I remember one of my early clients with affection as I reflect on this matter. He had spent 35 of his 55 years in prison; largely and increasingly from persistent petty offending, though in his younger years he had some more troubling offences to his name. He had been married with several children through all this time. His wife was an intelligent and capable woman, necessarily so, to bring up, largely successfully, a family to all intents and purposes on her own, with hardly any income. One might wonder why she put up with this life and this husband for all that time, and yet to meet the husband was to see something warm and loveable. Of course my job in a way was to explore why this man, with such warm and caring family, had ‘hidden away’ for so much of his life in prison. It took me rather too long to work out what might be fuelling this apparently self-destructive behaviour, and whilst the term ‘ institutionalisation’ sprang readily enough to the pen when writing yet another court report, I had only a sort of intellectual idea of what this might mean.
At this time in Sheffield, one of a small number of new experimental facilities was opened – a Day Training Centre, as they were called. The idea was that this would be suitable for petty offenders who gained nothing from imprisonment, and that it would train people in skills that could fit them for employment in the community. It seemed tailor made for my man and so I made the requisite impassioned plea to the Court. Jack was not in any sense a stupid man – he could see the sense of the referral. What he could not do was to help me understand why it was not going to work – he probably did not realise this himself, or if he did, thought it such a miserable and pathetic reason that he could not bring himself to reveal it. All he could do was to show me by not turning up to the Centre at the requisite times. I’d try and collect him from home but he would evade that strategy too.
Eventually, he was able to tell me how completely panic stricken he would feel about being put in a position where he would have to show how basic was his ignorance of anything to do with the world of work. He could not bear to be faced by a tape measure, a saw or a screw driver and for it to be clear that he did not know what to do with any of them. His intelligence made this worse – he knew how pathetic he was. It symbolised a complete inability to engage in a normal adult male life.
The point I am making here is that a strict client led approach to the job would never have revealed this part of Jack’s life about which he felt so deeply ashamed, which touched on his sense of manhood (or lack of it) and which he had devoted great energies to hiding away through repeated incarceration where he did not have to behave like an adult male. There are times when the ability of the helper to say things that the client cannot say, is a tremendous relief and help. Checklists and assessment frameworks can help in this direction.