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Prison should lead to more than a return visit

Prison should lead to more than a return visit

Ex-prisoner insights Back to top

Supporting prisoners to help reduce their chances of reoffending is central to our mission. It is critical to understand that the right interaction with a prison officer at the right moment can make a huge difference

Unlocked Graduates believes that learning from people with lived experience in prison, and integrating their teachings into the training of prison officers is critical to a well-rounded and positively impactful curriculum.

Ex-prisoners play a particularly important role in our recruitment and training processes, conducting interviews and running scenarios at our assessment centres, supporting and running training sessions throughout the Unlocked participants initial six weeks of training and attending various panels and discussions throughout the two-year programme.

People shouldn’t come in with any preconceptions about working in prisons, prisoners or the prison system … rather than coming in with those ideas, come in as yourself, be yourself, be honest because that’s what’s going to set you apart.

Femi, Ex-Prisoner

Hear from some of the people we’ve worked with, surrounding their experiences in prison, and their thoughts on the relationship between prisoners and officers.


Unlocked assessor, trainer and ex-prisoner

Photo of Nim

With Unlocked in mind if the participant listens and considers my experiences, then it follows that the prisoners that they eventually work with may benefit.

I believe that the prison officer role is an immensely important role that hasn’t been recognised in the past as having the most impact on a prisoner, not just on the day to day lives of a prisoner and how they spend their time but ultimately if they will re-offend. The Prison Officer role can transform and ultimately save lives, I speak from first-hand experience, where an officer intervened and affected my life in an extremely positive way. It’s great to see that Unlocked Graduates past cohorts, in their relative infancy are already making a difference, there are many success stories already and change is already evident.

I am playing a big part in training this new generation of amazing officers and training them in almost every aspect of the job. I am happy to talk about my experiences with anyone at Unlocked Graduates where I feel I am in a safe environment. I set up ‘Candid Chat Café’ which is a weekly evening ‘session’ where anyone wants to ask questions to me or others with lived experience they can come and do so and we answer in the frankest and most honest way we can.


Head of prisoner engagement (Prison Reform Trust) and ex-prisoner

Photo of Paula

I say that prison officers can be angels in the darkness of prison, touching people’s souls with the right word or the right action at the right time. 

Prison officers can act to inspire and guide prisoners towards better processes of coping with the pain of imprisonment, and in developing hope for their future. I have never met a prisoner who, even if there were 99 bad things to say about the prison experience, couldn’t remember the name of one prison officer who they credited for helping them get through it too.

I am so glad that the Unlocked programme has the lived experience of prisoners at its heart, recognising that their experience is also human wisdom that can help us to understand the challenges and inhibitors to change but also help to answer the problems we face in improving our prison system. I’ve noticed it leads the way in its collaborative approach and commitment to inclusion and determination to break down the stigma of prisoner convictions that has often led to former prisoners’ voices being kept out of work like this.

A piece of advice that I would give to future Unlocked participants is to keep hopeful, all the time you put into your work is helping prisoners to recalibrate, to move through their sentence and learn what they need to do in order to lead more positive lives. You might not get to see it for yourself, as they leave the prison and don’t come back, but somewhere someone will be telling a tale of their prison experience and saying to those listening, I will never forget officer XX for being such a decent person and getting me through to the end. Be that beacon of hope in the darkness

Gethin Jones

Inspirational speaker, founder of Unlocking Potential and ex-prisoner

Photo of Gethin Jones

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.


Network Co-ordinator (Prison Reform Trust), Unlocked assessor and ex-prisoner

Photo of Femi

A prison officer is integral to anyone’s prison experience. If you ask anyone who’s served time or is serving time, they’ll tell you that a good officer can make all the difference. A bad officer can make all the difference. So, it’s intrinsic, really, to how someone does when they’re going through their sentence.

Getting someone with lived experience, like myself and my colleagues who are also doing the assessments, to take part in the assessment of future prison officers, is exactly the vision of how I see lived experience contributing to a better criminal justice system. You can’t create a better system without having lived experience voices who are positive and balanced, but who are direct and honest as well at the same time. I feel like Unlocked Grads has a lot of trust in us as people with lived experience and just want us to bring that to the table to help to make things better for everyone. So I think it’s extremely important that these voices are integrated, and I think Unlocked are honestly trailblazing with it.

I would say that the best piece of advice I probably could give to Unlocked participants because I’ve never been an officer, is to treat the people they’re working with as humans. Treat them as individuals, as people. Have empathy for them, although I understand the difficulties, but have empathy for them. Because I think if they come with that point of view, they’ll know when to toe the line, they’ll know when to draw a boundary, but they’ll also be able to interact and just talk to people and get to know them. Which has been my experience of Unlocked Grads. They’ve all sort of taken a bit more time to speak to people and I’d want that to continue. I’d want that theme and that vibe to continue through future Unlocked participants.

LJ Flanders

Founder of Cell Workout and ex-prisoner

Photo of LJ Flanders

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.

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 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 assessor and ex-prisoner

Photo of Yasir

Compassion goes a long way when you’re desperate and dependent. I always found that the best prison officers were the ones that led with their humanity. Their impact lives on.

When I was handed a prison sentence by the judge, I made a promise to myself. I had two years to serve, and I vowed not to waste my time. I was determined that on walking out of those ever-imposing gates, I would be able to look back and say I had used my time to better myself. Despite the chaos and despite the odds.

I enrolled at the Open University and started a degree in Philosophy and Psychology. In the beginning, this seemed like an impossibility. The resources that are officially available to prisoners depends entirely on the availability of willing prison officers to provide access to them. I tried for weeks to enrol before the university’s deadline, and only managed to do so when a prison officer took it upon himself to help me. He literally opened the doors for me to work on my future, and forever I will be in debt to him. He will never know it.

I was moved around the prison estate and came across the same hurdles. And the same saviours. Because that is what these prison officers were to me in helping me better myself. They made time and they made calls, and in so doing they made a possibility come to life for me. They gave me more than an opportunity to succeed, they gave me hope. I had to walk through the door, but they had to find a way to open it for me.