I wasn’t sure exactly what role I was looking for when I graduated, but I knew I was interested in a public sector role – something where I could make a real difference. I saw an advert for Unlocked Graduates on Twitter and was curious to find out more. Being a Prison Officer wasn’t something I had considered before, but when I read more about the programme I liked the emphasis it placed on helping others. 

The idea of working in a prison can be quite daunting, but once you’re accepted onto the programme the first step is training. Participants attend a Summer Institute, which features lectures and classroom discussions as well as lots of practical activities, run by experienced prison officers. We also did a fortnight of shadowing inside our prisons – again, this really helped me to get used to the environment and boosted my confidence before we started the job for real.

One of the things that the training tries to prepare you for is how varied the day-to-day role can be. You have to expect the unexpected, because you’re spending a lot of your time dealing directly with prisoners. You build a working relationship with them as you’re supporting them, whether that’s encouraging them to enrol in a course, or sorting out a family visit.

Over time, getting to know the prisoners and being able to help them try to make changes in their lives can be really rewarding. You can offer encouragement to prisoners to learn or work, and to keep in touch with their friends and families, and that often makes a huge difference. 

Of course there are tough days. It’s always frustrating when prisoners re-offend. They are often so excited about their release, but slip into the same habits on the outside and end up back in prison. The job can be stressful, and coming from university into full-time work in a challenging environment is difficult.

One of the great benefits of the Unlocked Graduates programme, however, is the Mentoring Prison Officer – a dedicated, experienced prison officer who provides both professional and pastoral support. This has been invaluable to me over the last 12 months on the programme; having someone who understands the job and supports you through the tough times makes all the difference. 

Another benefit which really stood out for me is that alongside your day job you also do a fully-funded Master’s degree. I never would have been able to fund this degree myself, and gaining a qualification which is directly related to my job means I have a lot of opportunity to reflect on my professional development. 

The programme also provides to opportunity for participants to contribute to a policy paper for the Ministry of Justice; having the potential to use my experience as an officer to shape the larger policy agenda in the Prison Service is invaluable, and allows me to develop an understanding of how research on the frontline can feed into policy making. 

Doing this job means I have an insight into a world most people don’t know much about – as part of the Unlocked Graduates programme I also have a real chance to help make it better as well.