What it’s actually like working as a prison officer in London’s prisons

“We’re taught to be friendly, not friends.”

As a student, our closest experience to prison is likely to be a Netflix documentary. It’s a side of society we don’t usually think about and hope to avoid, unsurprisingly.

Turns out, life in prison isn’t what you think, especially for the grads working there. We went inside London’s prisons and spoke to a new generation of grads to find out what it’s actually like to be a prison officer fresh out of uni.

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Clo, 22, Cambridge grad

What made you decide you wanted to be a prison officer?

Having studied Sociology, I’ve always been interested in how society affects different people. After I finished uni, I wanted a challenge but also the opportunity to help people. In here, you really get an understanding of the person behind the offence. There’s no disconnect.

So what do you actually do?

My role is unlike any other – day to day, I’m processing prisoners who are entering and leaving the prison. Working on the prison’s reception, you get to be there in the most memorable moments of these people’s lives. I’ll be readying people for court as well as doing releases.

A lot of the time I’m walking the prisoner to the gate of the jail and talking to them as they leave – a lot of them are back within a few weeks. The last time one returned, he said: “Sorry, Miss.”

Are there many grads?

Yeah, there are loads on the Unlocked graduate programme; we all joined together and we’re all good mates. I live with three of the grads now and we’re extremely close. It’s a high responsibility job, so we support and look out for each other.

Clo is devoted to making a difference in the lives of people who need rehabilitation 

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What’s been the most eye-opening thing for you?

One thing people really aren’t aware of is how common self-harm is in prison – prisoners will use it as a coping mechanism. A large proportion of prisoners suffer from PTSD or have grown up in care, so mental health is something you need to be aware of in this job. 

You may experience things you haven’t seen before and you have to have thick skin, but it’s a continual learning process and it really opens your eyes.

This job sounds pretty intense – what motivates you to go into work everyday?

In my opinion, the problem with reoffending is bigger than the prison system – it’s a societal problem. There was one guy I released who went back home to find drugs were being sold in his house.

After being recalled, he told me he’d rather get to the end of his sentencing period in prison so he stays out of trouble. If we can make a difference in the lives of the people who genuinely want to change, why wouldn’t we?

What would you say to someone who may be intimidated by the job?

The horror stories are not representative of what it’s like. The documentaries will always portray extremes, but having experienced it for myself – and I work in a challenging male jail – I really enjoy my job.

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Reanne, 21, Manchester grad

Why did you want to become a prison officer?

Coming from studying Drama, I don’t think anyone expected me to go into this. I did a module at university called TIPP (Theatre in Prison and Probation) which involved doing theatre training with prisoners. Seeing the positive effect it had, I couldn’t help but feel my talents would be wasted in a corporate job. I wanted to feel like I was making a difference.

Are you friends with any of the prisoners?

You definitely build relationships with people but we’re taught to be friendly, not friends. We have to maintain a completely professional relationship. Once you build that trust, it helps your day to day enormously. I’ve had prisoners look out for me and step in when other prisoners have acted out of line.

What’s it like being a woman in such a male-dominated environment?

A lot of the prisoners will come to you if they have a problem. In a conflict situation, they’re usually more aggressive towards a male, but with a female, they’ll calm down easier. Usually, I’ll place myself in the middle and act as a calming influence in the situation. Gender does have a large bearing on certain scenarios.

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What are people most surprised by?

Generally, people can’t believe I talk to the prisoners and can have a joke with them. The prisoners are in here 24/7 – they’re not always going to be angry and aggressive in the way people might imagine. A lot of them will come into the office to hang out and have a chat with me. It’s never us versus them.

Why do you think more students should consider a career as a prison officer?

The role of a prison officer is so vast; you have officers working with the prisoners, in managerial roles, some in more office-based jobs, and some working alongside psychologists. You have the opportunity to work in whatever you want. 

The Unlocked programme is also only two years so you’re not signing your life away, but you’ll come out of it with not only a high-paid salary for a graduate, but also life experience that’ll help you grow up fast and gain a lot of transferable skills.

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Jack, 24, UCL grad

What training do they give you before starting in a prison?

When you start, you go to the Summer Institute, where you learn everything you need to know. This includes mental health training, physical training (where you learn restraint), and CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) to help manage a prisoner’s reactions.

The training is done over a six week period and the week after, you’re straight into the role as a qualified prison officer. This is all with the support of your mentoring prison officer, who you get to see every week and you can contact whenever you want.

What responsibilities do you have? 

My main job is being the point of contact for all prisoners. As an officer, you’re the main source of support for these guys, so you have to be adaptable and prepared for their questions.

Usually, I’ll be ensuring people get to their work and education for the day. We have a bakery they can work at, practical jobs like scaffolding, and there’s also The Clink, a charity supported restaurant. 

With the graduate programme, you also do an assignment-based Master’s in Leadership and Custodial Environments. We have lecture days every couple of months where everyone from the different prisons will come together.

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Why do you think there need to be more grads working in the prison system?

Firstly, for moral reasons – if you change one person’s life, it doesn’t just affect that one person, it affects their family and their children.

There’s also a massive economic reason – the rate of reoffending typically costs the UK £15 billion per year. If we have more graduates in this role who are focused on rehabilitating these people, it’ll inevitably save the taxpayer a huge amount of money.

Do you need to be a certain type of person to be a good prison officer?

The main thing is having good leadership skills. There’ll be times where I’m the most experienced person working on that shift, and I’m relatively new. You have to be ready to take that initiative, being able to help the staff coming into the role.

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