The government is backing a new scheme to get graduates working in the prison service, only days after disturbances at HMP Birmingham.
Graduates will work alongside frontline staff after an intensive training course in the summer and complete a master's degree at the same time.
Trainees will earn £20,545 - a prison officer's starting salary - during the two-year scheme in England and Wales.
The Prison Officers Association said the scheme was "barmy".
The initiative is being launched by charity Unlocked and is backed by Justice Secretary Liz Truss.
'Mentors not turn-keys'
She said: "Prison officers are some of our finest public servants. It is a unique role, which is both challenging and rewarding.
"There are very few jobs where you genuinely get the opportunity to reform and transform the lives of offenders, and the lives of their families, creating a safer society.
"I want to ensure that we attract the most talented and dedicated individuals, from the widest possible pool, and I want to see improved promotion and leadership opportunities for all our prison staff."
Natasha Porter, chief executive of Unlocked, said: "Prison officers are too often seen as 'turn-keys'. The opposite is true.
"They deal with some of the most challenging situations and work with some of the most vulnerable people in society.
"They are effectively mentors, counsellors, teachers, police officers and social workers.
"The aim of Unlocked is to help raise the status of the profession and to help reduce reoffending.
"While many of the scheme's participants will stay and develop long-term roles within the prison system, others will go into the outside world and act as ambassadors to drive forward rehabilitation."
The launch of the scheme, backed by Ms Truss's predecessor Michael Gove, follows a spate of major disturbances in prisons in England and Wales and comes on top of a separate recruitment drive for 2,500 new officers.
Dwindling staffing levels have repeatedly been highlighted by campaigners and unions amid soaring levels of violence and self-harm behind bars.
But Andy Darken, assistant general secretary of the Prison Officers Association, said he thought asking graduates to start work in prisons that are already under-staffed and highly violent, and do a master's degree at the same time, was "barmy".
"We have concerns if they are suggesting that because they are graduates that this in some way will reduce offending. That doesn't make sense.
"To get through the beginning of the day to the end of the day unharmed is a good day for a prison officer."
Currently prison officers train for 10 weeks on a bespoke course which they have to pass before going into prisons as staff.
Applications for the new scheme, which is similar to other charity-led public sector recruitment initiatives such as Teach First, will open on January 9.
The first set of 45 graduates will start work in prisons in August, following an intensive assessment programme and training scheme during the summer.
The names of the jails where they will work, which will be either Category B or Category C facilities, will be published in the new year.