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Longford Trust Scholar turned Probation Service Officer

The Longford Trust encourages and supports people who have been in prison into education through their scholarship programme. Laurent Lichfield, now a probation service officer, is an amazing example of just how incredible the scholarship is.

The Longford Trust helps people in prison get their second chance. Their Longford Scholarship programme has, over the past 17 years, supported more than 500 young people, most of them in the 20s, to rebuild their lives through education after serving a prison sentence.

Laurent Lichfield is an amazing example of just how incredible the scholarship is. Former young offender turned probation service officer, Laurent shares his story.

Can you give us a brief summary of yourself and your journey up until your involvement with the Longford Trust?

My name is Laurent Lichfield (pen name), and I am a probation service officer (PSO) in a city PDU. I have held different responsibilities in probation over the last three years, starting in an engagement role and then supervising low and medium risk people on probation as a case manager. I work closely with the police and other agencies to manage risk and to improve outcomes for the often-disadvantaged people who come into probation’s care.

I am a former young offender, having been found guilty of possessing an imitation firearm as a teenager in an example of inexcusable, immature behaviour that I have left in my past. Under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act my conviction is ‘spent’ and I am deemed ‘rehabilitated’, having committed no further offences in the last eight years.

The idea of being an ‘educated’ citizen has always appealed to me, and this did not change when I was detained in a Young Offenders’ Institute (YOI) as my punishment for offending. I accumulated and read countless books and taught myself basic Spanish while there.

I wrote to a university Head of School while in custody, as I wished to study a degree in his department (his support was necessary in navigating the ‘convictions panel’ that scrutinised my circumstances). I was successful in that regard and, four years later, I graduated with a First-Class Honours degree, subsequently opting to complete postgraduate studies. From the second year of the degree onwards, I received financial support and mentoring through the Longford Trust, an incredible organisation whose belief in the potential of ex-prisoners to excel at higher education has been proven without doubt.

Having this support from the Longford Trust also improved my confidence. There remain narratives in certain tabloid newspapers about how those receiving a criminal sentence are likely to be ‘good for nothing’ for their entire lives; such a punitive culture often made me question whether I would ever amount to being more than just a young offender. The Longford Trust essentially said, ‘we believe in you’ – and invested opportunities, money, resources, and mentoring into my future prospects.

At what point in your journey did it become clear to you that you wanted to work in probation and why?

I did not always have enthusiasm for the work of probation; as a former young offender, I can recall the anxieties arising from being told about restrictive conditions that I would have to follow when released from a Young Offender Institute (YOI), including a condition to have no contact with my lifelong friend (also my co-defendant). I wanted to complete university studies after leaving the YOI, but it was unclear as to whether the standard licence condition of maintaining a fixed address would be an obstacle to this ambition. When my family visited me in the YOI, I told them how much I feared probation, having heard tales of injustice from other young offenders, some of whom had been recalled by the organisation.

My experience of being under probation supervision was somewhat different; while I had many vivid dreams at night about being recalled, it did not happen reality. My probation officer wrote a reference for the university convictions panel, expressing her belief in my future. She arranged transfer to another area to enable me to live in the vicinity of the university while completing my degree studies. I certainly don’t miss being under supervision – I prefer being the supervising officer! But I did feel listened to, with my views seen to have some value. When I tell people on probation that supervision is ‘a two-way street’, I am talking from experience, having myself needed to engage and comply.

In a conversation about job prospects, a probation officer said it was possible that one day, I could work for the organisation. I took this comment with a pinch of salt, given the HMPPS vetting procedures that I would surely fail on the basis of my previous conviction. However, a chance meeting with a senior probation officer after my supervision had ended led to me applying for a role in the organisation; I sought to present my lived experience of the criminal justice system as a positive factor, outlining how I could empathise with people on probation. Since then, I have never looked back, taking pride in my work and my journey to get here.

Did you have any misconceptions or fears about how your lived experience would impact on you taking this path?

It remains an unfortunate fact that not everybody in our organisation is enthusiastic about working side-by-side with former offenders. I give my answers to you under a pen name, rather than my real name, to ensure that my professional relationships are not damaged. There is still an ‘us and them’ culture in the criminal justice system, and I sometimes ask myself whether I am in the ‘us’ or the ‘them’. I felt particularly conflicted when recalling someone to prison several months ago; in a past life, that could have been me being recalled. Nevertheless, I remind myself of the role of probation in an open, transparent, and fair justice system that treats people with humanity and decency.

