If you could pick a first job for someone leaving university this summer, “prison officer” would probably rank as one of the most challenging.
Inspectors’ reports have repeatedly said that officers in some prisons had all but lost control and that in some it’s easier for prisoners to get drugs than clean clothes. Officers have described the lawlessness and violence of prison life, caused in no small part by overcrowding and a surge in the use of synthetic drugs.
But for a group of hopeful young university graduates, this is a sector they think they can change for the better: Up to 60 recent graduates are expected to enrol in a new scheme to become prison officers.
Unlocked Graduates is a government-funded two-year programme designed to prepare applicants for the job, similar to the TeachFirst leadership development scheme.
Unlocked says its aim is “attracting high-calibre graduate talent to work in the UK prison service and inject new ideas, insights, and energy into the rehabilitation of prisons”. The group says it wants the graduates to focus on reducing the cost of prison reoffending, which it says costs the taxpayer £15 billion a year.
While their peers work in accountancy, insurance, and marketing, after a two-year “leadership development programme” these graduates will be looking after prisoners in London and the southeast of England. Unlocked expects those who complete the scheme to either stay in the prisons system or take the skills they’ve used elsewhere.
The graduates get a diploma at the end of year one, a master's degree at the end of year two, and the chance to contribute to a policy paper that will be presented to the Ministry of Justice, based on their experiences. The starting salary for the scheme ranges from £28,456 to £31,453.
BuzzFeed News spoke to three Unlocked candidates in their final year of university who have conditional offers to join the scheme’s first cohort this summer. We asked them why they want to work in what is perhaps the UK’s most troubled public service.
Maugan, 23, from Bethnal Green, east London, studying politics and philosophy at the University of Leeds
"We need to understand what prisons actually do and what they’re supposed to do. So in society we punish certain crimes, and that’s OK – that’s what laws are for. But I don’t think prisons are there for punishment. The time is, in and of itself, the punishment. But having a harder time in there and not getting your life back on track while in there is a big problem for me.
"It’s supposed to be about driving change in your behaviour, and currently that’s not what it’s doing.
"For me learning about how prisons affect people in everyday life is really important. So when you look at the sort of groups who tend to be in prisons, or the lifestyles that have that trajectory, [it’s things like] being kicked out of schools, or being from single-parent households, minority groups, [people with] mental health problems.
"I can’t help but see myself as someone who could have very easily have fulfilled those statistics in a different way. So I think it’s about understanding that the people in prison are pretty much – demographically at least – very similar to myself.
"I’ve had experience of people that I know in my community who have been to prison and have found it very difficult to rehabilitate themselves. I know people who have done things that have been petty crimes in comparison to the kind of things that they are now in trouble for. That’s a really big problem generally speaking and particularly in the community I’m from.
"But I’ve had experience of people who’ve said the officers have been the reason why they felt the need to keep going [with their rehabilitation], because I guess the mindset that prison puts you in – and I can’t imagine what that would be like, for someone to say that an officer was my support network – is a very important thing. That highlights the importance of officers.
"I think it’s really hard to get a sense of what’s going on in prisons at the moment. There’s been this huge media attention on prisons at the moment, in terms of programmes and documentaries, and with all of the dramatisation it’s very difficult to get a sense of what actually happens in prisons.
"So I wouldn’t say I was naive to anything but I’m trying to go in open-minded. I think if I go in in a different mindset where I’m not starting from tabula rasa [a blank slate] then you’re bringing in outside perspectives. What you hear on the documentaries is just for the purpose of drama and that shouldn’t be how I understand a prisoner. My interactions should be nothing like Orange Is the New Black. That shouldn’t be how it goes down.
"On the way here I bumped into one of my friends who I haven’t seen since we left to go to uni, and I told her what I’m going to do and her eyes almost fell out, they widened so much. She said: 'But the last time I heard, you were going into procurement and supply chains. This is a full 360 and then some!'
"In terms of the challenging element, it fulfils all the things that I want to do as a graduate. I think there’s a really interesting trend among millennials that we want more from our jobs than people previously did.
"Whether that’s true or not, I myself am not willing to do something where I’m training for hours of my life that I will never get back for something that isn’t really worth it. Whereas if you go into a prison and work with someone and make their day even marginally better, for me it feels like the sacrifice has been worth something, because I’ve helped somebody else."
Patrick, 21, from Ashford, Kent, studying criminology at Canterbury Christ Church University
"I’ll be honest, I never could have seen myself even six months ago having applied to be a prison officer. But when I was going through what I could do after uni, I was going through the websites and this one really jumped out at me. I’ve been doing work experience with the police and I’d always envisioned myself doing something like that.
"But this is such a great opportunity – you can get involved in the master's, the leadership development. And the company is in its infancy and that’s something that attracted me as well, helping to grow it.
