Working in Prisons: Interviewing a Prison Careers Advisor

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What is it like to work within the Prison Environment? Careers in Justice spoke to a Careers Advisor within the Prison system to learn more about what her role involves, why she does it and the changes that she feels need to happen within the sector.


Have you always wanted to work in prisons? What made you do so?

I always knew I wanted to work in a prison. I just didn’t know what as and I didn’t expect it to be now. I fell into the role really; I happened to be working in the community when we lost our funding and so got transferred into the prison.

I have always had an interest in criminal behaviour and crime in general from a young age. My dad was in the Met Police and I was fortunate enough to do my school work experience at the police station he was based at which was amazing! I took a local college course in Criminology and dabbled in some distance learning and completed two years of a degree in Crime and Criminology (however, I finished early due to personal reasons). I also enjoy supporting people and all my roles over the last 7 years have been support based.


What training or qualifications did you need?

None! There are obviously various roles within the prison system and some you need certain qualifications. I was lucky enough that my employer put me through my qualification in Information, Advice & Guidance. There is, of course, the prison training once you have started. This includes key training (the absolute most important!), security training (this would include things like what is not allowed in the prison, how to keep yourself and others safe etc.), Conditioning and Manipulation which advises on how some prisoners will try to manipulate staff to bring items in to the prison etc., and the most important -  Safer Custody, which is knowing how to identify and report self-harm and/or possible suicidal people.


What does your daily work involve?

I see people for induction, throughout a sentence should they request it and pre-release. This could be held in a classroom environment when completing induction paperwork or on the wings. I talk to them about what they want to do in the prison in terms of education, training and employment and plans and release. If someone is going to be spending some time in the prison system then we will look at what they want to do in the community in the long term and look at what we can do inside to work towards that, for example most of the men I see want some kind if construction based training so we will look at courses and training run in establishments. Many prisons do various construction related courses from bricklaying, painting and decorating, fork lift driving to plastering and plumbing.

I will always encourage doing basic skills, English, Maths and IT. Some have no interest in education or training whatsoever so we direct them to employment within the prison and offer support for the future should they want it (i.e. creating CV’s, mock interviews, how to job search and complete applications, funding for training in the community or distance learning during a sentence). They each get an action plan and a summary of what has been discussed and agreed, with SMART actions and goals for them to complete.


You work in a male prison, is it strange working in an environment surrounded by men?

I would rather be in a male prison than a female prison. I don’t find it strange at all. With prison, you are either able to work in that environment or you are not and you will know this the first day you ever step foot inside one. Some people will spend a day there and know instantly that they will not be able to do the job – for whatever reason that may be. For me, I walked in and loved it and knew I was meant to be there.


Do you enjoy your work?

I love it! Except the boring admin parts of course. How could I possibly go and work in the community now, it would be boring!


Are there ever any challenges?

Of course! On a daily basis, there are men that don’t want to be seen or don’t see the benefit of what you are trying to do, men that are detoxing or even high, emotional men that have mental health issues, violence within the prison which puts wings and sometimes the whole prison on lock down so men can’t be seen, or regimes are cut due to staff shortages which causes major problems. It can be a challenge to see men on the wing as it is noisy and not very confidential. You also often have to have eyes in the back of your head and be aware of what is happening around you so you are unable to give your client 100% of your focus.


Do you ever feel unsafe?

I have on rare occasions, but it’s not personal if that makes sense? I could quite happily walk onto a wing with 80-100 male offenders and not worry for my safety, as strange as that sounds. The majority of the men there have morals when it comes to females and would have my back in seconds if anyone was to give me bother. This has been the case for me on a couple of occasions, for example once a prisoner put his foot in the gate as I was leaving the wing so I couldn’t lock it, another prisoner saw this and tried to get him to move, when he wouldn’t, he got some officers when I asked him to. Another time, I was blocked coming out of a wing office and being shouted at by a 6ft something (I am only 5ft 4) prisoner about something that had nothing to do with me. Another prisoner soon came to my defence and got the angry prisoner away from me. I never felt scared either time though. I don’t know why, maybe because they were not angry at me, but the situation instead.

Another time, I was talking to a client and a huge group of prisoners had gathered just below me and it was obvious something was about to kick off. Although I felt unsafe, again it wasn’t because I thought I was a target, but just because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Generally, you will find that civilian staff, male or female, are not targeted. It tends to be more at the uniform or each other.


What are the rewards of your job?

I contact guys on release, not that I always get much of a response or I find the details they have given me are made up! When I do get a response, it is always great to hear that someone has gained employment or training on the back of the support you have given them. Especially when it is someone who has been a regular in the system or someone with serious mental health problems or who has finished detoxing.

Also, when the guys in the prison start a course and complete it, particularly the distance learning courses which are the higher levels and sometimes degrees. When a prisoner is beaming from ear to ear because they have passed their exam or been accepted on to a higher-level course - that is a very good feeling!

Sometimes it is just about being a pair of ears and not judging; being there to listen and not look down and to tell someone that they can do it and they are worth it.


How important do you think education and resettlement schemes are in prison rehabilitation?

Now this is a subject I could write lots about, I will keep it short!

Hugely important - it is just not working currently because it is being done all wrong. The trouble these days is that nobody really cares enough about the people; all they care about is targets and money and unfortunately that doesn’t help the people doing these jobs. We get a lot of pressure about having to hit targets when actually our real priority are the clients we work with and for. We have some great education and training opportunities in some of the prisons, however sometimes the men can’t access it because of staff shortages and lock downs. Unfortunately, in the prison I am in, the education and training on offer is not great, it can take 2-3 months to get a job and the morale amongst men is dire as you can imagine.

There needs to be more on offer and more incentives to want to change. For example, prisons could bring more employers into the prison, promote the good work that men can and do, offer more training and at a higher level in the prison and not just through distance learning where men have to apply for funding or pay for themselves. There should be more courses like the Prince’s Trust, but not just for young people. It seems that older prisoners rarely stand a chance as most of all the support available is aimed at young offenders.

There needs to be more work and support around housing as so many men are released homeless. How and why would they get a job or stop substance misuse if they know they are about to go and live on the streets? A lot of our regulars put themselves in prison so that they are fed, clothed, warm and sheltered. There is currently limited through the gate work and prisoners need continuity. They need to work with someone throughout a sentence and on release but this just doesn’t happen. 


Would you encourage other people to work in prisons? What advice would you give?

Absolutely! If you are a strong and confident person then most definitely. You have to be able to challenge people, be firm, assertive and not show vulnerability, even if you feel intimidated at any point. If you like supporting people and have an interest in the CJS or offenders, or doing a degree in this area then it is a great environment to be in. It is another world; you see, hear and learn new things every day as no day is the same. I have met some hardcore criminals, some very dangerous ones, stupid ones that probably shouldn’t have been there but made one stupid mistake, men that have had the most terrible and heart-breaking upbringing, but each tells a different story and gives different reasons, but all need support and help. 

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