His name was Brian Whately and he was a probation officer. He was one of the first people to welcome me on to the wing shortly after I arrived at “Monster Mansion.” I was still quite numb after a year of 23 hour bang-up in “Wanno.” Not a good introduction to prison life for a newly sentenced lifer – don’t worry I’m not complaining – I deserved all that was coming to me. I never expected any consideration – I certainly did not deserve any kindness.
Brian Whately had a kind face. It was the first thing I noticed the day I came back to the wing from the workshop and he was waiting by the gate. “Hello,” he said smiling confidently. “Can I have a word.” He was a slightly built, dapper man dressed in canvas trousers, sand boots and a corduroy jacket. I nodded and followed him to his little office, a converted cell on the “twos” landing.
We chatted for a while about this and that – nothing heavy – while he rolled himself a cigarette. I liked his style. Here I was at the beginning of a life sentence and here was this tousle-haired gentleman talking to me as if I was just another fellow human being.
I met and chatted with him probably a couple of dozen times over the following three years. I never told him, but I liked him a lot. Brian’s job was to assess my dangerousness. He had a way of gaining trust that had nothing to do with mind games or psychological traps. He knew I liked music and one day he brought in a tape recording of a violin concerto by Max Bruch. “When your cell door is closed tonight,” he said, “have a listen to this.”
I’d never taken any time before to listen to “posh people’s music.” Brian said, “It’s not just for posh people silly – this music is for everyone.” He had that way of his of making you believe, that even though you were at the very bottom of the pile, wallowing in an ocean of self-generated mire, you still counted. He even sent a postcard from his fishing holiday in Tenby – “To the lads on A Wing. I’m on holiday, but you’re not forgotten. Best wishes, Brian.” We, the “lads on A Wing” were some of the most damaged and damaging people in the prison system. Half of us were Cat A prisoners with barely a spoon of hope between us.
When the time came for me to move on to another high security jail I made sure I went to see Brian before I left, just to say my goodbyes. He was smiling when we shook hands. I really wanted to hug him – god knows what would have happened if I had. I wanted to say I’d miss him – and to tell him how much I had appreciated his manner and his attitude. But there was no special friendship between us. He was the same with everybody. Instead I just said a brief thank you for introducing me to Bruch. As I turned to walk back to my cell I could feel a lump growing in my throat and the beginnings of a tear or two at the edge of my eyes. After just a few steps I heard Brian’s voice call out. “Hey,” he said. I turned around. “You’ll be okay,” he said – and winked. I nodded and took a deep breath. Wherever I was going I knew I would take a good measure of Brian’s humanity with me.
Eighteen years later I met one of Brian’s colleagues. I was still in jail but had made what the authorities call “significant progress.” I can’t remember how exactly but Brian’s name came up in our conversation. “You know him?” I said. “Oh yes,” she said, we were young probation officers together.”
I told her quickly about Brian’s kindness and his real human concern for those for whom he had responsibility. I explained about Bruch – and mentioned the postcards he’d send from his fishing trips. “Could you give him a message for me,” I said. I wanted to thank him properly – to let him know how much the chats we’d had all those years ago had meant to me. I wanted him to know that he’d had a huge impact on my thinking and on the path my prison journey took. I wanted him to know that without me realising it he had been a champion to me. Something I’d never had before. “Will you say…” I said – but the look in her eyes suddenly stopped me. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I won’t be able to pass on any message. Brian has had a huge stroke and isn’t going to recover.”
I so regret not having thanked him properly. But Brian is just one of the people in probation I’ve met over a lifetime of having lived on the other side of society. Without him and people like him I would never have made it back. That’s why I’m so against the government’s proposals to privatise huge sections of the Probation Service. I know it’s different now to how it was in Brian’s day – but the people who join are still pretty much motivated to help and support troubled and troublesome people. Nobody should be making financial profit out of that.
If you haven’t already, please sign this e-petition now: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/44403