West Yorkshire Probation Service: Doing time on the payback frontline

In the second part of our week-long look at the probation service, Neil Hudson dons his work boots and high visibility jacket and goes undercover to find out what it's like to be given community payback.

It is 8.30am and I am standing outside a large grey door off York Road, Leeds, along with about half a dozen others. It is bitterly cold but one of the men waiting has turned up in a thin track-suit. He must be freezing.

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I am outside the Probation Trust building and I am here to complete a day of community payback – a form of punishment handed out to offenders by the courts as an alternative to a short-term prison sentence.

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No-one knows who I really am except the member of staff in charge, to everyone else I am just another offender and my story is that I have committed a drink-drive offence.

Those taking part in community payback have to wear distinctive orange jackets bearing the words 'Community Payback', then work all day for nothing doing things like litter-picking, clearing flower beds, painting and sorting clothing for charities - so that is how I will be spending my day.

But before all that, there is something called 'the pool' to get through, which I have been told is the worst part of the day.

It is in the offenders' interests to get here early as prompt attendance results in an extra 15 minutes being knocked off your sentence. When you consider some are given more than 200 hours community service and working a full day is worth just seven, those 15 minutes can mount up.

Latecomers are given a verbal warning but persistent tardiness can result in being returned to court.

After giving my name at a small window, the waiting begins.

The experience is much like being stuck in a dentist's reception room only it's much bigger. Everyone pretends not to look at each other, there is tension in the air, a sense of collective impatience, as we sit and wait.

Some look through newspapers, others consult mobile phones, legs are crossed and uncrossed, people lean forward in their seats, then back again. Time dawdles by.

Eventually, safety boots are provided and, finally, after almost an hour, names are called.

Already, the process is not what I expected, having turned up ready to work all day, only to find myself stuck in a waiting room full of strangers doing precisely nothing.

Maybe it's part of the punishment: everyone has to dance to someone else's tune today.

Finally, my name is called and I am placed in a team with five others, we're given orange jackets, which must be worn at all times.

Pulling on the high-visibility jacket for the first time feels awkward but at the same time it brings a sense of fellowship to our group - suddenly we are all in it together.

Our supervisor informs us we are to tidy up and dig over a large flower bed off Rillbank Lane, near Burley Road. Just before she sets off, she shouts back that she hasn't forgotten the rainmacs, just in case the heavens open.

One of the features of community payback is it takes place in all weathers - teams were even out during the recent cold snap.

To me, it feels like my first day at high school, I have butterflies in my stomach and a sense of gloomy apprehension: about where we're going, what the people I'm with are like, the questions they might ask me (I have a loose cover story but it's nowhere near well rehearsed).

Out of the blue, as we're being driven to our destination, the man to my right breaks the silence and asks me quite nonchalantly: "How many hours you got?"

There's a moment of panic as I recall my story: I have 150 hours but it feels awkward saying it, especially with the whole group listening. My mind races. What else will they ask?

"This is your first day then?" the man continues.

"Hmm," I grunt, then quickly change the focus of the

conversation. "What about you?"

He says he was given 120 hours, though I don't ask what for as I am given to understand it's just not done.

We arrive at our destination - a large (30ft by 15ft) raised flower bed. It is covered in litter, including broken glass and roof slates and food waste which has been dumped, presumably by residents.

Bizarrely, someone has emptied a load of rotten tomatoes onto the plot. There are also about ten well established, although unkempt, gorse bushes.

Karen tells us we have to clear the lot and dig it over in preparation for the council replanting it.

The work is gruelling but not boring. In fact, it's quite fulfilling. With six men working the plot, you can see a difference almost immediately. Within a matter of minutes, the litter is cleared and two of the gorse bushes are out.

At the back of my mind is the notion that those undertaking community payback work for nothing. Worse still, sometimes they are berated by members of the public. Indeed, we have not been working for an hour when two dog walkers spot us and pause for several minutes, chit-chatting, before telling us we are wasting our time.

I thought there might be a stigma attached to wearing the orange jacket, almost as if it was somehow a badge of dishonour - on the contrary, they serve to give purpose and most wear them with pride for good reason. The work has a clear and immediate benefit to the community and there is no-one else to do it.

We work hard, break for lunch, which lasts about 40 minutes, then return to the site. Most of the team seem motivated and by the time we finish, at about 3pm, we've turned what was an eye-sore into an area which has potential.

We've each done a day's hard graft, which cannot fail to have a positive effect on nearby residents. I feel a sense of pride in what we have achieved and not in the least embarrassed to have worn the community payback jacket.

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