Two new prison officers have told Sky News that they have been surprised by the realities of the job.
Reanne and Adam are about to complete the two-year Unlocked programme at a London prison.
The government hopes the programme is an answer to the high number of prison officers leaving the profession, many due to the increasing levels of stress they face in doing their jobs.
Participants join the scheme as prison officers and are paid the same as other entry-level recruits, but at the same time the programme offers a chance for students to study for a fully-funded masters degree.
Trainee prison officer Adam told Sky News that, while the training had been challenging, the rewards had outweighed the tough times.
“It has been fantastic to be on this, the level of human relationships you have with the lads here.
“Prisoners and prison officers have to get along for the prison to function and there are a lot more jokes told than insults, I’d say on the whole.
“You have a laugh, you have a joke, we’ve written poetry together, we’ve made art, and that kind of interaction is something that I perhaps wasn’t expecting.”
Reanne said she believes “people have a perception of working in prison that is more negative than it actually is”.
“You do have complex issues that you’re dealing with like mental health, self-harm, violence, those things do exist in prison, nobody is trying to say they do not, however it’s about how you manage it.
“We had a mentor there to help us, weekly sessions in the first year, but also we knew they were just a phone call away if we found things tough.”
In a damning report, the chief inspector of prisons recently warned of “disturbingly high” levels of self-harm in prisons as well as a rise in suicides. It also said too many prisons are “plagued by drugs, violence and appalling living conditions”.
In 2018/19, there were 22,630 prison officers in England and Wales compared to 2014/15 when there were only 18,222. However, in 2009/10 there were to 24,830 prison officers, around 2,500 more than current levels.
The government is trying to increase numbers – recruiting almost 5,000 officers in three years – but prisons are struggling to retain staff.
Steve Gillan, general secretary of the Prison Officers’ Association, blames low pay and a stressful working environment.
“I know from speaking to prison officers on a daily and weekly basis that there are some prisons now that they’re losing that many officers that they can’t operate on a daily basis.
“That is a fact and the government can’t deny that, it’s smoke and mirrors, they’ll spin out figures saying they’re doing things to reduce violence but the fact of the matter is our prisons are in crisis.
“It’s my members that are facing violence on a daily basis, real-life struggles because they can’t afford to pay the bills and because the pay is so low now in the prison service, that is the reality.”
An extra £70m is being invested by the government to address drug use and boost security in prisons. But so far it has had little impact on the number of officers who are leaving.
Justice Secretary David Gauke says he wants to “ensure the status of being a prison officer is properly recognised”.
“There needs to be a wider recognition in society of the important work that they do, then I think that can play a part in ensuring that we get people who will stick it out.”