Imani: launching my career with Unlocked Graduates

We reached out to Imani, who is on her second year of the Leadership Development programme at Unlocked Graduates, to find out what it’s really like to work as a prison officer on this unique graduate programme.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and what inspired you to apply for the Leadership Development Programme at Unlocked?

I graduated from De Monfort University last year with a degree in psychology. My intention was to do a Masters in forensic psychology and then a PhD, with the aim of working in a prison. My supervisor suggested that I take time out to first gain experience of the prison environment. Unlocked Graduates offered me the perfect opportunity to do this and develop further qualifications. I am now in the second and final year of the Leadership Development Programme - I have gained everything I wanted and am really glad I stepped out of my comfort zone.

What is a typical day like on the Leadership Development Programme?

This is difficult to answer as there really isn’t a typical type of day – I don’t think I have had two days that are the same yet. Simply put, being a prison officer is about watching out for prisoners and staff members and being clearly available to both. You’ll be talking with prisoners about anything; from their family and past, to the crime itself – you’ll really get to know them.

What do you enjoy most about the programme?

You are building so many transferable skills that will support you whatever your career path. In the everyday conversations you have with prisoners you are learning to be assertive and of course you’re developing your resilience and communication skills. I am particularly enjoying all that I am learning on the Key Worker Scheme. This initiative involves meeting with 5-6 of the same prisoners each week, so I can help them as they progress all the way through their sentence.

Alongside working as a Prison Officer all programme participants also study for a Master’s in Leadership and Custodial Environments. This is an amazing opportunity to learn about different leadership styles, deepen your theoretical knowledge of how prisons are set up and run and gain the tools to suggest effective improvements.

As part of the programme you even have the opportunity to write a policy paper which I am planning at the moment. You work in groups of 5 or 6 and can chose any topic to research. Our group have chosen to study staff corruption – looking at why staff become corrupt and how to implement effective strategies to stop this from happening.

How have you been supported during the programme?

I have received so much support from my mentor throughout the year, but also from the rest of the Unlocked cohort. It’s great to meet with others who really understand the challenges of the role - we are always helping each other, so it’s like a community within a community. I have also found that the team at HQ are really helpful and will respond to your emails within a day. With such a close-knit team, you’ll feel supported and able to learn from those around you.

Have you been able to apply your degree skills during the programme?

Definitely, I am using what I learnt in my Psychology degree every day. The Prison Service does struggle on managing mental health so my experience is really helpful. I also studied the causes of crime as part of my degree, which has given me a more detailed understanding of these prisoners’ life experiences.

I am able to apply the time management skills I developed when balancing my degree with my part time job during university. This has meant that completing the masters while working as a prison officer has felt completely manageable.

How has the programme changed your perceptions?

The programme has changed my opinion on prisoners. I previously had a fairly negative perception, mostly fuelled by the media which often dehumanises them, however through meaningful conversations my understanding has been challenged. I now appreciate the importance of rehabilitation and the potential that these people have if properly supported. I also appreciate the difficulty of a prison officer’s job.

What is the most important thing you will take away from the programme?

I have learnt to be more grateful for what I have. Working with people who don’t have access to their family and their freedom really reminds you to appreciate that you do.

What are your top tips for other students looking to apply?

  • Experience it yourself - don’t be put off by the job title or the media stories around prisons. I didn’t just wake up and want to be a prison officer but I am so glad I have taken on this role. I have learnt so much about myself and others by stepping out of my comfort zone. It really is a fantastic programme whatever your career plans are
  • Be calm and confident - during the application process you will join a role play with an actor playing a prisoner. This can be quite difficult and daunting, but just be calm and professional and consider how you communicate, including your body language

What are you planning to do after the programme?

I would like to move into management in the prison and then progress to head of function as they have the ability to make changes to the overall system.