My role recruiting graduates to prisons
Unlocked Graduates is the ambitious new scheme which aims to attract university leavers to the prison system, enrolling them in a two-year leadership programme that will see them earn a Master’s degree at the same time as working as a prison officer. Applicants who made the shortlist have spent the last few weeks taking part in interviews and activities designed to test whether they had the right character and motivations become part of a ‘network of leaders’ that Liz Truss has spoken of as central to her rehabilitative agenda. Ben, a PET alumnus, was selected to act as an assessor, and shares his experience of meeting aspiring prison officers, and why he believes the scheme will prove successful.
I was anxious when I heard about the role as an assessor for Unlocked. This pressure to ensure I judged candidates fairly and to portray a positive image of a reformed individual weighed heavily on my decision to apply, along with the fact that my role would directly influence whether a candidate would be offered a place. But I knew it was an invaluable opportunity to reflect the challenges of prisoner/officer relations from a prisoner’s perspective, and interviewing candidates for an opportunity of this magnitude was not something I could refuse.
The training session we attended gave a valuable insight into how the scheme would work and how we should score the participants, looking for qualities including leadership, problem-solving, empathy and resilience. This gave me confidence to carry out fair judgements of candidates and relieved my original apprehensions.
We interviewed in pairs - I was either with an Unlocked staff member or a current prison officer. I began each interview by telling each candidate that I had spent five years in prison, and at the end they each had the opportunity to ask me questions about my experience. Some of the candidates asked incredibly valid and apt questions which could only have been answered without partiality by an offender, and justifies our participation. I was delighted I have had the opportunity to articulate to candidates what it is like being a prisoner regarding education, family ties, relationships with staff, opportunity, social and peer pressures etc. Quite a few questions were focused on safety, as you might expect, but some asked what programme had most benefited me in prison or what education I had access to. It was really reassuring to see that these young people were already thinking in terms of the benefits of education and recognised this could be a way to break the cycle of re-offending.
"It was really reassuring to see that these young people were already thinking in terms of the benefits of education and recognised this could be a way to break the cycle of re-offending."
It was interesting to interview alongside an officer and more often than not I found we were on the same page when it came to our thoughts on whether a candidate would be suitable. The officer was able to warn candidates against some of the pitfalls of the job - not just to do with violence and security, but the pitfalls of becoming complacent. I’ve seen it happen myself - an officer comes in with some enthusiasm and then has negative experiences, starts to cut corners and becomes demotivated. I believe this can be resolved by tenacity and a real passion for wanting change and wanting to help people.
Some of the candidates I interviewed proved to me this scheme will have talent. Passionate, articulate, motivated, innovative, determined individuals with the correct motivations, who want to see change. One young woman filled the room with energy - she was so passionate and motivated and could speak so eloquently about the time she had spent volunteering with people from socially deprived backgrounds, which formed a sort of ‘platform of motivation’ which had led to her applying to Unlocked.
Judged by the level of organisation and diligence the scheme has received so far, this will succeed within the prison estates. The candidates all studied different subjects, but from completing a degree they’ve all demonstrated an ability to learn, which will be really essential in their working lives. I believe they will have the ability to force change by being able to communicate and evidence the positive effects of innovative and progressive styles of working. I hope they will be able to articulate the benefits of - for example - somebody being unlocked more, having more access to the gym, or being able to take a certain course, to other officers, the governor or even policy makers. It will take the support of governors and others within the prison system, but if these graduate officers are encouraged to progress and reach positions of the authority in the system, then I am confident they will have the tenacity and innovations to spread a positive ethos through our criminal justice system."