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Criminal Justice

Perspectives of a Prison Officer – What I’ve Learnt

Coming to the end of my placement at the Barrow Cadbury Trust, along with the end of my two year prison placement as part of Unlocked Graduates, I’ve been reflecting a lot recently on what I’ve learned, which is, mainly, that you never stop learning. Being a prison officer is a hard job – that is undeniable. From day one, you can be thrown in the deep end, responding to alarm bells that lead you to all manner of dangerous situations. The practical experience is important, it has taught me skills I couldn’t learn in any other job, such as how to calm down someone having a panic attack in their room, how to spot someone getting themselves into debt as they play cards on the exercise yard, and how to stop a fight from happening before the first punch has even been thrown.

In amongst the first few days working in a prison, I was told on multiple occasions, from multiple different prison officers, to ‘forget everything I learned at training’. I can see their point, there are some things you can’t learn in a classroom, and like so many skills, practice makes perfect when it comes to working in a prison – you have to get involved and pull your weight, or else you’ll never learn. However, there is a key skill that I learned during my Unlocked officer training that has stood me in good stead for the last two years –a willingness to learn, and the confidence to say that I don’t know everything. I can’t forget what I learned at training, because I learned so much! Even if I found practical experience to be more useful to me in the workplace, that’s still information that started when I started my training. I think it is crucial for prison officers, as well as pretty much everyone, to continue informing themselves, and be prepared to admit they still have more to learn.

This is what I have particularly enjoyed while on my placement with the Barrow Cadbury Trust – I have had a chance to access reports that have drawn on information from all around the criminal justice sector, all of which can inform my practice in prison. By reading about young peoples’ experiences with the police, and with the courts, I can better understand the attitudes and perceptions of prison that young people have when they come through the gates. This paper, by Nacro, breaks down the process of how best to help a young person struggling with their identity, so they can grow into a more pro-social one, which is key to my work, and helpful for me to refer back to should I feel out of my depth. These papers are important because it is through understanding someone that I can talk to them with respect, and prevent moments of miscommunication, or omissions in judgment, that can lead to violence.

I will take the lessons from these papers, amongst others, back into my work, both using it to shape my actions and practice on the wing, and my conversations with fellow prison officers and members of staff. Discussing the day’s events in a prison is crucial, as it helps us process what we saw, and how we felt. Beyond that, I think it’s equally important to discuss how we can improve and talk about what we can do next time, to keep people safe. Preventing mistakes comes with practice, but it also comes with being ready, and informed on what’s going through someone’s head. Sometimes you don’t need to see it happen once to stop it happening a second time, you can stop it from happening at all. All these lessons, and skills, we learn, and I don’t believe we should ever forget anything we learn, only build new lessons on top of previous ones.

I want to say thank you to everyone at the Barrow Cadbury Trust for supporting me in the last two weeks; it has been fascinating to find out more about what you do, and also cheering to see the range and passion of people invested in supporting young people in our society. I hope to stay in touch with the people I have met, and hear more about the work being done to help bring about socially just change.