Discover more about working within the prison environment as these people share their view on the role of a prison officer and explain their approach to rehabilitation.
The prison officer role is incredibly varied. On any given day officers may find themselves being a negotiator, social worker, investigator or teacher. Here current officers and others who work within the prison services share their experiences.
Ian Bickers, Governor, HMP Wandsworth
Tell us about your role
My role here is to coordinate the work that goes on across the prison. A big proportion of that is spending time thinking about the work we do around rehabilitating prisoners. It is arguably the most important part of the work that we do. Prison officers are primarily here to keep people safe and secure and to protect the public, but they are also here to make a difference to the lives of the men in our care.
What does rehabilitation mean to you?
The men that we look after today are going to be the neighbours of everybody else in society tomorrow. Our job is to make sure that we reduce the risk that those men pose to us as a community; to make sure they could do fundamental things, learn to read and write, find a job, be able to keep themselves in housing. In very simple terms, our job is to make sure that they don’t come back to prison.
Tell us about being a leader in the context of a prison
Leadership is really important and it’s important to understand that all prison officers should see themselves as leaders. They lead the men or women in their care and can impact on their lives on a daily basis.
What do prison officers actually do?
A prison officer’s role is really diverse. On any given day, you will need to put the security of the prison at the forefront of what you do. But you’ll also be helping people to read; you’ll be dealing with healthcare issues; you’ll be getting people out to work; you’ll be engaging people; you’ll be saving people’s lives. Whatever you think that this role will be, you will always be surprised by something new happening.
It can be very easy to focus on the security element, but the prisoners in your care need you to be able to step up and provide all of those other services to them – and that’s where you can make a difference.
What most impresses you about the officers you work with?
Life in prisons has been difficult recently and people will be very aware of the media that there is around prisons. Only today, three of my prison officers have saved somebody’s life. To be able to go home at the end of the day and say that what you have done is a massive achievement. Perhaps more importantly than that, sitting alongside somebody on a bed and helping them to read their letters from home is an achievement.
My officers show such tenacity in keeping people safe and relentlessly working through the challenges of dealing with some of the most difficult and dangerous people in society. It’s a privilege to work with them. And the fact that they can do that with smiles on their faces and lightness in their hearts is hugely impressive.
Can you think of a time when you have made a tangible difference to a prisoner’s life?
There are many occasions over the last 14 years where I think I’ve had a significant impact on somebody’s life. I think the most significant and straightforward is simply being able to sit down with somebody, write a letter home and then encourage that person to go into education so they can write the next letter home themselves. It’s a really small step in being able to do something so significant to somebody. That to me is probably one of the most important things I’ve ever done working in the prison service.
What advice would you give to a prospective Unlocked officer?
My one piece of advice would be to come into this job with a very open mind and a very open heart.
Peter Chattern, Operational Manager, HMP High Down
Describe the role of a prison officer
Being a prison officer means managing prisoners – their lives and daily routines are in your hands. You have to be able to deal with a lot of different situations quickly and fairly. In a restricted environment like a prison, even the most mundane issues can take on major significance – being able to call a relative, apply to a course or get a replacement for a broken kettle is a major thing for someone who may be in their cell for up to 23 hours a day. You might have to tell someone that their mum has died, or that the privileges they had earned have been taken away – it’s not necessarily about being able to deal with confrontation in a physical sense, but being able to de-escalate a situation.
What skills are required to ‘de-escalate’ a situation?
You have to listen to people – and they have to see that you are listening – and you have to be confident and honest. Every person is different so you have to be adaptable, and know when to get some additional support.
What does ‘rehabilitation’ mean to you?
Rehabilitating a prisoner means helping them to leave prison with everything that they need so that they don’t come back. It’s about helping them to develop the tools to get what they need. If we do that that then they shouldn’t be returning here.
How do you view the prisoners who you work with?
We’re not here to judge the prisoners for what they’ve done, we’re here to help them lead law abiding lives; in custody and on release. Day to day we’re here to make sure they get up and go to work, to be supportive, to be caring, to be assertive and instil some discipline where it’s needed. Other than that we’re here to be supportive and get them back on their feet and back out into the community where we all live.
Describe a time when you have intervened to make a tangible difference to a prisoner
I think I‘ve taken many actions that have had an impact on individual prisoners. There was an instance when I responded to an alarm; a prisoner had barricaded the cell door and was trying to hang himself. We managed to get in and save him and I took him aside for a couple of hours afterwards and sat with him finding out what his problems were. It was very difficult for him, he was struggling to make contact with his family and get visits with his mother. I helped him with all of these different issues on that day, so that he didn’t feel like that anymore.
