Last year I was studying for a BA, now I work in one of the UK’s toughest prisons
It’s more rewarding than banking
Instead of working in the finance industry, as his Economics and Management degree would have predicted, James decided to try something different. When most people imagine life after uni they don’t picture orange jumpsuits and prison cells – well, not unless they’re particularly addicted to watching Orange Is the New Black. But, whilst watching a prison performance of Les Miserables acted out by the inmates, James was inspired to become a prison officer.
James became part of the Unlocked Graduate scheme and is well into this two-year programme and has been working on the landings as a prison officer for a year now. We spoke to him about prison life, TV stereotypes and whether his degree was the best one for the job:
What made you choose a career that seems so unrelated to your degree?
Economics and Management has a lot of financial possibilities after uni, and most of my friends went into corporate companies. I thought I’d end up in the same type of job, but I did an internship in that field and was completely turned off. I couldn’t see myself doing that every day for the rest of my life.
How did you get involved with Unlocked?
I applied for some economics-related stuff in third year alongside finals, but wasn’t really smitten with any of the things I was applying for. I took a year off after uni and during this time went to see an opera at HMP High Down, which was performed by professional actors and the inmates themselves.
After they finished the performance, the final show of a week-long run of Les Mis, the men were all in floods of tears. The sense of achievement I saw really struck me, especially since after the high of performing faded, they’d be back sitting in a cell for hours and hours a day. It was a really humanising experience. I’d been told about Unlocked in the past, and after getting an insight into the lives of these prisoners, I jumped at the opportunity to apply.
How have you found the training?
The six weeks of initial training were really intense and really efficient, for one week you shadow existing prison officers. But, you can never feel fully prepared for this place – that’s what makes it exciting. By the time you finish the training, you’re just ready to get stuck in.
Has anything you learnt in your degree helped on the job?
I’ve definitely found it useful to analyse ideas. A lot get thrown around about how to improve prisons, but they can be quite detached from reality. The prison service is underfunded, but the people at the top are definitely trying to get the best out of the money we have. I think my degree taught me to analyse the situation properly before making idealistic choices – it’s something I hope I can bring into my work more the longer I’m here.
Has your perception of prison changed since you’ve been working in one?
Definitely. Before this came into my consciousness, I would have never thought prison would be a nice place to work. The image the media portrays of prisons doesn’t help the negative stigma surrounding them and the prisoners – all my friends think it’s really gruesome, and although you will see some strange stuff, it’s never as grim as you’d think.
Is there a particular area you’d like to specialise in?
I want to do the advanced training which focuses on how to work closely with prisoners suffering from poor mental health, especially those in crisis. I also want to do the advance control and restraint training, which is riot control. The best part of this job is the training – there’s no limit to the scope of experience I can get.
Do you get to spend a lot of time with the prisoners?
We recently rolled out key-working, in which a prison officer is allocated anywhere from four to 12 prisoners, and you spend one day a week with them. It’s fascinating when you learn more about who these people are below the surface, beyond just “being an inmate”.
Do you think becoming a prison officer was the right choice?
There’s no other industry I can see myself in. You have the opportunity here to affect change on an individual level as well as broader changes to the system as a whole. Working as a team, the other officers and I are responsible for 280 prisoners. Knowing your actions can change how many of them feel safe, how many of them go to work, how many of them talk to their families and so on, is really rewarding. If I trust a prisoner, I can give him five minutes for him to call his family – social contact builds up, he feels a bit better, and a level of respect is established.
Would you say this scheme is open to people from any degree background?
For sure. There are loads of different types of prison officer. The key is to be able to manoeuvre between your different roles easily – whether you’re breaking up a conflict and using authority, or consoling a prisoner who’s going through it. The more diverse your background, the better – and of course that means any degree is suitable, there’s not a “prison officer” degree you can just go and do. This job will give you a backbone whether you want it or not.
Does the scheme give you good career opportunities?
You get out what you put in. I’ve been going to every networking event that’s been offered, and as a result I’ve met some very useful contacts.
Why would you recommend being a prison officer?
No two days are the same. You really get a sense of purpose here – a lot of my friends are working in office jobs where they don’t feel like they’re really doing much with their time. I never leave work feeling unfulfilled, I always get the chance to perform and help people in the process.