Running a prison may not sound glamorous but it's never dull

Ever thought about running a prison? Probably not. But the prison service has just revamped its fast track scheme to allow new graduates to do just that. The programme, which will see trainees patrolling prison wings in eight weeks and managing staff and prison disputes in 18 months, will be accepting applications until the end of January.

"We're looking for people with the potential to take on top leadership positions and will go on to become governors and deputy governors," says Jim Heavens, head of resourcing for the National Offender Management Service. "This job isn't for everyone, but it attracts people who want a challenge."

It's not difficult to see why the prison service is investing in the scheme. At present, prison governors only stay an average of two and a half years in the job.

"You can't get away from the fact that you'll be doing a post that's difficult and that most people don't want to do," says Heavens, "You'll be dealing with people who don't want to be there, who have mental health problems and tragic personal circumstances. But among all of that, prisons aren't totally unhappy places. There's a lot of humour and discussion and interaction that keeps it all going."

Graduates on the programme will be paid a starting salary of £22,000, rising to £30,000 in 12 to 18 months. Trainees will be expected to work in a variety of prisons – young offender institutions, open, closed, male, female – and there will be a chance to do secondments in the probation service, prison headquarters or policy. Including training costs, this scheme will invest an estimated £100,000 in each of the 12 student places on the three-year programme, with continued support available afterwards.

Over 80 per cent of trainees go on to get a full-time job in the prison service, and over half of all present prison governors have come through the scheme, which has been running in some form since the 1930s. One such fast-tracker is Alison Clarke, the present governor of HMP Leicester. After taking a degree in psychology, she applied for the traineeship from her position as prison officer in 1998.

"The training scheme gives you the chance to move up the ranks much quicker," she says, "There are higher expectations of you, you're expected to take on additional tasks, but it's challenging and rewarding. If you're a young graduate and you want to get on and up, this is what this scheme gives you."

Like most trainees, Clarke began to manage prison officers very early on in her career. Such responsibility may be good for new recruits, but it can be daunting, and runs the risk of isolating prison officers outside of the scheme.

"On my first day as manager I didn't want to take off my coat," says Clarke, "I was afraid longstanding prison officers would know from the epaulets on my shoulder that, despite their extra years of experience, I was in charge."

Billed as "one of the most people orientated jobs in the public sector", the upgraded training programme has been newly marketed. Clarke is now one of a whole host of glamorous young prison leaders featured on the prison service's website, who look more like celebrities than stereotypical jail keepers.

Opened in December, the training scheme has been upgraded to focus more on individual trainees rather than jumping through "management hoops". Managers are able to adjust the speed of the course for the graduate in question and give them a choice of practical or more academic training methods.

Although the scheme is happy to accept applications from people with long-term management experience, most of the prison service's advertising is taking place on university campuses. It is targeting educational institutions with a high proportion of ethnic minorities. At present, black and ethnic minority groups make up almost one-third of the prisoner population but only 2 per cent of prison governors.

Clarke, one of the minority of female governors, now earns £60,000 a year looking after 382 adult male prisoners and a staff of over 300. Such high levels of responsibility would almost certainly receive greater rewards in the private sector, but Clarke insists she loves her job, and gets a kick out of public service.

"No two days are ever the same. I've been here 10 years and every week something different comes up that you have to deal with. But it can be frustrating... you need to be strong-willed, resilient and have personal integrity and commitment – this is not a nine-to-five job. Prisons don't close at weekends."

To find out more about the scheme, visit www.hmprisonservice.gov.uk/careersandjobs/prisonleaders.

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