What do you most like about working in the prison environment?
What I love about my job, and why I get up in the morning, is that every day is different, you never know what you’re going to come in and face. You’re not stuck behind an office desk nine till five. There’ll be days when you’re dealing with prisoners that are in your face, being confrontational, and there’ll be days where you’re there with a prisoner who’s crying about something that’s happened. It’s varied. There’s no way of really describing the prison environment until you actually arrive here. You have to have a great sense of humour. The people that I work with make me want to come here and I really do feel like I make a difference.
Emily Thomas, Governor, HMP Isis
Why did you begin working in prisons?
I joined the prison service as a graduate in 1999 because I wanted to make a difference in prisoners’ lives, because I wanted to be part of the process of helping to rehabilitate people and return them to the community to lead better lives.
Describe the role of prison officer
I don’t think the title prison officer adequately explains what prison officers do every day. At any point during any shift, prison officers are asked to be social workers, they’re asked to be parents, they’re asked to be role models, they’re asked to be mentors, they are asked to be policemen, teachers, advocates and counsellors. Doing all of those roles within one job in any one day of the year is what makes being a prison officer such a great job.
Tell us about your prison officers
My prison officers come from a variety of backgrounds, from a variety of places, but they all are so enthusiastic and so willing to engage in all kinds of different activities within the prison. Prison can be a very challenging environment to work in. Prison officers have to deal with behaviour and incidents that are beyond what is normal for everyday life and normal jobs, but what is fantastic about the staff that I work with is their resilience, their passion for the job, and their enthusiasm about working with prisoners and encouraging them to change their lives. They are compassionate; they are hugely supportive of each other; and they work incredibly well as a team; and they have fantastic communication skills. I genuinely think they are an awesome team.
What does it take to be a prison officer?
Every day you are required to be a variety of different things to prisoners. You will be looking after prisoners who are very vulnerable, who are feeling incredibly anxious and stressed, and you need to be able to talk to them and support them. At the same time, you might be dealing with somebody who’s very volatile, very aggressive, and you need a whole different skill set to be able to do that. So, no two days are the same, no two prisoners are the same.
To be able to move between the different roles that a prison officer has to do within any given day on duty, you have to have a real strength of character, and you have to have resilience within yourself that you can come in each day and start each day afresh with the same prisoners. You might have somebody who was really rude to you yesterday or incredibly aggressive to you yesterday, and the next day when you come in, you have to treat them in exactly the same way as you would want them to be treated every day. That takes real compassion and strength, and a real desire to make a change in prisoners’ lives and to make a difference to their community.
Explain how prison officers help to rehabilitate prisoners
Every interaction that we have with the prisoners in our care is an opportunity to help rehabilitate them and send them back into the community much better able to get on with their lives in a more constructive and happier way. So, for me, prison officers are the central part of the rehabilitative process. They spend the most time with prisoners. They have the most impact on what prisoners do every day, how prisoners feel about the prison that they’re in, and they have the most opportunities to really have an influence on prisoners whilst they’re with us, encouraging them to attend activities, to go on courses and programmes that will also help them to change their behaviour and to see things in a different way.
How do you help prisoners to gain work when they leave?
We have an education department and activity centre so that prisoners have the opportunity, not just to gain qualifications that they may have missed out at an earlier age, but also to experience vocational work. These include carpentry, kitchen fitting and bike repairs – work that gives them a sense of what it would be like to work within the community, and which will lead them to better employment prospects on release. We also work with a number of third-sector providers who are doing things such as providing mentors for prisoners whilst they’re here.
Tell us about some of the interventions you have that aren’t work-related
We aim to address a variety of issues that prisoners might arrive with. For example, we offer a range of programmes that deal with people’s thinking skills, helping them to change the way they think about things, to be less impulsive, to better manage their emotions and their anger. We also have a choir that comes in and we’re establishing a choir within Isis. We run a debating competition, which is delivered by students from Oxford University who come in and set up debating within the prison to encourage prisoners to feel more confident and to gain skills in public speaking and increase their self-esteem.
Tell us about an individual case where you feel you have made a real difference
I can think of one young man who was incredibly difficult to manage within custody when he first came to us, very badly behaved. It was difficult to control his levels of aggression. He turned around whilst he was here. We helped him to go to education and to start to learn and engage in a way that he never really had before. He’s now undertaking a university course and has gone back out into the community really clear about what he wants from life and really clear that he’ll never come back to us.
