My Job: ‘I like breaking the prison officer stereotype’
Covid has transformed the working world. Easing restrictions, healthcare concerns and money worries have all left people questioning what they do and why they do it.
As part of the ‘My Job’ series we’re investigating how different people find purpose in their daily work.
Mica has worked as a prison officer in HMP Portland, in Dorset, for the last five years. It’s a Category C prison, which means it is more secure than open prison, but prepares prisoners for life outside, with training for work.
It houses up to 530 men aged 18 and over and Mica’s also spent a stint working as a supervising officer.
Why did you apply for the job?
I always wanted to be in uniform as a kid. A lot of my friends actually worked in the prison service when I got older and I found their stories really interesting – it seemed like every day was completely different, whereas that was really missing from the job I was in at the time, in immigration.
The fear of the unknown did hold me back a bit – as well as the stigma around prisons. I thought I had to be big and muscly to do the job, but having joined it’s completely not like that.
How did the recruitment process work?
What gave me the push in the end, was wanting a bit more stability.
The process overall included an online application form, different scenario tests that figure out how you interact with people and what your natural reactions to problems might be.
In person, you do things like a basic fitness test -a bleep test – but you don’t need qualifications.
The main priority is having good communication skills, wanting to rehabilitate people and having a genuine interest in them as well… we house prisoners who could be 21, or we’ve even got someone who is 80 years old.
If you can talk to people you’re half-way there. Because a lot of the time you could be on the wing, doing key-worker sessions, or trying to persuade them to go to education or the gym… no two days are the same, and really it’s about being open-minded.
Routes into prison work
- Direct application: You don’t need qualifications to apply directly to be a prison officer – personal qualities are more important. You’ll need to take an online test to check your judgement and number skills, as well as go to an assessment centre if you pass those.
- An advanced apprenticeship as a custody and detention officer.
Source: National Careers Service
Does it feel good to break a stereotype?
It is such a good feeling to break a stereotype!
There’s a massive stigma around prisons… people can sometimes be very shocked when I tell them my job because they think of prison officers as big, bald, tattooed guys – and that’s definitely not me!
But I can’t stress enough – it’s all about the communication skills. I can’t stop talking sometimes, whether that’s the right or wrong thing!
What are the biggest misconceptions about the job?
You look at locks, doors, fences – it doesn’t look like a nice place. Don’t get me wrong – you need those things for safety. But when you come into HMP Portland and see the workshops, healthcare, the staff and the rugby pitches… it’s like a community.
You don’t become friends with the prisoners. There is obviously a boundary that does need to be there. But I do try and help and go out of my way, because often someone’s never done that for them before.
Once I had a key-worker session with a prisoner that couldn’t read or write. In time, he managed to write a letter to family. For him, it was massive. He smashed it and we both felt great about it – these are little things to people on the outside they might not think about, but they mean a lot.
What has been your toughest day on the job?
When you take this job, there are always scary things that could happen. I’d hate to say it never happens, but those incidents are few and far between.
One of the hardest things for me is actually seeing a prisoner come back in.
You thought you might have put all the little steps in to help them a lead a good life, but when they come back they can be quite dismissive because they think they’ll keep coming back. The really important thing there is to keep chipping away at it… it can be really tough but I think it’s important not to give up.
Prison work in numbers
- 58,1821 full-time staff in post
- 29.1% of prison officers are female
- Less than three years: Average length of service
- 11.2%: Leaving rate in the year to 31 December 2021, up from 8.3% in the year to 31 March
- 7,983 joiners in the last year
Source: Ministry of Justice
How long do people tend to stay?
Our turnover rate is quite high – moreso now. There are a lot of [other job] opportunities out there at the moment.
At HMP Portland, for example, we might struggle for recruitment because of the area [we’re located] and where we can pick from.
I do think though that a lot of people join as a prison officer, and then go on to different roles [in the prison service] like a supervising officer, a dog handler, a workshop instructor… we lose a lot but they go into different departments because there are a lot of opportunities and people realise there are other routes they might want to go down.
If I could improve something, it would be having more staff. That’s males, females – everyone from all different backgrounds. People bring their own abilities and having people from a mix of places is beneficial for the prison and prisoners.
How much did the job change during Covid?
In the pandemic, we had PPE put in place, hand-washing stands, and social distancing. [Social distancing] was very difficult for staff even on the outside, never mind communicating that to a population of prisoners who didn’t know much about it.
We’re a confined space and had to mirror all the measures on the outside. If there was a lockdown, we were in lockdown. The stigma around vaccinations was really hard too, and I know a lot of establishments struggled with that.
I do genuinely feel that the prison service did a good job with controlling the pandemic overall.
Now I can’t wait to have the prison running as it should be – having healthcare appointments flexible for all the wings, focus groups, visits running to a small capacity.
When restrictions come to an end too, we’ll hopefully have family days reopen, which gives the opportunity for prisoners to have one-to-ones with their children. There’s all these things you’d never think you get in prison, like bouncy castles and face-painting. It’s absolutely buzzing. The prisoners really enjoy it and the chance to get to be that father figure, which they’ve not had for two years now [due to the pandemic] – and it’s good for staff to get to know their background.
What would you say to someone thinking of applying to the prison service?
Just go for it. You don’t have to be the cleverest person ever. If you’re heart’s in the right place, you’re half-way there.
You can end up being a mother, a sister – all kinds of things to prisoners. And, what’s really important to me as well, is that you can build really good relationships with the staff. In Portland, it’s a great community to be involved in… I’ve made friends for life.
This interview has been condensed for clarity.