An 'inside' job can be rewarding

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The Independent Online
Want to start the millennium behind bars? The prospect might not sound too tempting, but the new year will witness such a large number of retirements within the Prison Service that fresh recruits are being sought. So what's a job "inside" really like?

According to Matt Wotton, aged 25, who is on the Accelerated Promotion Scheme (APS), the stereotype of "the prison officer" no longer rings true. He says his post provides him with far more job satisfaction than he'd ever have anticipated.

The APS is run specifically for graduates. After an initial stage as a uniformed officer, plus a term as principal officer, graduates are given the opportunity to use this experience to climb the career ladder relatively quickly. Gareth Davies, a governor involved with graduate recruitment, claims that within 15 years a new recruit could be a governor of a large prison, and, in relation to other graduate positions, salaries are good. Indeed, at Mr Wotton's stage people earn around pounds 28,000.

And the good news is that recruits do not have to have a related degree. As Mr Davies says "the APS scheme looks for intelligent, personable people with good communication skills rather than a specific degree". Even if you don't have a degree, you can become a prison officer. A minimum of five GCSEs is required.

Be warned, however. Recruits at all levels need to be resilient and show strong leadership. "People are exposed to some vigorous challenges and you need to be able to cope with the demands placed on you," cautions Mr Wotton. Nevertheless, this operational experience is important. "You may have to put in a lot of time, but you will reap the benefits and progress," says Mr Davies.

The Prison Service has also begun to focus on equal opportunities. Specific campaigns have been launched to encourage more applications from ethnic minority groups. By recognising that the backgrounds, race and cultures of the 66,000 prisoners in our prisons are all very different, the prison system acknowledges the need for its staff to reflect that diversity.

So what should you do if the Prison Service sounds appealing? The Direct Entry Scheme is for older people who feel they have transferable skills from their present job. "This is designed to pick up people such as former army officers and those with at least three years' previous experience in senior management positions, who want a change," explains Mr Davies. This scheme offers intensive training and a fast track to the top positions. Indeed, for candidates with the right initiative, motivation and leadership skills, governor positions can be achieved within five years.

Flexibility tends to be one of the biggest appeals of working within the Prison Service. Successful applicants are given the opportunity to voice their preferences and choose particular areas of interest as they progress. However, as Mr Wotton says, some requests may be turned down. "It is a negotiated process. If staff say constantly that they want to remain in a narrow field they will be told that broadening their experience is necessary for future progression."

As large amounts of money are being spent on the Prison Service, it is keen to support its staff. "It is not in our interests to discard people," says Mr Davies. "Similarly, if people fail an assessment they are not just dumped. We will encourage and support the person to get them through - it is a hard profession."

Not many people can go home at the end of a working day having made such a contribution to someone's life. As Mr Wotton concludes "it is a highly responsible job and the opportunities that are open to you within the senior governor grades - and beyond into the senior civil service - create a reasonable career progression".