Daniel Dean, Prison Officer, HMP Isis
How do you see your role as a prison officer, beyond ensuring the safety and security of prisoners?
I think it’s about providing them with a good role model. A lot of the individuals that we work with haven’t had that in their lives, so they need that sort of father or mother figure. They need support and guidance in their life. And stability, a lot of these people haven’t had any stability in their life, so they need that as well. For me, it’s probably more of a big brother role. A lot of the offenders at HMP Isis are quite young, so it’s possible to build a rapport with them and influence them positively. Every interaction you have with an offender can make a difference. We can have a joke sometimes, and being able to be that strong brotherly figure in their lives to them is very rewarding to me.
How do you support prisoners?
There are many different ways to support prisoners. A lot of them have multiple needs, so we’re dealing with people who have mental health issues, anger issues, family problems, substance abuse. There are so many different issues that we deal with. It’s often part of our job to discover these issues and to guide them in the right direction, to contact the right people to put them in the right avenues so that we can get these issues addressed.
What makes you most proud in your role?
It’s when you’ve known an individual for a year, or two years, because you’ve worked closely with them on their landings, and it comes to that individual going home and they actually turn around, they thank you for your help and the support that you’ve given them over that time. It’s a very satisfying feeling knowing that you’ve helped someone and that there’s a high chance that they’re not going to come back to prison.
What’s the hardest part of being a prison officer?
It can be a stressful environment at times. Some days will be very challenging. You’ll be dealing with multiple incidents at one time, or you’ll be dealing with a challenging individual who will be targeting all his anger and all his frustration at you. But by having a close working relationship with all our colleagues we form quite a close-knit community. We’re very supportive of each other and together can often turn quite a tough or challenging day around to be quite a positive day.
Our aim at Unlocked Graduates is to attract innovative leaders into the prison service to apply fresh thinking and new ideas that help prisoners to make better, more positive choices. Learn from ex-prisoners as they reflect their views on rehabilitation.
Inspirational speaker, founder of Unlocking Potential and ex-prisoner
I have always said that it was not the system that rehabilitated me, it was the individuals who worked within it. These individuals treated me as a human being and would give me messages of hope that enabled me to make significant changes. In 2000 I received a prison sentence of four years and at that point I believed that my life would never be more than a bag of gear, a prison cell and a council estate. The prison officers I met during that sentence treated me with respect and care, I was a cornered animal and my soul was dying, these individuals treated me as a human being and nurtured me back to life. When I left that sentence I still had some way to go but I had started to trust more, so engaged with services within my community. My whole rehabilitation journey took six years and it was a mixture of support from professionals within both the criminal justice and voluntary services. These individuals and services supported me to become the person I am today.
Author of Cell Workout and ex-prisoner
Although prison was a massive knock, once I found my feet I wanted to use my time as productively as possible. I spent months in Pentonville developing the exercises for Cell Workout and the best part of three years designing the book and publishing it myself before Hodder and Stoughton took it on.
I plugged away for five years trying to be allowed back into prison, so that I could try to give something back and inspire other prisoners to change their lives.
I must have been knocked back what felt like a million times, until Ian Bickers, who was Governor at HMP Wandsworth at the time, decided to take a chance on me and let me come back in to deliver my fitness and achievement courses. I set up a social enterprise – Cell Workout Enterprise C.I.C – and, with the help of the Prisoners’ Education Trust, succeeded in winning funding from the Ministry of Justice to deliver my Cell Workout Workshop programme in HMP Wandsworth.
Unlocked launched by placing participants in the South East, where there is the greatest need for new officers. We intend to expand to other geographical areas in future years.
The 2017 cohort work in the following six prisons in London and the South East:
- HMP Brixton
- HMP Wandsworth
- HMP/YOI Isis
- HMP High Down
- HMP Downview
- HMP Coldingley
Next year, we hope to place in more London prisons as well as the Thames Valley and the South East. The full list of prisons we will place in for 2018 is not yet finalised.
Participants must submit an application to Unlocked on the understanding that they could be placed in any of the prisons that we work with. You will have the opportunity to specify any mitigating circumstances regarding your placement but please be aware that we may ask for evidence of this.
Our placement process takes place after you have been made a conditional offer. Our first consideration is the needs of the prisons but we do try to take participant preferences into account. You will be asked to state any preferences prior to this process.