"And in the second year there’s an opportunity to contribute to a policy paper. This, again, is a very exciting thing to get involved with, something that we can use our experiences in the prison and the theoretical side of it and put it into practice, present it to the government.
"Through the research I’ve done through essays and stuff, the public and a lot of journalists can get the wrong impression of a lot of public services, such as the police and social services. In reality, of course, there are challenges in any profession and if you read the news there are deaths in prison – but the current prison officers are understaffed and they do fantastic work. There are challenges, but that’s why organisations like this are stepping up.
"You get the impression that there are attacks every day, but that they are few and far between. I’ve visited prisons, I’ve been to Rochester YOI in Kent, and to see the work that some of the officers and the governor there are doing, you realise that their focus is to try and rehabilitate people and try and get the young offenders back to work. That’s something I’m interested in.
"I think, to be honest, even myself I thought it was a kind of bouncer, security man type job, but once you read further into it you realise that it’s more of a teacher, mentor-type role. It really opened my eyes when I went to the assessment centre and learned about the kind of role I’d have.
"My only reference point was what I’d seen on TV – things like Porridge and soap operas. And I think a lot of the public have this perception that they just lock the doors and shout at them and bang the door behind them.
"But in reality, to make a positive contribution and change people’s lives you have to try and help them out. A lot of these people, in prisons across the world, they are from disadvantaged backgrounds, they’re vulnerable people, some are alcohol and drug dependent, and if you don’t provide them with the opportunity to change it’s no surprise that they are back six months later. That’s definitely something that needs to change.
"I relish a challenging job and I can’t see myself doing the corporate side – this public service and the challenge this role represents is something I’m really excited about. It’s gonna be challenging. I’m prepared for it.
"I’m interested in other organisations: I’m really interested in human rights charities such as Amnesty International. If the public thinks the prisons in this country are bad, they’re far worse in other countries. Long-term, I’d love to hold a position of influence in government, but in the prison service I’d like to have a governor-style role."
Jacynthia, 22, from Jamaica, studying law at the University of Leeds
"We had a guest lecture from the governor of HMP Leeds, so he came to speak and to be honest I thought, Hmm, I’m not sure that’s for me when he was talking about the role of an officer. I wondered if they’d take me seriously – you know, I’m not typically the sort of person who would go to work in a prison.
"Then he was saying that actually prison officers are the underdogs, that people really underrate the job and that it’s something we need more interest in so people know more about what’s going on.
"He was saying: 'We are actually working to do our best by the prisoners.' So that got me thinking. Unlocked came up and I thought I’d try it out. I’d previously worked with young, vulnerable people and I really enjoyed it, and there are so many issues [in prison] that I’m interested in, whether it’s mental health or suicide. These are all things I want to work on, so I thought, This is perfect for me.
"Why would I want to jump into the fire? I think there’s no perfect industry – I know that sounds cliché, but there isn’t. What made me think this would be a worthy thing to get involved in was that I’ve seen more studies from people like the Prison Reform Trust show that there is some willingness by the prisons to learn from independent scrutiny, which says to me that they are working towards something.
"The great thing with Unlocked is that, as long as we get on to the programme, we can help make sure that someone’s first time is their last time. Hopefully, in the long run that means there will be less prisoners and less overcrowding, less violence, less suicides, and hopefully the knock-on effect should work from there.
"I know that’s easier said than done – by far, far a jump – but it’s a start and that’s what I liked about it. Also we get the chance to contribute to a policy paper and I’m keen on making some actionable change. That was a big draw for me. It’s not very often you get the chance to put your ideas forward.
"My friends all think I’m crazy, if I’m honest. My dad knows me very well and he was surprised that I was thinking of becoming a corporate lawyer – I was doing a law degree and it just made sense. Then I thought to myself, Do I even have an interest in contracts and business? And I do, but not to the extent that I think you need. I didn’t have the passion.
"Hopefully I’ll be able to launch my own social enterprise in the long run. Ideally I want to focus on women who leave prison, because a lot of women who don’t have any refuge end up back in the system. Also men as well. Young offenders and mental health is another thing I’m interested in.
"I thought this would be a really interesting route. And who knows? If I end up liking it, which I anticipate that I will, I might end up staying in prisons for longer – or this gives me more acumen to build that social enterprise.
"I definitely know that it will be challenging; it’s a different environment to your standard job. The main thing I’ve been thinking about recently is I can imagine it’s going to be very noisy, very hectic – anything can happen at any time and you have to be prepared to do so many things at once. But at the same time that’s kind of the thrill of it. That adrenaline rush is what can keep the passion going.
"Hopefully once I get on I’ll wake up every morning with that same passion and be exhilarated to fulfil what I can and just treat everyone as I’d like to be treated."