The Sociology of Doing Nothing, Probation and COVID-19

Image of Bucharest, Romania. A large white bus drives past in a whirl and large buildings are in the background. The street in the foreground are empty, and one man looks transparent and diminutive in the background

This is the second article from our special series on Applied Sociologists and the COVID-19 Pandemic. Dr Marian Badea works as a Probation Inspector in the social policy sector, in Bucharest, Romania. Marian analyses reports and coordinates activities of probation officers in 42 regions. COVID-19 social distancing laws have radically altered how probation officers carry out their work. Probation officers usually carry out observations through face-to-face visits. Initially, being directed to carry out their work remotely over phone and email was seen as a loss of their role. However, over time, probation officers grew to embrace new opportunities to focus on health and building rapport with clients. Marian shows how the sociology of ‘doing nothing’ (in this case, not carrying out face-to-face visits) opens up alternative ways to rethink justice work during COVID-19.

Marian Badea is a White man with short hair who is wearing a purple jacket and glasses.

By Dr Marian Badea

I’ve spent 18 years working as an applied sociologist in the field of probation. For the past five years, since 2015, I have been working in the research and development (R&D) department of the National Probation Directorate, at the Romanian Ministry of Justice, which is a state government organisation. I started my career in 2001 working directly with probationers, as a Probation Counsellor, and I did this job for six years. I then spent seven years coordinating the activity of the 42 probation services in Romania, as a Probation Inspector. (The Romanian Probation System consists of 42 local probation offices and one coordinating department, the National Probation Directorate.)

I did a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology in 2002, and a PhD in 2009 at the Faculty of Sociology and Social Work at the University of Bucharest. 

I’ve worked on many research projects over the years, including: ‘Assessing, monitoring and outcome measurement system for offender’s rehabilitation and reintegration of the offenders’ (2016-2017); ‘Drug users in pre-trial detention: a human rights issue’ (2011-2012); and ‘Deculturation as effect of detention. Resocialisation in the context of the regressive and progressive regime of prison sentence execution’ (2009-2013).

What do you do in your paid work? 

As a sociologist working on applied research in probation, I coordinate the work of collecting, processing and interpreting data on the main activities of probation services, and I also manage various other assessments. 

The role of a Probation Inspector includes many tasks, such as building our methodology, professional training, human resources, and other research. Typically, the R&D Probation Inspector synthesises the outcome of probation activities in research reports, annual statistical analyses, and evaluations of other activities at local probation offices.

Tell us about the social context where you live, and how has your work shifted due to COVID-19? 

The Romanian Presidential Decree on Probation Measures details the state of emergency in Romania under COVID-19 (Coronavirus). As a consequence, probation counsellors will no longer provide home visits, and probationers don’t need to undertake their community service or reintegration programs.

Usually, I coordinate research on the interaction between probationers and probation counselors, including through home visits to probationers. For part of the previous month (over March-April 2020), I worked from home.

In Romania, people are tested for COVID-19 when they show specific symptoms of the virus. To date (at the time of writing, on 21 April 2020), 8,936 people in Romania are confirmed as being positive with COVID-19. So far, 451 people diagnosed with COVID-19 have been admitted to hospitals, and have subsequently died. Of the people who were previously confirmed positive, 2,017 patients were declared negative with the virus and then discharged from hospital. 

In Romania, at the time of writing, no probationer and no counsellor is known to be infected. 

The Romanian Probation System works with people sanctioned directly in the community (that is, they are charged and sentenced with community orders). A small number of our clients are parolees, or people who have been released from prison.  So far, there have been suspicions of infection in four probation services, but none have been confirmed. Five of the employees of the Ministry of Justice are infected (but none of the National Probation Direction).

How are you using applied sociology in your day-to-day work to directly respond to COVID-19?  

We are in a situation equivalent to a great social experiment, in which face-to-face contact is greatly reduced. This predicament has some peculiarities: it is not well determined over time (we do not know when we will be able to waive the requirement not to interact face-to-face); it is generalised (people, institutions, communities, even entire societies are under lockdown); and even the decision-makers are subject to the rule of avoiding face-to-face contact.

On 16 March 2020, the President of Romania issued a decree declaring a State of Emergency, to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Several sanctions were introduced across society. In the case of probation officers’ work, new rules include: suspension of probation visits at home or at probation offices; lifting offenders’ requirements to do community work, training and qualifications; and a temporary halt of reintegration programs (e.g. rehabilitation services for offenders). New probation cases are managed remotely, rather than face to face. 

The number of people in prison in Romania is strictly controlled (capped at just over 20,000 people). The number of people on probation has dropped slightly below 69,000 in the part month (March-April 2020). In the short term, we expect a decrease in the recidivism rate (due to the context of the lockdown imposed on all citizens of Romania). In the medium term, it is likely to increase, as many of the Romanians who were working in Western Europe have returned to Romania and this may impact the level of policing.

Working in a central department that coordinates the activities of 500 employees (probation counsellors) from 42 local organisations (probation services), we find that we are sending more ‘non-decisions’ directions than ever before, which means limiting face-to-face observations with probationers. For probation counsellors, the consequences of the Presidential Decree were immediate, with many perceiving that it limited their roles.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic started, a probation counsellor in Romania had, on average, four to five daily face-to-face contacts with sanctioned persons (up to a maximum of eight such contacts). Following the introduction of social distancing laws, probation officers now carry out their work remotely, via phone or email.

The content of these interactions has changed, with probation counsellors focusing on messages to protect the health of their clients, as well as their friends and families. 

Probation officers have reported to us that, due to these social distancing changes to their work, they have found a sense of reciprocity with clients, who also ask questions about the health of the probation officers. This has led to a stronger bond and increased sensitivity, through a mutual focus on public health. 

Sociologist, Susie Scott, argues that there is merit in studying the ‘sociology of nothing.’ By ‘nothing,’ she refers to all the opportunities that are lost (such as a job that we could have had), things we could have done but didn’t get around to do (a place we meant to visit, but never did), as well as other empty experiences and social possibilities that are removed from our lives. The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced many moments of ‘nothing’ through social distancing: we are all experiencing the loss of human interaction, including in our jobs.

In the case of probation officers, reconfiguring work from face-to-face visits to virtual interactions has created a new avenue to build rapport with offenders newly released into the community. In this sense, the ‘non-decisions’ to do nothing, may potentially open up changes to how probation is managed in Romania.

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