Q&A… Speak to a Prison Officer
To follow up on all things prison, we spoke to a Graduate prison officer about her experience. Names have been changed to protect her identity, let’s call her Sarah. After studying English Literature at University, Sarah became a prison officer. Let’s find out what it’s like working for HM Prison Service…
What made you decide to be a prison officer?
I knew that I wanted a Public Sector job in a high-octane environment with plenty of people contact. I was considering something in Social Work, but knew that it wasn’t quite right, largely because I wasn’t sure how effective I was actually going to be in a role like that. Also, by the end of my degree I was eager to do something practical rather than academic, and the Prison Service seemed a good fit.
How did your family and friends react to your career choice?
I think my family had some concerns about my physical safety but I was lucky that they remained quite supportive in spite of this. People are often a little taken aback when I tell them that I am in the Prison Service – I think if you have had limited experience of any system like that it can be very hard to imagine. People picture something from Bad Girls and can’t comprehend why you would choose to put yourself in that position, but that’s just not the reality of it.
If you have never experienced prison before (as a visitor or a prisoner!), how could you tell whether you might be suited to this role?
Being a ‘people’ person is a huge help. That doesn’t necessarily mean being outgoing or confident (I’m neither of those things), but you need to be comfortable interacting with people, it helps to be articulate, and you need to be able to communicate well under pressure. There’s no point pretending that being in the Prison Service is glamorous, and you can’t be looking for a desk job, but if you enjoy a bit of an adrenalin rush, it’s definitely worth considering.
What sort of qualities and qualifications are necessary? What would employers look for when considering applicants?
I would say that among the graduates in the Prison Service, the most common degrees are in subjects like Criminology or Psychology, but like most graduate schemes, what the Prison Service are looking for is that you are able to use the transferable skills that a degree in any discipline teaches you – working to a deadline, delivering under pressure, working alone and as part of a group, being able to think laterally and developing imaginative solutions to issues. I got all of these from my time at university and my degree is in English Literature, so it’s not necessarily a natural progression.
If one of my friends was asking me for advice about joining the Prison Service as a graduate I would tell them that while the number is increasing, it’s still not that common for Prison Officers to have degrees, and I think it’s worth being mindful of that if you are successful in applying. There’s no doubt that some of the skills that studying for a degree develops can be really useful in a prison environment, but it doesn’t automatically follow that just because you have a degree you will flourish in what is a very intense job, and it would be foolish to give people the impression that it does (I guess this is true of all careers, but is especially true where graduates are the minority). My advice would be to attend a recruitment day and try the environment out – that way you can see through some of the scaremongering.
Is it particularly tough for a female in the prison environment?
I work in one of the largest prisons in the country. We hold just under 1600 male prisoners, and the majority of staff are also men, so it is a very masculine environment, and you do need to be comfortable with that. The working environment is truthfully one of my favourite things about the job – I don’t think I have ever laughed as hard as I have with prisoners and Prison Officers on a landing, but I think that’s just down to disposition rather than gender – I have had both male and female colleagues leave the job because they weren’t happy working in that sort of environment, and that was absolutely the right decision for them.
Whatever your gender and whatever your temperament, you will have negative interactions with prisoners, and there will be occasions when there is an element of risk from the position that you are in. I think that can be off putting for some people, but the Prison Service has been dealing with the same sort of dangers for hundreds of years, and we’re pretty good at minimising them and dealing with them when it happens. I can’t really impress upon you enough how much I am not an adrenalin junkie, but when an incident occurs and you are playing your part in the well-oiled machine that just clicks into place whenever this happens, it is an incredible feeling that I don’t think you could replicate in another career.
I don’t think I have ever laughed as hard as I have with prisoners & Prison Officers
What do you most enjoy about your job?
My answer to all of my friends who are baffled by my choice of career is always the same – it’s the people. I essentially get paid to talk all day – I walk onto a landing with a group of Officers that I know will absolutely back me, and we start working with people who society cannot deal with, to get them back there. You are involved in every aspect of their life – from food and showers to the wellbeing of their family. They are difficult, violent, sullen, inconsolable, hilarious, and they have some of the best stories that you will ever hear. It just doesn’t make sense to me that some people would rather sit in front of a computer screen all day when they could be engaging with that.
