Fast Track: Seeking cell mates

The Prison Service is trying to attract graduates. But don't you have to be a hard nut?
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The Independent Culture
Meet Mark. He's confused, depressed and suicidal. Could you help him? He's just been sentenced to 10 years for rape. Could you still help him?

This powerful media campaign is the latest by HM Prison Service to appeal to graduates who want to make a difference. The approaching Millennium will see the retirement of a large proportion of its staff and recruits are urgently needed to fill their places.

But don't prison workers have to fit a stereotype of being prepared to be insulted and offended on a daily basis with very few rewards? Matt Wotton, a 25-year-old graduate in Theology and Religion, certainly doesn't fit the stereotype. Like most university leavers, he had no intention of entering the prison service until someone cut out an advert for the Accelerated Promotion Scheme (APS) from a national newspaper. Suddenly, he realised the extent to which it would enable him to deal with people whom he might be able to help in a big way as well as having responsibility at a very early stage. Currently at the most junior of governor grades (5) on the APS, he is in a position to supervise functions such as health care and residence in medium-sized prisons.

The APS scheme follows a set of stages beginning with a period of nine months as a uniformed officer, followed by a stint as Principle officer. This gives graduates the operational experience they need to progress to Matt's current role of governor stage 5. Play your cards right and within 15 years, you could find yourself governor of a very large prison. What's more, stresses Gareth Davies, an operational governor involved with graduate recruitment, salaries are competitive. Someone at Matt's stage, for example, can expect to earn something in the region of pounds 28,500.

In addition, the progression route is extremely flexible. "We are spending an enormous amount of money on getting these people through the service, and it is not in our interests to discard them," Gareth says. "Consequently people who fail an assessment are not just dumped. They are young people in a hard profession."

Graduates have the opportunity to choose their own areas of speciality as they go along - an advantage to those who thrive on unpredictability and who are prone to changing their minds. "Mind you," says Matt, "It's a negotiated process. I think if you said time and time again that you wanted to work in a particularly narrow field, it would be highlighted to you that broader experience is necessary for future progression."

Matt warns graduates that despite the benefits, there is some truth in the perception of needing to be `hard' in order to cope with the prison environment. Recruits need to be resilient and have proficient management and leadership skills, he says. "People are exposed to some vigorous challenges and you need to be able to cope with the demands placed on you. My initial time as an officer was quite tough. I was conscious of being part of a culture that, at first, is quite intimidating for someone who has come from a further education background."

Matt also highlights the initial resistance that other officers can feel towards young recruits. But, in hindsight, he recognises the benefits of starting the APS straight from university because, he says, operational experience from the bottom ranks is essential.

The best news for graduates is that the APS scheme values intellectual ability and interpersonal skills over and above any particular degree subject. Selected applicants attend an assessment centre for three days where such competencies are measured. "And if applicants fall short on a test but those skills are found elsewhere, that is OK," says Gareth Davies, who adds that - to the surprise of most people - there are more female applicants than male.

A similar attitude is held by those recruiting in the psychology department - another area of the prison service that is crying out for graduates. After all, the government's focus on establishing more offending behaviour programmes has led to the need to rapidly expand the number of staff. Jo Clark, head of the psychology liaison unit, stresses that although you'll need a degree which is accredited to the British Psychological Society, interpersonal abilities are perceived as more important. Communication skills and the ability to maintain a sense of level-headedness in a difficult situation, for instance, are crucial because you'll be working directly with inmates most of the time.

The role of a prison psychologist is diverse and can offer strong-minded, progressive young people good promotional prospects, Jo Clark points out. Moreover, the Prison Service does fund some MScs in Forensic Psychology and can offer successful applicants the chance to reach a senior grade after only a few years, provided they become chartered.

Jo Bailey joined the Prison Service seven years ago. "It has lived up to my expectations and certainly provides the challenge that I was looking for," she says. She has worked with young offenders, adult men, women and lifers and has also been involved with group work, staff support and training, research, project and line management of staff, supervision of colleagues and recruitment. "No two days are the same. In fact no two hours are the same," she says.

Like most graduates, Jo found the interview hard-going. But, she says, it has paid off since she has had the chance to undertake a part time MSc in Applied Forensic Psychology, a Diploma in post-traumatic stress counselling and a certificate in management. But that's not the only reason she enjoys her role. "Sometimes it can be due to change seen in prisoners. Sometimes it is due to knowing that you have supported staff through a difficult time following an incident at work. Other times, through input into policy at national, area and local level you feel as if you're making a difference."

HMP's website can be found at www.hmprisonservice.gov.uk

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