As far as graduate careers go, working as a prison officer has to be up there in the list of most interesting and unexpected routes you can take after university.
At a time when UK prisons are facing cuts and capacity issues, Unlocked Graduates is creating a generation of future leaders who are changing how we think about prisons and prisoners. The organisation is looking for ambitious graduates to join their two year leadership programme to help drive real change from the inside.
We spoke to two graduates, Joe and Guneet, who have made this journey from uni life to prison life, to learn what it takes to work behind bars and to hear about the challenges they’ve had to overcome.
Joe and Guneet work at two different prisons in England and have been on the Unlocked programme working as prison officers for a year now.
Joe studied Human Rights Law at the University of Leicester and graduated in 2018. He tells us the structure of the programme appealed to him; Unlocked offer you a two year programme working as a prison officer while studying for a fully-paid Master’s in Leadership alongside.
“I wasn’t 100% sure what to do after university and now I have other experiences while studying and working. After the programme ends I’m confident I’ll know what I’ll be doing afterwards,” Joe says.
Joe has used his law background throughout his role, and talks about how he’s been to meetings with government officials to help give the frontline view on the changes that are needed in prisons.
"Everyone wants to hear your stories in the pub when they find out you're a prison officer"
Guneet studied Anthropology at Durham University and graduated in 2015. Before joining the Unlocked programme she spent a few years working as business analyst and also as an advocate for women who have experienced domestic violence. Guneet says the Unlocked programme appealed to her because of her interests in crime and helping others. “It’s an environment you would never normally experience, and you can learn so many skills,” she tells us.
“I work in a high-risk wing,” says Guneet when asked to talk about any challenges she’s faced in the role. She talks to us about one prisoner in particular who she really wanted to help out, someone who was “quite a big character on the wing… always in fights and everyone in the whole prison knows him.” Guneet says she helped him get involved with a project by spending time with him, building a relationship and learning about his aspirations in life. Guneet managed to work with him and get him onto a scheme with the Open University, teaching him about business plans and financial statements which she knew from her previous work experience.
After doing all of this, Guneet said: “I came back from a week off work and he just looked completely different. He had stopped [causing trouble] and started focusing… it was a really proud moment.”
“A lot of men or boys [in prison] forget they have this potential,” she adds.
Guneet says that people don’t believe her when she tells them what she does. “They ask ‘are you in a women’s prison? And I say ‘No! A men’s prison’”, she says, “but everyone wants to hear your stories in the pub when they find out you’re a prison officer.”
When talking about how working as a prison officer has changed them, and the things they’ve learned working in such a unique environment, Joe says he’s realised you don’t have to be what prison officers are famous for: “You don’t have to be a really stern character. You need to be accountable and able to stick to your own values. Just be yourself,” he says.
“I completely agree with that,” says Guneet, “I think personally I’ve become a lot more positive and more assertive. But I will always stay true to my values.”
Joe and Guneet both said when they first joined they tended to sit back and observe more and be a lot more quiet, but have since learned that you just need to bring yourself forward, take part in conversations and help make things change for the better. “It needs fresher ideas, it needs a fresh focus and diversity,” says Joe.
"I’ve met some of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met in my life working with prisoners"
When asked to talk about their favourite part of the role, Joe admits that he loves never having a boring day where he is sat down the whole time: “You’re up and you’re talking non-stop…. your jaw hurts by the end of the day!” he jokes.
“It helps you to have a good sense of humour, [the prisoners] have a new joke for you every day… it’s never boring.”
Joe says he values being able to connect with the prisoners on a personal level, and tells us one of them was even his personal trainer for a while: “They can get qualifications to be a personal trainer when released, it’s quite a privilege to get it,” he says, “they want to try it out and practice, so I was doing that for about 6-7 weeks at lunch times.”
Guneet hasn’t had a prisoner offer to be her personal trainer (yet), but she does says that she loves learning “every single day.”
“I’ve met some of the most intelligent people I have ever met in my life working with prisoners… it keeps you humble and grounded,” she says.
Finally, we asked Joe and Guneet what advice they would give to anyone looking to join Unlocked and become a prisoner officer.
“If you are in two minds, just go for it. The scheme is very flexible and it can suit you, rather than other schemes that are ultra-regimented,” Joe says, “You get a lot out of it, and the programme is still young so you can forge your own path, really.”
Joe says you shouldn’t let your own perceptions of what a prison is like stop you from applying to Unlocked: “Definitely from the perspective of the media it could sound like a horrible place to work, but if you are a person that has some integrity and accountability – you could be the person to help change that.”
“You have to be motivated and you have to be resilient,” he concludes.
Guneet thinks that if you’re someone who likes a challenge then you’ll love the Unlocked programme, and says that the support she has received along the way has been “immeasurable” and really helped her stay motivated and committed to the role.
“I think if you’re someone who is willing to challenge yourself, then do it. You’re never going to get this experience again,” she says.
Joe ends our conversation by saying, “at the end of the day, you have to be the change you want to see [in the world].”
If you’re interested in learning more about the Unlocked Leadership Development Programme, you can find out the details of the role and apply here.