Helping An Ex-Con Transform His Life Showed Me The Value In Second Chances

As a probation officer, I knew I couldn't help everyone. But Graham was one of my most difficult cases, and I really didn't want to be another person who labelled him a 'lost cause'

The Case I Can’t Forget is a weekly series that hears from the people working at the coalface of public service about the cases they have carried with them throughout their careers.

This time, probation officer Matthew Smith remembers how he made a breakthrough with Graham*, who had been in and out of prison his whole life, to help him escape the cycle of reoffending.

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I remember my first-time meeting Graham*. ‘A lost cause’, ‘beyond help’, ‘he’ll never change’, sums up the common sentiment from those who knew him and, perhaps, more regrettably, the view that he had of himself.

Graham had been involved with the justice system since he was just a teenager, after being evicted from the family home because of his aggressive behaviour.

Over the next decade he bounced between sleeping on the streets, prison and various hostels, selling drugs to survive and developing a significant drug and alcohol problem. By the time he was in his late twenties he had been convicted of a string of offences.

So, to Graham, I was just another face in the justice system.

“How am I actually going to get through to him? Can I even help him?” I remember thinking to myself.

But, after his latest offence, he was out of options. His volatile reputation was such that no accommodation provider in his home town would house him and he was banned from local drug and alcohol support services.

So, after once again being made homeless, Graham came into my office and said: “I give up, I don’t want to live anymore.”

As a Probation Officer, or as a human being for that matter, what can you say to someone in that moment?

I tried to convince him that things could get better, things might change, but given his lack of options I wasn’t entirely confident of that myself, let alone able to convince Graham.

He was one of my most difficult cases, so I really wanted to be that person who helped him change his life, and not one of those who labelled him a “lost cause”.

After doing some research, I spoke to Graham while he was in still prison, explaining that I had a way for him to address his drug and alcohol difficulties and his housing situation at the same time.

I said: “I want to help you, but it’s going to take some hard work on your part.”

He wasn’t entirely convinced and people have to want to make a change themselves before we can support them.

I spoke to a rehabilitation project away from his home town, meaning he would have no links to the same people he once associated himself with. A fresh start.

The aim of the project was to reduce the stresses of everyday life by providing safe, secure accommodation, food and taking care of bills. In return, the residents commit a large portion of their time to activities to support their recovery, such as physical exercise and attending sobriety meetings.

They had agreed to give him an opportunity, subject to him demonstrating some progress with his behaviour during an eight-week placement at a Probation Approved Premises with intensive monitoring.

But Graham refused, despite him knowing he had no opportunities left in his home town.

He said: “I have no reason to believe that things would be better for me elsewhere, so why should I leave everything behind?”

He didn’t believe in a positive future for himself.

Not giving up, I talked him through the impact this opportunity could have on his life and convinced him that there was a better future out there for him. Reluctantly he agreed to give this plan a chance. What other options did he really have?

I met him at the train station following his release from prison and showed him around the ‘approved premises’.

Upon arrival, and after hearing the rules of the premises, he said: “I’m not staying, I had more freedom in prison.”

To be honest, his unwillingness to give the placement a chance frustrated me, especially given the amount of work and convincing I did to get him the opportunity.

“You need to remember how miserable you actually were in your home town – we are now running out of options to help you so just give it a chance,” I replied.

In the end, and after a long chat, he agreed to move into the approved premises.

After a while, he was able to show enough improvement that the rehabilitation project agreed to interview him. This was a huge step as it showed Graham that someone else actually believed in him enough to give him an opportunity. He had never really had that before.

I had to ensure he maintained that feeling of hope so that he didn’t change his mind, so I helped him prepare for the interview and picked him up to take him to the interview myself.

For the first time since working with Graham, I could see that he finally had some self-belief and was excited about something in his life. He had initially seen a probation officer as just another authority figure, who would likely let him down.

However, once he went to the project and saw that this wasn’t a false promise and his effort was rewarded by an interview, he began to see the link between positive behaviour and a better life for himself.

He was accepted into the project. This was the first time within a year of working with him that I had seen him genuinely happy. This time he did not question the rules of the project and committed to attending three sobriety meetings per week.

Finally, my perseverance and hard work had paid off!

Graham was one of my most difficult, most complex and frustrating cases, so it was a fantastic feeling taking him away from a life of violence, homelessness and substance abuse.

He took it upon himself to contact me recently to tell me how well things were going in his life.

He told me he was no longer using alcohol or drugs, he was attending the gym, he had new partner and was now looking into attending college to get the skills he needed to get a good job.

This conversation still sticks with me. He had completely changed and playing a part in that made me incredibly proud.

“When you first told me I was moving away, I wanted to punch you, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he added.

Life as a probation officer can be frustrating, I see many people just like Graham who are unwilling or unable to change and many of them continue the same cycle of offending.

There are days I sit at my desk and think: “Is what I’m doing actually making a difference?”

On those days I think of Graham and what people can achieve with a little support and self-belief, which is why I will never forget working with him.

Yes, it is true that as probation officers, we can’t help everyone, but if someone deep-down wishes to make that positive change themselves, and just one person gives them a chance, they can end up coming out of the other end – just like Graham did.

Matthew Smith is a Probation Officer with the National Probation Service

The Case I Can’t Forget is a new series from HuffPost UK that hears from those on the frontline of public service about the cases they have carried with them throughout their careers. If you have a story you’d like to tell, email


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