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Gemma writes about her two week placement with Only Connect

Work placement: Only Connect

Gemma worked for two weeks with Only Connect as part of our work placement scheme, which gives our participants the opportunity to experience a variety of different professional environments.

I recently spent two weeks working with Only Connect, a charity that seeks to reduce reoffending by offering tailored support to prisoners when they are released.

In my first week, I shadowed caseworkers at HMP Pentonville whilst they conducted one-to-one sessions assisting prisoners with employment skills. This consisted of constructing CVs, drafting disclaimer letters, and practicing interview techniques. Entering custody as a case worker, rather than as a prison officer, was an eye-opening experience. On one hand, I felt more vulnerable since I was not in my usual role of an authority figure. On the other, I noticed a change in prisoner behaviour when communicating with me as resettlement worker rather than a prison officer.

Prisoners seemed happy to discuss emotional topics such as family and self-confidence – conversations that would usually only happen with prison officers when a strong staff-prisoner relationship has been build up over a longer period of time. Nonetheless, I found that my experience as an officer such as knowledge of the prison processes and regime were useful when prisoners asked me for advice. One prisoner thanked me for my help and expressed his dislike towards “govs” (prison staff) by stating that he can’t talk to them like he does with caseworkers since they do not want to help. I found this comment ironic and discussed this further with him, highlighting the importance of positive relationships with officers.

I also helped a caseworker whilst they conducted a resettlement course which showcased various techniques such as positive body language and interviewing skills. The caseworker then asked me to deliver the class the following week. This task put me out of my comfort zone since I would be instructing a group of prisoners without my usual authority as a prison officer. I had no reason to be concerned, however – the prisoners fully engaged and told me how the session had increased their confidence. I found it very emotionally rewarding; not just seeing the prisoners getting involved in learning new skills which will hopefully aid their rehabilitation, but also in terms of feeling like I was having an impact with a different role that was less constrained by the usual power dynamic.

At the office, I had the chance to develop slides on gender roles and appropriate behaviour towards females which the caseworker added to the programme. I drew on my personal experience of setting boundaries and challenging inappropriate behaviour as a prison officer, and used that to address the issue within the context of teaching.

I also had the opportunity to see the work that Only Connect do with ex-prisoners once they are out of the gate. For example, I attended a probation meeting with a case worker and a former prisoner who had committed a driving offence whilst on license, which had resulted in a court hearing. It was interesting to hear his reasons for breaking the law when he was aware of the consequences. It gave me an insight into the causes of recidivism and various elements which could break the cycle of crime. I was able to see the role of a probation worker and the process of how people leaving prison are monitored upon release.

A lot of this work was understandably very serious, but one of the highlights was something quite fun – the Only Connect music studio! The charity has this to offer former prisoners the chance to both learn new skills and express themselves creatively. It also creates a real sense of community which helps to avoid stigmatization during the resettlement process.

It was great to work with a similar minded team who are passionate about helping people whilst reducing re-offending rates with through-the-gate services. My placement with Only Connect was extremely beneficial as it gave me the opportunity to see the criminal justice process through a different lens by working in custody and the community. I could see the substantial impact that Only Connect has on individuals who perceived their case workers as a bridge back into society. Many ex-prisoners were successful in achieving education or employment within a short period of time due to the help from Only Connect. As a prison officer, I often see prisoners come back through the system, whereas my favourite part of the work experience was seeing many success stories instead.

Work placements are an integral part of the award-winning Unlocked Graduates leadership development programme. If you’re interested in offering a work placement with your organisation, please contact our Development and Partnerships Manager Ally Steel.