Sheffield on Friday 17 May. Image: Ben Priestley

However, for Ben, probation needs more than just additional funding. It also needs restructuring, to refocus on local community needs. “UNISON wants to see the probation service reinstate the localism it had before Grayling destroyed it. Until probation is devolved and run locally, the Ministry of Justice will run it and that is clearly not working. We want to see the government commit to re-localising probation.”  

Balancing rehabilitation and risk

Elisa Vasquez-Walters is the vice chair of UNISON’s probation sector committee. In her view, the job is about more than just protecting the public. “At the core of probation is the rehabilitation of people”, she says. “Risk management is important, but without the rehabilitation part of it, it makes no sense. Probation workers are the people who help individuals change so that they exit out of the criminal justice system and don’t come back.”  

During her time as a probation services officer, Elisa specialised in working with women. “Everything we do in probation is about the relationships we build. That means we need probation officers who are not off sick, who can give you the time, who understand your needs. At the heart of the Operation Protect campaign is a demand for that work to be properly valued.”   

Under austerity, probation has become a “mop-up” service, Elisa says. “Many people who leave prison are unlikely to have settled accommodation to come out to. During COVID-19, it was amazing to see the government find money to ensure that nobody was released homeless from prison. But that didn’t last. So now, we’re often trying to sort out housing for people at the last minute and get their medication in place, especially if they need a methadone prescription or alcohol support. 

“Ideally, you’d want a few weeks to sort this out, but it’s not unusual to get days,” she continues. “With the early release scheme, it’s not unusual to get 24 hours’ notice. It has been very difficult for our members and for the people we work with. Most people can’t appreciate what it would be like to come out of prison and have no idea what you’re coming out to, or have no housing or support services around you. It’s a terrible thing to put people through. Lots of my colleagues are struggling with the consequences of the new scheme, it’s stressful for us to manage but it’s absolutely terrible for the person leaving prison.”  

The problem with prisons

So, is the solution to halt the early release scheme and keep people in prison? Elisa takes a wider view. For her, the vast majority of people being released from prison should never have gone there in the first place. “Prison ought to be a place where people go when the risk in the community is unmanageable. I really don’t think women should be in prison, especially not women who have drug or mental health problems. We need properly funded community alternatives and we need all support services, not just probation, to be fully resourced, from mental health and drug support services to housing.”  

Neil agrees. “Prison has repeatedly been proven not to work. The biggest thing that needs to change in the system is a return to community orders to keep people out of prison in the first place.” However, in order for that to happen the probation service, again, needs additional resourcing, staffing and restructuring.  

Operation Protect is, in the immediate, about addressing probation workers’ intolerable workloads. In the bigger picture, it is UNISON’s clarion call for a criminal justice system built on pragmatism, not politics.  

Find out more about Operation Protect at: unsn.uk/operationprotect 

*Name has been anonymised for safeguarding reasons 

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