Published: 05:00, 09 March 2022
| Updated: 14:04, 09 March 2022
Who in their right mind would want to guard dangerous criminals, many serving life for murder?
We chat to officers in each of Sheppey’s three jails to find out why - and learn what they did before signing up...
Things are desperate. There’s such a shortage of prison officers, especially on the Isle of Sheppeywhich boasts of three jails, that the Ministry of Justice has launched a major recruitment drive.
So what’s life like behind the mysterious walls for those who, unlike the inmates, choose to be there?
We talk to three very different officers from each of the prisons to find out why they joined, what they have to do and what they did before.
Kelly is a 44-year-old married mum of three girls who has been at Swaleside, the category-B men’s prison, for four years.
In a previous life she worked for a holiday company as an entertainer, singing and dancing across the UK, Gran Canaria and Lanzarote before becoming a WeightWatchers rep for more than a decade.
She said: “People always think being a prison officer is wildly different to my previous roles but actually it requires a lot of the same traits. Despite common perceptions that being a prison officer is a macho job, I think the most important thing is that you’re a people person who can stay calm under pressure.
“I started working at HMP Swaleside on the wings. It was shift work and that worked well for me and my home life. It’s really flexible and at our prison you can see your shifts for the whole year so you can plan ahead with annual leave.”
But she admitted: “Nothing can prepare you for the first time you step inside a prison. Everything feels different, including the noise and the fact that every door is locked behind you.
“It can all feel quite daunting. But you get used to it. Working days in a prison are really dictated by the regime. Prisoners have to be in certain places at certain times for their meals, medicine, exercise and education. That’s vital to ensure the safety of both staff and prisoners.
“Yet despite this, no two days ever feel the same. One day you could be overseeing prisoners in the yard or escorting them to get their medication, while another day you could be supporting a prisoner who is in a bad place or helping deal with any incidents. You really are a counsellor, first-aider and teacher all in one.”
Every shift starts with a handover bringing the new shift up to speed with incidents and emerging issues.
Kelly said: “There are times when there can be violence or prisoners can be in a really bad place mentally and emotionally, particularly during the pandemic when they were faced with restrictions on their movement and were missing their families, just like the rest of us. It is really challenging but whatever is happening, you know your team is always just seconds away with support.”
Her secret is to speak to every prisoner how she would like to be spoken to.
Last year she was promoted to staff ambassador for the prison to support new recruits.
She added: “Prisons are huge local employers, especially on the Island, but there are so many different roles you can move into if you’re ambitious. I feel so proud to put on my uniform.”
Lois, 32, has been at Elmley, which is a remand jail for prisoners awaiting trial, for 14 years. She joined six months after her 18th birthday and has been promoted through the ranks from prison officer and senior officer to custodial manager in charge of a staff of 30 on a wing for prisoners with drug and alcohol addictions.
She had previously wanted to be a dentist before studying public services at college and realising this was the role for her.
She admits she found it “quite scary” to begin with but adds: “You don’t have to be tough and muscly. People would be surprised at how the role could actually suit them.”
She said: “I’m quite different to lots of my friends who had tried numerous careers by the time they were 30. I’ve stuck with the prison service as it’s given me loads of opportunities to progress and the benefits, like a pension and good holiday allowance, have given me stability.
“It’s so much more than just locking and unlocking doors. We have around 140 adult male prisoners and 30 staff. It’s difficult because lots of the prisoners are really unwell. Much of our day involves ensuring they get the right medication at the right time, which can be really challenging.
“Of course, there have been some days when I’ve felt scared. You do get prisoners with a bad attitude. But we are really clear this isn’t acceptable. Staff safety is a priority and having your team ready to back you up is crucial. That’s why we have lots of training.
“Now I’m in management a key part of my day is ensuring my staff are happy. I love the people I work with. It’s a cliché but they are my work family. Doing a challenging role like this, where you really have to rely on each other, brings you closer together.”
Her ambition, she says, is to become a governor. “People often don’t think of females as being prison officers but I don’t think gender matters.
“You have to be a good listener and as long as you’re confident enough to stand up for yourself while still relating to people and treating them with respect, you will thrive.”
At Standford Hill open prison, custodial manager Sean, 50, is in his 29th year of service. Before that, he was in the Royal Engineers for five years.
He joined as a 16-year-old and did tours to the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, the Falklands and Gibraltar.
He said: “HMP Standford Hill is different to the other prisons on Sheppey because it’s an open prison for men. Prisoners are usually nearing the end of their sentences so part of our job is to help them prepare for returning to their communities.
“Our role is to support them in finding employment and also giving them the confidence to re-build relationships with their friends and families. Having a job and support from loved ones means they’re much less likely to re-offend.”
He explained: “On a day-to-day basis this could mean meeting a local business to talk about them offering employment opportunities, supporting a prisoner as he prepares for a job interview or accompanying a prisoner when he goes to meet his family outside the prison.
“The regime is a lot less rigid than in other types of prisons. This leaves more time for quality face-to-face contact with our prisoners.
“I find the rehabilitative side really fulfilling. You know you’re making a huge difference to prisoners lives.”
He added: “Because we’re an open prison we get less violence than in other establishments. But you still need to be prepared for anything and be resilient.
“These are complex men who have complicated lives and many have served long sentences. The prospect of freedom can be daunting for them.
“You must know how to calmly de-escalate situations and remain patient and understanding.”
He recalled: “I was in the army for five years from the age of 16 to 21 and did tours at Saudi Arabia, the Falklands and Gibraltar. The experience was invaluable for this role as a prison officer. There are lots of similarities including the camaraderie, uniform and structure.
“But being a prison officer is much more stable for family life. And it involves a lot less travel.”
How to join
Feeling inspired? You don’t need qualifications to become a prison officer.
Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) says personal qualities are more important.
It is looking for people who can demonstrate good communication and influencing skills, commitment to quality, effective decision-making, care and understanding. Training is available throughout a prison officer’s career.
Officers can choose to specialise in working with vulnerable prisoners, become a dog-handler or train as a physical education instructor.
As part of the key-worker scheme, officers are responsible for supporting the rehabilitation of a small group of offenders. This might involve encouraging their participation in education and substance recovery programmes, as well as helping them to maintain vital family ties.
The service is particularly looking to recruit ex-service personnel. Salaries start at £29,427 for a 39-hour week and come with a Civil Service pension and generous annual leave. Apply here.