I’ve spent my grad scheme assessing the mental health of prisoners
‘You’re giving someone who’s been failed by the system the ability to change’
Netflix shows, films and the news do a great job of de-humanising criminals, without acknowledging the systems that may have failed them beforehand or any issues with mental health that may have led to their actions.
When incarcerated, prisoners are some of the people most at risk of suffering from mental health issues, with some experiencing suicidal thoughts and attempting self-harm, which is something many prison officers have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.
Saida graduated from Birmingham, and her job is to work with British prisoners and their mental health, in the hopes it will stop them from reoffending, straight after graduation. She talks to us about what it’s like to work with prisoners every day.
Saida, Birmingham, Social Policy, Crime, Policing and Community Justice grad
What made you want to work within the prison system?
I grew up around South-East London and witnessed a lot of crime. I’d always felt that there was a failure within the criminal justice system, constantly seeing people re-offend and repeat the cycle. I wanted to get involved in fixing that so when we’re actually rehabilitating people, they have no interest in continuing down the path of criminality after leaving. Unlocked gave me the training and opportunity to actually work with offenders, straight after uni.
How does the training work?
In your first six weeks, you get everything you need to know for the job. You have one-on-ones with your mentor and group meetings with the others on the grad scheme, so there’s support everywhere you turn. After that, you have a week of shadowing and a few days until you get onto the landing. I quite liked the fact we dived into it, and when I got through the training, I was itching to start the job.
So what do you do in your role?
I’m a Band 3 prison officer. We work on the prison landings where the inmates live, dealing with the daily regime, getting prisoners out in the morning and making sure they’re cracking on with their day-to-day. We also encourage them to get their medication and to go off to work in the afternoon. We’re also referring them on the wing if they can’t go to work, dealing with things like conflict resolution and any gang-related stuff.
I’ve trained on the Violence Reduction team, so if I know that someone’s come into the prison from a particular gang, I’ll be the officer on my wing who feeds back to the team on how we can manage that situation.
How do you work with the prisoners and their mental health?
We work with the prisoners on a referential basis. If someone’s a regular self-harmer or has suicidal thoughts, we’ll be constantly assessing them and documenting how their behaviour has been for the day. We document our conversations with them and assess if it gets to a point where they need to be referred on to a mental health hospital.
I’ve also recently got onto the assessors course which enables me to carry out actual assessments for people who are self-harming or who have mental health problems. We always need to be aware of a prisoner’s issues before working directly with them. I’m a founder of a mental health charity myself, so that comes in handy for me when talking to the staff about the topic.
Has there been a time you felt you had a real impact on one of the prisoners?
We had a prisoner who was problematic when he didn’t take his medication and could be violent or aggressive. I found that getting him to tap into his more creative side helped him to calm down. He used to really enjoy writing poetry, so rather than writing him off as aggressive I spoke to him about his poetry, and rationalised the situation with him so he would take his medication. That was a really fulfilling moment as there was no restraint required.
Do you ever feel an emotional strain from it?
Occasionally, but you just have to remind yourself that there are always people around you who are trained to deal with high-risk situations. You also have to not take whatever goes on at work home with you. You may see things that you wouldn’t necessarily be exposed to in another job, but you also have those rewarding moments that cancel out the bad ones.
The hardest part of this job is dealing with control and restraint. We’re trained in de-escalation, so it’s always a last resort, but it is part of the job. As much as you’re trained to handle it, it’s never fun to have to do. There’s always the concern for the prisoner and whether or not you may lose that trust that you’ve built with them, and also for the other staff who could be threatened.
Would you say this role is open to people who may have experienced issues with their own mental health?
Definitely. Unlocked are fully aware of the fact that I myself suffer from depression and anxiety. Prior to going into the job, my anxiety played up quite a bit, and I can honestly say the job has made it better. There’s so much support around us and welfare checks to make sure that staff are okay. After every heightened situation, you’re debriefed and given the chance to talk about what you’re going through. You’re also dealing with people who share some hefty stories, so it puts everything in perspective.
How does the Master’s work?
So as part of the programme, you do a bespoke, fully-funded Master’s degree in Prison Leadership. In your first year, it’s a mix of lecture days, learning on the job, tutorials and different assignments. Your second year is focused on your dissertation, and then there’s an option to do a policy paper as well. You choose the topic based on something that you’ve noticed is problematic over your first year, then carry out a piece of research that will inform future policy.
What’s been the most surprising part of this job for you?
Before I started, I thought I had an understanding of what criminals look like, having grown up with people who’d been in and out of the system. But once you get in, you realise that they’re human beings with everyday frustrations which we’d all suffer from in their situation. Some of the prisoners are actually really polite and willing to help each other out, making sure everyone gets a share of what they have.
Occasionally you’ll meet people in for such horrific crimes which makes you think differently about how prisoners work psychologically. For example, the first time I’d ever worked in a wing that had paedophiles on it, admittedly I had my back up the entire time, especially as a young female. But after working one-on-one with them, it completely changed my perspective and removed any preconceptions I may have had.
What’s your favourite part of the job?
Having conversations with prisoners – for you to be able to influence somebody to change, you need to develop an understanding of what ideology guided their decisions and why they thought their actions were okay. It’s amazing to have the opportunity to tell someone that they’re not a bad person, but someone who’s made a bad decision that doesn’t define their life.
What advice would you have for someone considering this?
I think you’ve got to find a balance between thick skin and sensitivity. It’s a positive thing to be sensitive, as you don’t want to desensitise yourself from what you’re exposed to. The job definitely forces you to become a bit more human. The best thing you can have is the ability to talk to people. I come as I am, and the prisoners respect me for that. If you’ve gone to university, you likely enough already have an open mind, which is crucial here.
What is it that keeps you motivated?
For me, I can’t see another job where I’d be doing anything as rewarding. You’re giving someone who’s been failed by the systems around them the ability to change. We may not necessarily get to see it happen when they turn their lives around, but if we don’t see them return that’s usually a good sign. I remember when one prisoner was released, he told me: “Miss, whatever you do, keep doing it. You’ve actually really impacted my life”. It reminded me of why I came into the job and why I love it so much.