Celebrating and promoting the best in UK prisons, probation and youth justice
COMMENDEE 2014-15: Michael earns a Commendation for his work at the Probation Board for Northern Ireland, described as “the benchmark for PBNI practice”, with some of the most challenging offenders in the system.
Michael Winnington, of the Probation Board for Northern Ireland (PBNI), has spent over three decades working as a qualified probation officer. A trailblazer in developing new skills and specialisms in a sector undergoing substantial changes, Michael’s work is used as an exemplar and training tool for less experienced Officers. He currently works for the Assessment Unit, itself the recent recipient of a PBNI internal staff award, and is described by its manager, Paul McCusker as “the keystone of this highly performing unit.”
The Unit, which provides pre-sentence reports for the greater Belfast Courts, and thus require an on-going emphasis on accuracy, analysis, style, and proficiency in order to expertly inform the Judiciary. A previous manager noted that “Michael is extremely committed and consistently professional, always accepting the challenge of the most difficult court assessments, for example in murder and other cases of serious violence. These require resilience, advanced social work skills, a capacity to engage with very challenging offenders and to analyse complex and at times disturbing information. Michael has always been respected by his managers and colleagues for his ability, humanity, and humility.”
Paul McCusker adds that “Michael has worked tirelessly with individuals who all too often exist outside the contemporary perception of the vulnerable and weak, i.e. adjudicated offenders. He has always impressed upon others that behind the label of “offender” were individuals who showed the all too familiar history of poverty, neglect, abuse, addiction and marginalisation from education, health and employment services, but were further stigmatised by their communities due to contact with the criminal justice system.”
Michael has not shied from difficult, high profile cases, involving terrorists or politically motivated offenders, and draws on his deep expertise across the Northern Ireland Criminal Justice system, which extends to having worked at HMP Maze before its closure.
Michael’s work is described by Gail McGreevy, Head of Communications at PBNI, as setting “the benchmark for PBNI practice”, and it has also been endorsed by senior judges. Furthermore, adds Paul, Michael is “widely respected for maintaining the assertion that as social workers our responsibility in protecting the public, whilst holding offenders accountable, can be achieved without sacrificing the core belief that all clients have the capacity for positive change.”
Michael himself is “acutely aware” of his responsibilities to objectively assess the risk of serious harm, “a responsibility which I never minimise.” This work, he admits, “can be a difficult, challenging and at times stressful responsibility.”
However, reflecting on almost a third of a century as a Probation Officer, Michael says “I have learnt the importance of being objective and of treating offenders as people, rather than seeing them as a collection of risk factors. I believe that building a relationship with an offender forms the basis of effective work.” He cites seven years at HMP Maze as an important part of his own development and learning. Here he worked with prisoners serving sentences for paramilitary/terrorist offences. Engaging with them was, he says, “a complex and challenging task, both personally and professionally.”
Michael explains that this experience taught him “the importance of remaining objective, non-judgemental, and focused on the task at hand.” Looking ahead, Michael is keen to undertake more of the mentoring and support he already offers to younger colleagues.