A young man nervously covers up the electronic tag around his ankle, while another is full of bravado, nonchalantly saying he has somewhere else to be.
Welcome to the world of the probation officer and the ex-offenders they are trying to help turn their lives around.
One such officer in Hounslow has described a typical induction session at which convicts take the first steps towards becoming law-abiding citizens.
Probation officer James (due to the sensitive nature of his work, he will only give his first name) has given a rare insight into his role with a moving account of a typical morning's work.
He describes the tricky balance between helping ex-offenders find work and housing, and enforcing banning orders designed to protect the public and help them stay on the straight and narrow.
The success of the London Probation Trust's Hounslow centre is a testament to the possibility of transformation, he explains, with less than a third of those it works with going on to reoffend.
Starting steps on probation in Hounslow, by probation officer James
Today’s induction session could be taking place in any meeting room anywhere in the borough. Except it’s no ordinary meeting – it’s an induction session for local ex-offenders who are now on probation.
There are six men in today’s group, each of them low to medium risk to the community, convicted of crimes from burglary, drugs, anti-social behaviour or domestic violence.
It’s interesting to see the range of reactions people show when they first report for induction. It can range from cockiness, apprehension, confusion and even fear. My role is to break through all of that, and get them to ask themselves what they really want to get out of being on probation.
That means an intensive programme to get them to follow a crime-free life, and that starts at induction. It’s all about getting ex-offenders to take responsibility, holding them to account and also setting goals which offer an alternative to crime.
Some at today’s session have been down this road before. One admits he’d been on probation as recently as last year. Sullen and combative, he’s anxious to leave, claiming he’d “been through this lots of times” and is due somewhere else.
But he can’t leave. A missed supervision meeting with a probation officer without good reason means a breach warning – the fact he just doesn't want to be there doesn't count. A second no-show means a Court appearance, a harsher penalty and quite possibly prison.
My message is simple: Always keep appointments with your probation officer, don’t turn up drunk or high on drugs, don’t reoffend. If you engage with us, we’ll give you support to stop you getting into this situation again.
During probation supervision we don’t just rely on what ex-offenders tell us. We also constantly liaise with Police and social services, and visit people at home to ensure that words are being followed up with actions.
One of the young men in the room looks nervous. He’s also tried to hide the electronic tag around his ankle by folding the top of his sock over the strap. Yet he is the most responsive when the group is asked what they think stops people from reoffending. This has been his first conviction, and you get the sense the message is sinking in.
Every offender is different, so that might mean they need drug or alcohol rehabilitation, anger management training, debt and housing advice, or support in finding a job. Finding a job and stable accommodation are the best indicators whether someone is likely to reoffend. Probation officers have colleagues specialising in employment and skills who aim to get ex-offenders into training or employment, to keep them out of trouble.
There can also be tough sanctions, the stick alongside the carrot element of probation. People can be banned from entering a certain area or premises, required to follow a curfew, or banned from contacting certain individuals. Following the rules can mean a good outcome. Failure can mean prison.
Our role is to support people to change, but if they don’t show progress then that’s when the enforcement element comes in – our number one role is to manage any risk someone poses to the community.
Once their sentences have expired, I have no idea whether we will see anyone from today’s group again. I hope not. More than two-thirds of the people we work with don’t re-offend, and some even stay in touch with their probation officer even after they don’t have to. People really are capable of change.