There was stress caused by two instances relating to my lived experience. The first is when a small group of colleagues found out about the offence I had committed and served a sentence for eight years ago; I was not privy to their conversations about this, and I do not know how harshly I was spoken about. Fortunately, with managerial intervention, it was agreed the matter would not be discussed further, with recognition of my deserved place in the organisation as a committed and capable PSO. The second instance is when I successfully applied for another role – in a higher pay band – in the organisation. Even though I had worked for probation for nearly two years at this point, I failed the vetting (and the subsequent appeal), based on having a previous conviction. This knockback caused significant upset and made me question my future in the organisation.

How did you find out about the Longford Trust and the scholarships they offer?

I found out about the Longford Trust and their scholarships from a friend, who was a Longford Scholar at the time. He suggested I contact the Trust to enquire about financial support and mentoring for my degree; when I did so, it quickly became clear that the staff at the Longford Trust had a genuine belief in second chances. It would have been a privilege to have met the late Lord Longford, referred to as ‘the outcast’s outcast’.

 

“I have gone from wearing a grey YOI tracksuit and living in a small cell to writing this while sitting comfortably, as an officer and civil servant, in a room in the local courthouse, dressed in a suit and tie and wearing my probation lanyard.”

Up until this point, what was your experience of education? How did this impact your approach to your scholarship? 

I would say I came from a fairly academic family; I was not the first to complete a degree by any means. But I was certainly the first to complete a degree after having served a criminal sentence! I will note that having a gap in academic study was initially difficult in that I had somewhat forgotten that routine of revision and completing assessments.

Other than the scholarship itself, what other support did you receive from the Longford Trust?

I have received mentoring support from two mentors via the Longford Trust. This support was not just limited to academic matters (though having an educated professional being willing to give feedback on my university essays was helpful!). My first mentor gave me advice on friendships and relationships, and shared particularly useful thoughts when I was applying for industry placements as part of my university degree, which required a disclosure of my conviction.

It is thanks to the Longford Trust that I have been able to share my perspectives, in the form of newspaper and magazine articles, about the criminal justice system. I had the privilege of serving in a paid role as a deputy editor of a criminal justice magazine – I was put forward by the Trust for this placement, which I greatly enjoyed.

From your experience, are enough people leaving prison encouraged to pursue higher education or is the emphasis on another pathway?

In my role as a PSO, I seek to promote higher education to people on probation. Many individuals under supervision will be capable of undertaking such studies but will have lacked the encouragement in their life to attempt such an endeavour. I would like to advocate for a section to be added to the induction pack asking all people on probation if they have an interest in learning more about degree courses (and access courses). There should be literature on the Longford Trust’s scholarships made readily available to every person leaving prison. When I was serving my own sentence, I was provided with helpful information about university degrees by my family. Not everybody will have a family with the desire or ability to assist in that way, though.

There could certainly be more promotion within the probation setting of higher education as an avenue, but I do not feel positive about the ending of the CRS contract for support with education, training, and employability. The ending of this contract represents cost-cutting at the expense of the future prospects of people on probation. Not all probation practitioners can be expected to understand the pros and cons of committing to higher education, and there may be limited understanding of the processes around university applications and student loans. It would be most frustrating if a person on probation were to be given incorrect information about higher education by their officer, hence the need for trained CRS advisors.

What advice would you give someone leaving prison and thinking about their future?

One person on probation – an ex-prisoner – recently shared with me his feelings on the ‘swings and roundabouts’ of going from custody to probation supervision, and this got me thinking about my own ups and downs in this regard. I have done my best to maintain hope for the future, and I attribute my general optimism to where I sit today. I have gone from wearing a grey YOI tracksuit and living in a small cell to writing this while sitting comfortably, as an officer and civil servant, in a room in the local courthouse, dressed in a suit and tie and wearing my probation lanyard. If I can turn my life around like that, then why can’t anybody else do the same? I would advise somebody leaving prison to make a list of career and study options worth exploring, and to speak to their probation practitioner about these. While disclosure of criminal convictions does remain key part of many job applications, there are many employers who are open-minded about giving people a chance to prove themselves. My own view is that ex-prisoners can make loyal and resilient employees.

I have written in positive terms about my career at the probation Service, and I am grateful for the opportunities I have received in the organisation; I have sought to flourish as a sentence management PSO, with case studies and performance statistics showing the effectiveness of my approach that involves reference to utilising ‘lived experience’. However, I would not recommend a Probation Service career an ex-offender. I say that rather unfortunately; this is because of my experiences with vetting and having to fight – with the support of Napo – to remain in the organisation that I have proudly served for some time. I referred earlier to significant upset caused from such challenges, and I do not wish that stress upon any person. At times I have felt like a burden rather than an asset, and at other times I have felt like a ‘box ticker’ or the subject of a ‘lived experience’ experiment.

If you or someone else you know would benefit from a Longford Trust Scholarship, this year’s application process closes 1 May. Apply here

 

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