Unlock your Potential

The head of Unlocked recruitment talks about their award-winning leadership development programme: Learn vital leadership skills as a prison officer, while helping to turn around the lives of prisoners, to stop them reoffending.
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“Differentiation,” a buzzword when you ask for career advice from just about anyone. If you’re looking to “differentiate yourself”, we will be talking about this next week but in the meantime, we might have found the opportunity for you…
Unlocked, a charity backed by the Ministry of Justice, have launched a graduate leadership scheme with a difference: Learn to become an inspirational and supportive leader, whilst helping prisoners turn their lives around.
Graduates on the 2 year scheme will simultaneously qualify as a prison officer, study for a Master’s Degree AND complete work placements. It aims to raise the status of the profession and replicate the success of other graduate schemes like Teach First. N.B. This graduate programme is separate from the traditional prison officer training through the National Offender Management Service.
Unlocked are looking to recruit 45 people this year to work in London and South East England, with more places available next year. After the 2 year period, graduates will have attained a fully-funded Master’s degree in Leadership and Rehabilitation, taken part in work placements outside the prison sector, and will have helped prisoners change their lives for the better.  They will acquire valued transferable skills and benefit from some unique and robust experience, which will equip them for any public or private sector industry, or for joining the prison service at manager level. Unlocked have built a network of potential employers; Civil Service Fast Stream have offered to defer jobs, until graduates have completed the programme.
1500 people have shown an interest in the programme already, competition is fierce, so we spoke to Maria Donovan, the head of recruitment at Unlocked, to find out more:


What are the aims of the Unlocked programme?

‘We are looking to develop society’s future leaders; they will help improve prisoner rehabilitation and reduce reoffending, whilst learning key skills themselves.
It’s specifically for graduates to develop leadership and communication skills, building relationships and dealing with conflict. We hope, if graduates go into business, they may encourage the employment of ex-offenders and act as ambassadors for the programme.’



A prison officer isn’t necessarily a traditional graduate role, so how might they fit in?

‘A lot of prison officers are graduates, but yes, you don’t need to have a degree to do the job. We think it’s important to attract graduates … it’s quite a challenging role. It takes a fair amount of intellectual capacity, you should be capable of juggling many things at once, make objective decisions, deal with challenging situations, be leaders day in day out and be able to persuade people who are quite difficult to influence.’



From a female perspective, is it a particularly tough environment?

‘I would say your gender doesn’t matter. Most prisons are male prisons – It’s about 60/40, 70/30 on average, in terms of male to female staff ratio.
Having spoken to some female prison officers, they feel it can work to their advantage – I guess prisons want to be slightly more protective over them. They’re less likely to get a lot of agro. Sometimes female officers have a better way of talking to the prisoners and building relationships with them, also in dealing with escalating situations.
I mean I’m 5’ 1” (1.5m) walking around a prison – I didn’t feel in any way intimidated. I think people found me quite approachable… Probably to do with the fact that I am a woman… and my height! I would say you can use being a female to your advantage, I think.’



If you’ve never experienced a prison before, how could you tell whether you were well suited to the scheme?

‘Fundamentally, you must want to work with people, and believe they have the capacity to change. Obviously, people are in prison because they have done something wrong, but you must believe they can turn their lives around.
In terms of the right type of person, if you’re unsure whether you could deal with certain situations, try and get some voluntary experience with vulnerable people so you can get an idea of how others deal with difficult situations. It’s not a scenario that people usually have much exposure to, so maybe try and get into those environments.
Quite a lot of it is down to having faith in yourself, and if you’re motivated to do things and you want to develop your skills, then I think that kind of resilience comes with that. We have to have a baseline to work from, we don’t expect people to be perfect; you will develop a lot by doing a job like this as well.’



Can you get work experience in a prison, before you graduate?

It’s kind of hard, because geographically, there aren’t many prisons near universities. Some universities do some great things: Durham have a programme called ‘Inside Out’ which is also done in Cambridge now, so there is opportunity to get involved. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be experience in a prison. Universities do a lot of volunteering – working in a homeless shelter or things like that will be good experience to bring to the scheme.

Maria explained that the scheme started as a result of the Sally Coates review, which looked at education in prisons. Shocking statistics showed that urgent action was needed: The majority of people come into prison with learning disabilities and no GCSE’s. 3/5 of prisoners leave with no education or training.
Government reforms initially focussed on education for prisoners, but now have a wider remit to improve rehabilitation and reduce reoffending – with prison officers at the forefront of these changes.

‘Prison officers have the most interaction day in day out with prisoners, so they’re in the right position to work with people with mental health problems, spotting issues and being supportive to prisoners.’
‘46% of released prisoners reoffend within 12 months. We want to address that because it costs the economy a huge amount of money. 99% of prisoners will be released at some point – they could be your neighbour and you would rather they were in a better position than when they came in, so there aren’t more victims. There are a lot of other things being done, this is just one part of a much bigger prison reform agenda.’

In a news interview about the Unlocked initiative, Justice Secretary Liz Truss explained how prison officers are key to implementing the government’s prison reform programme and it was therefore important to attract the most talented people.

‘It is a unique role, which is both challenging and rewarding…There are very few jobs where you genuinely get the opportunity to reform and transform the lives of offenders, and… create a safer society.’

Liz Truss, Justice Secretary Source:  Sky News 21 Dec 2016


Read more here from the Ministry of Justice on the Unlocked programme.
Click here for a Q&A from a young graduate prison officer, who gives a fascinating insight into what her job is really like.
Find more information on the Unlocked scheme here.
Applications are now open, and will close in early March. Maria advised the earlier you apply, the better. Unique opportunities like this are certain to give you the edge and provide you with a wealth of knowledge and skills for work, and life in general! If this sounds like you, apply!

‘Being an effective prison officer is about leading change by motivating, protecting and educating some of society’s most challenging and vulnerable people.’