Working in a prison is fast-paced and varied. You’ll be trained for all kinds of situations, from keeping the prison safe to helping prisoners learn new skills.
You’ll experience good days and tough days as a prison officer. You’ll need to be ready for challenging behaviour, and willing to take the rough with the smooth.
But with training and a supportive team by your side, you’ll feel confident and assertive in your role.
There’s no such thing as a typical day. Life can depend on the prison, its level of security and the prisoners.
As a prison officer, you’ll have responsibility for around 6 prisoners. You’ll meet with them regularly to support their rehabilitation. This might involve encouraging them to take part in education, substance recovery programmes and to maintain links with family members.
The prisoners you work with will depend on the type of prison.
Prisons need 24/7 coverage and most prisons work on a rolling shift pattern of 39 hours. Your shift patterns will include some nights, weekends and public and bank holidays (any public or bank holidays you work will be added to your annual leave allowance).
Your salary will reflect the number of hours you work (37, 39 or 41 hours a week).
Work-life balance options such as part-time hours and job shares may be available after you have completed your initial training. You’ll need to talk to your line manager about this.
Shifts usually follow regular hours, although the start and finish time may vary depending on your prison. Here’s an example shift pattern:
Dawn’s story: 5 things you need to know about being a prison officer
I’ll always remember my very first day on the wings – I don’t think it’s something you forget. I was only 21 years old. After completing my training at HMP Wakefield, I was offered a position as a prison officer at HMP Cookham Wood women’s prison (now a male Young Offender Institution). At the time, only female prison officers could work in women’s prisons.
I remember getting out of the car on my first day and standing in the staff car park. It was so loud – it was pretty frightening, but unbeknown to me it was simply just yard time and that was the sound of 50 or so women chatting, laughing and exercising together outside.
Moving on and moving up
After 12 months at HMP Cookham Wood, the rules changed, and women were allowed to work in male prisons. I moved and was one of just 2 female officers working on the landings at the newly-opened HMP Swaleside. Thankfully there are many more female prison officers these days.
Following that, and other stints at prisons around Kent including HMP Rochester, HMP Dover and HMP Elmley, I was promoted to Governor. I transferred to HMP Standford Hill in 2017 to take up the role and was later Governor at HMP Elmley and HMP Maidstone.
I can understand why people have misconceptions about what prisons are like, how they run and what kind of person it takes to be an officer. Prison officers work in a unique environment and the general public don’t often get to see behind the walls of a prison to know what it’s really like.
Here are 5 things worth knowing if you’re considering applying to be a prison officer:
- The role is about so much more than just locking and unlocking doors. Prison officers are everything from mentors and counsellors to first aiders and job advisors. It’s really varied work. Every day is different and a new challenge.
- Prison officers come from all walks of life. The Prison Service is diverse and welcomes applicants from every age, race and gender. In fact, it’s crucial that prison staff reflect prisoner populations as that’s how positive and effective relationships are built. We have people who have come from the NHS or those who have left the police force or military too.
- You don’t need particular qualifications or experience. I had only 3 GCSEs when I joined the Prison Service. However, I was able to progress my career, work my way up the ladder, and gain promotions by learning on the job and continuing to develop myself at every opportunity.
- Kindness and understanding are 2 of the most powerful tools you can have at your disposal when working with prisoners and are a key part of the work that officers do.
- You have an opportunity to make a difference. We should always give people a second chance. As a prison officer you have an opportunity to make a difference in vulnerable people’s lives at a time when it matters most.
Read more personal stories about working as a prison officer on our blog (opens in a new tab).
Working in women’s prisons
Working with women in custody has some specific challenges that you may not encounter in a male prison.
Women in custody have often had extremely difficult backgrounds. The majority of women in prison have experienced emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. This can lead to a lack of trust in staff.
Find out more about what it’s like working as a prison officer in 2 of our women’s prison: