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Why I used my law degree to pursue a career in the prison service

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Unlocked Graduates is a new leadership programme in the model of Teach First that works to get top graduates into prisons working as frontline prison officers for two years. Their first participants started at six prisons in the south east at the beginning of September, and Unlocked is now recruiting for 2018

Here Scarlett, a law graduate and one of their first participants, gives her perspective after 100 days on the frontlines.

What was people’s initial reaction when you joined Unlocked Graduates?

When I told people I was going to be a Prison Officer after completing my law degree the main reactions were confusion and apprehension. “Why are you doing that job?!” is a question I’ve been asked countless times now. By prisoners as well, actually. And I’m met with even more confusion when I answer “because I want to help people.”

What’s the most important thing you’ve learnt since joining the programme?

I’ve been in uniform and on the landings for four months now and, like all of my Unlocked colleagues, I’ve realised that it is resilience you need more than anything.

What has been your biggest challenge so far?

The environment in prison can be bleak and harrowing. Every day we face people who can’t read and write, people who’ve been in and out of prison for years, and throughout their whole lives, these people have been given up on. I took this job because I wanted to change this reality but remembering this motivation can feel impossible when faced with these challenges every day.

How have you dealt with the difficult situations you’ve faced?

When it’s your first week and a prisoner shouts and throws a plate at you because you challenged them pushing in the queue, you have to react calmly – as you were taught in training. Sanction their behaviour but come back the next day and treat them fairly. You have to give the benefit of the doubt and give them chances to rebuild the professional relationship, to help them turn their behaviour around. When you’ve then been helping them and thought you had built an effective relationship and they square up to you because you said no to something, it can be hard but we still can’t stop helping.

What are the best things about the role, in your opinion?

Prisoners are used to aggression and pushing everyone away so you have to learn to challenge this, see past the behaviour and keep trying anyway. When some prisoners grunt at you or ask if you’re investigating them when you enquire about their story, you can’t let it stop asking the next person you meet. Because one day that conversation will be the first time that individual has ever opened up. That moment could be the start of a journey where you can support them and point them in the direction of resources that can help.

When prisoners give you fake names and try to test you, you keep on asking their first name. Because one day they’ll instead say: “Miss, thank you so much for actually asking my first name. That was really nice.” These are the glimpses of hope, the small wins, which prisoners look back on as life-altering moments.

You come back fighting for them every single time, every single day, because no one else will. And that is how Prison Officers change lives.

What’s the one thing that you think is most important about your role?

Rehabilitation regularly starts with an Officer believing in a prisoner; every person who had spent time in prison told us this during training. As much as locking doors is a huge part of what we do, Prison Officers are life-changers, not key-turners.

Interested? Unlocked Graduates is recruiting for its 2018 cohort at the moment. You can apply on their website

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