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Unlocked Graduates launches 2018 Cohort

Successful applicants gather in London to learn more about the Unlocked Graduates programme:

On Saturday 10th April Unlocked Graduates hosted our second annual Cohort Launch Event in central London. Following months of applications and assessments, the event brought together most of the new participants who will make up our second cohort of pioneering prison officers. It was a chance to get excited about the opportunities and challenges they will take on if they successfully complete the programme.

Natasha Porter, founder and CEO of Unlocked Graduates, kicked off the day by setting out those challenges. Prisons across the country are, despite the best efforts of those who work there, struggling to offer rehabilitation. Not only are reoffending rates high, but those who offend often have multiple complex issues that frequently aren’t addressed. As Natasha made clear, it was precisely this situation that brought the audience to the room that day: “The problems in prisons are now your problems – your problems to help fix.”

But if the current state of prisons presents unenviable challenges, it also presents undeniable opportunities. Our first panel discussion of the day focused on the impact that prison officers could have within the system. Jonathan French (Governor of Medway STC) and Louise Spencer (Governor of HMP Downview) were joined by Rod Clark (CEO of the Prisoner Education Trust) to discuss the possibilities. All three stressed how much potential there was for prison officers to be agents for change, via one-on-one interactions with individual prisoners and by implementing broader improvements within the institutions they are working in. Jonathan stressed that “prisoners won’t remember me when they leave – they will remember you, the prison officers who helped them.”

Next up was an overview of the key milestones and targets that make up the unique Unlocked Graduates programme. Bodil Isaksen (programme director at Unlocked Graduates) ran through what the audience could expect over the coming months and years. As Bodil put it: “The job you are going to do is difficult but worth it. You will be dealing with matters of life and death. You will save lives; you will change lives.” Bodil put particular emphasis on the upcoming six week Summer Institute. This intensive training equips the potential participants with the skills, knowledge and theory to commence their journey as full-time prison officers.

After lunch the audience returned for the second panel discussion, focusing on what life as a prison officer is actually like. The panel included two of our current 2017 cohort alongside two of our mentoring prison officers. As well as discussing a variety of topics, they also took part in a question and answer session, directly responding to queries from the audience. They was very keen to hear directly from prison officers – especially from Clo and Imani, who only a year ago were in the same position the 2018 cohort were in. All the speakers were especially enthusiastic when it came to talking about how satisfying it was to build positive relationships with the prisoners they came into contact with.

Last but not least, the day culminated with our final speaker John McAvoy. Taking time out of his busy training schedule, John took us through his incredible journey from career criminal to professional athlete. Raised to idolise the law-breakers in his family, from a young age he was in and out of the justice system for armed robberies. It wasn’t until his best friend was killed following a robbery that John suddenly decided to turn his life around. Isolating himself within the prison gym, a prison officer encouraged John to see how far he could push his newfound commitment to exercise. Soon, he was shattering world records for indoor rowing – and had found his calling. Upon release, he continued to pursue his passion and is now the only triathlete sponsored by Nike. He concluded by saying: “Without a prison officer who believed in me, I wouldn’t have had the chance to turn my life around. All of you can help others do the same.”

And with that, there was just time to fit in a few quick group photos before the official end of the 2018 Cohort Launch Day. For those who could stick around, there was also a chance to ask any last lingering questions – as the Unlocked Graduates decamped to a local pub to spend a relaxing hour or so learning a bit more about their fellow future prison officers.