Scheme brings graduates to front-line prison roles

By Danny Shaw
Home affairs correspondent, BBC News

Media caption,
Uni graduates becoming prison officers

The number of front-line prison officers in England and Wales is up from 18,090 in 2016 to 18,755 this year, Ministry of Justice figures show. In future, trainees from a new scheme will help boost the numbers of graduates in the profession.

On E Wing at Coldingley prison, in Surrey, a group is being shown how to carry out one of the most basic tasks for a prison officer - though it is also one of the most important.

"Good afternoon, how are you doing today? We're doing a cell search. Do you have any weapons, religious items, legal paperwork?"

The wing holds more than 500 of the most serious offenders in England and Wales, and the graduate recruits are being supervised as they look for weapons, drugs and mobile phones.

They are the first intake of graduates on a prison officer training programme modelled on the Teach First scheme for schools.

"This is somebody's house, show it respect," says the trainer.

Image caption,
Sophie graduated with a first-class degree in psychology and has high hopes for her new career

More than 50 trainees were selected from 600 applicants.

One of them, Sophie, said she had never imagined herself as a prison officer.

She recently left university with a first-class degree in psychology and wants to build a career in criminal justice, helping turn lives around.

Despite the record levels of assaults on staff and recent prison disturbances, she sees working as a prison officer as an ideal first step.

"My mum was worried and concerned, my dad happy, excited, because I'm excited and happy," she says.

"They haven't got many concerns, when I raise a concern, when it's scary, they're like, 'What did you expect?'"

The graduates are in their final few weeks of intensive training before embarking on a two-year stint as front-line prison officers.

Justice Secretary, David Lidington told the BBC he hoped the scheme would bring fresh ideas to a service that was too much of a "closed world".

He said he would like to ease the pressure on the service by safely reducing the prison population.

"I want to see the prisoner numbers come down, and we need to see less crime and less reoffending and prison better at stopping people from reoffending after they've been released," Mr Lidington said.

Image caption,
The graduate recruits will bring fresh ideas, says Justice Secretary David Lidington

"If you look at the population figures for prisons, the big driver for the increase in the prison population has been people serving long sentences, four years or more, and particularly the rise in the number of people convicted of sexual offences.

"The number of people sent for short terms in prison has actually been coming down in recent years.

"So, I don't think you can simply set an arbitrary figure, but we do need to make sure that our judges and magistrates have confidence in the community sentences - the alternatives to prison."

The new scheme, Unlocked Graduates, aims to professionalise the prison service and give front-line experience to some of Britain's brightest graduates.

Media caption,
Justice Secretary David Lidington: Population should come down

Stressful work

But the big challenge for prisons, including Coldingley, is to ensure staff stay in the service.

Starting salaries for prison officers in England and Wales are £20,000-£29,000 and set by an independent body.

Some staff leave to earn the same or more in jobs that are less stressful and dangerous.

Mr Lidington acknowledged more could be done to support officers and make them feel valued.

He hopes the new scheme will help bring stability to the prison service - but it has started small and there is a long way to go.

Unlocked Graduates chief executive Natasha Porter said a key aim was to identify future prison governors and leaders in other fields.

"We want people leading prisons who have done our programme. We want people staring criminal justice charities who have done our programme," said Ms Porter.

"But we also want MPs who have done our programme, I want a secretary of state for justice, I want a prime minister who has done our programme.

"If you have spent two years walking the landing working in a prison, you can deal with any type of client, you can deal with any difficult situation that any job throws at you."

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