You will undoubtedly save someone’s life on a regular basis. It is also likely that you will change multiple people’s lives, or at least help them to do it. That sounds soppy and Mary Poppins-ish, but whether you are literally stopping someone who has made an attempt on their life or just chatting to someone who is considering it but hasn’t told anyone, it is an absolute literal fact that you will have a very serious effect on the lives of the people in your care. Plus there is no work anecdote conversation that you will not absolutely hands down win.
What are the downsides?
There are stupid things that you don’t think of when you’re joining – you cannot take your mobile into work with you, or a ceramic mug, or metal cutlery. You become incredibly aware of what you are putting on social media. The money is not brilliant, considering the nature of the job and compared to other graduate jobs.
Long-term shift work can be tricky – I will never have Christmas or Bank holidays off, and there are a lot of late finishes and early starts, not to mention that I work every other weekend. My friends outside of work are mostly in 9-5 jobs, so trying to arrange a social life can take some organisation.
You will see some difficult things, and most people who have been in a while will just shrug it off and carry on as though nothing has happened. When it is new to you that is really tough, but everyone develops the ability to do it, and while it is necessary in work it can toughen you up in your outside life as well. There are positives and negatives to that.
I guess the big one that people would expect me to say is the threat of violence, but truthfully, you would be amazed how quickly you adapt to that. Actually, the thing that I find most difficult is that you are dealing with a group of people that require so much support (of various means) and you are not always equipped or in a position to fulfil that fully. Particularly for people from an academic environment, that can be a tough one to get your head around.
What is a typical career path?
Most people will start as a Prison Officer on a residential unit (think Mr. Barraclough in the TV series Porridge. Don’t think about Orange is the New Black when it comes to English prisons. Just don’t.). You will have a yearlong probation before you can be considered for promotion. The next rank is Supervising Officer (SO), who oversees the day-to-day running of a wing, unit or houseblock, and is responsible for all of the staff and prisoners there. They run the regime and deal with any incidents that occur. After this it is Custodial Manager (CM), who essentially run the prison and oversee the smooth running (or not) of the entire operation. After this you become a Governor, but there are a number of different ranks of Governor, from the number one of the whole prison to the manager of a particular unit. You can also move from Residential work to more specialised areas, such as Security or Custody at any of these ranks.
Think Mr. Barraclough in the TV series Porridge. Don’t think about Orange is the New Black when it comes to English prisons. Just don’t.
What would you say to anyone considering joining the prison service?
You need to be robust. You really do. They’re not expecting you to walk in off the street and be comfortable going chin to chin with someone twice your size, but you need to be able to spend a twelve-hour day dealing with people who can be extremely violent, abusive, vulnerable and manipulative, or any cocktail of these. Self-harm and suicide attempts are prevalent, and you will be faced with people with severe mental health issues and severe behavioural issues.
As a result, you do need to be physically fit. I think a lot of people get put off from the Prison Service because they assume that they are not big and strong enough for the physical sides of the job, but all of our Control and Restraint techniques are designed to be performed by anybody, and you are thoroughly trained in how to deal with that. You do spend most of the day on your feet though, and that can be exhausting (invest in a Fitbit, you will wipe the floor with all of your friends).
The everyday mechanics of the Prison Service literally occurs behind closed doors, but that is simply the nature of the job. Don’t be put off by the fact that there is limited information out there about it, and that some of it is negative. Don’t forget that for every ‘riot’ or escape that hits the paper, there are hundreds of days when we keep over 85,000 prisoners safe (not to mention rehabilitating them, working on their addiction or behavioural issues, engaging with their family etc.,) and being part of the team that does that is a pretty incredible way to spend your working day.
That being said, people will know from the relatively small amount that is being reported in the media that the Prison Service is under a lot of pressure at the moment – more so than ever before. I think it is important to acknowledge this, and the fact that joining in this period is likely to be fairly tough mentally, physically and emotionally. However, it is a really golden opportunity to join a service in a time of massive flux and be a part of its redevelopment.
So, do you want to be a graduate prison officer?
If you’re thinking about it, be sure to read our Graduates In Prison article and interview with the head of recruitment at Unlocked (a charity run leadership scheme – Graduates on the 2 year scheme will simultaneously qualify as a prison officer, study for a Master’s Degree AND complete work placements).