Prison officer careers: How to improve life behind bars

If you want to help people turn their lives around, the job of a prison officer is for you
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The Independent Online

So how do you actually excel at being a prison officer? For many of us - mostly thanks to television's Prisoner Cell Block:H - the stereotypes hold of butch women with gutter morals and seedy men in moustaches with an agenda. And UK prisons do not always get a good press. Half the country thinks that they are full of freeloaders who watch Sky and get to do degrees and the other half claims they are inhumane hellholes run by tyrants.

Linda Horsfield of HMP Styal in Cheshire is evidence to the contrary. She walked off with the award for her suicide prevention work and because she, in the words of Prison Service Director General, Phil Wheatley, "epitomises everything that is good about the Prison Service."

Horsfield, who is now a safer custody management team co-ordinator, was commended for her commitment to her work on the Care, Support and Reintegration Unit (CSRU) at Styal where she worked with individuals with particularly acute problems. "The main thing is that you have to be consistent and reliable and this is hard in certain circumstances where behaviour can drain you," says Horsfield.

"But if you can see an end result - a woman turning her life around - then it's so worth it. We wear so many different hats that we end up being psychiatric nurses, counsellors, all sorts."

Brian Caton, general secretary of the Prison Officers' Association (POA) - the professional trade union for prisoners, correctional and secure psychiatric workers - and himself a former prison officer, agrees: "Prison is a very unusual place. So you have to be an unusual person. You need to be able to manage what is, in effect, a small town and you have to do that in a fair and reasonable way whilst dealing with erratic behaviour." He says it can be the most rewarding job: "Imagine you're in the exercise yard with 450 prisoners. Ninety per cent have committed the ultimate crime. There's multiple murderers, terrorists, bank robbers and everything in between. Just think how interesting it is to manage to communicate successfully with every one of them."

Like the police, the entrance process to the profession is a long one. You must pass an entrance test, irrespective of any academic qualifications, as well as a medical and fitness examination. For some posts, you need to have been resident in the United Kingdom for at least three years. Because as a prison officer you work for the Civil Service, you are offered a choice of final salary and a stakeholder pension. Starting salary is from £17,744 rising to £26,858 plus a pay allowance of between £2,600 and £4,000 depending on location.

It's another myth that prison officers are just people with no qualifications who like ordering people about. The Intensive Development Scheme (IDS) in England and Wales is designed to attract high-calibre graduate candidates. Recruitment to the scheme is challenging, with only around 20 to 25 graduates recruited each year.

Successful candidates are invited to complete a series of ability tests then a two-day assessment centre with aptitude tests, practical exercises and personal interviews.

During the IDS candidates complete full training to become a prison officer, followed by 12 months carrying out the full range of officer duties. Then comes progression to senior officer with responsibility for staff and then as a trainee operational manager.

Katelea Robinson-Stanley completed the IDS scheme and now manages the offenders unit at HMP Swinfen Hall. She says the demands can be tough.

"Some days you'll find me crying on my journey home," she says. "It's usually out of frustration. I've been trying to help people who just don't want it." For her, though, the demands are worth it. "But then there's the days I talk people out of committing suicide by getting down on a stone floor with them and talking them round. Sometimes I'm crying out of relief as well. But more often than not it's because the job can seem overwhelming, especially now I'm managing hundreds of people."

Applications for the IDS scheme are invited every autumn. Visit www.hmprisonservice.gov.uk for more information

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