Could Netflix’s Orange is the New Black be attracting more British women to become prison officers?

Laura and Toni, who are on the Unlocked Graduates programme. Picture: Unlocked Graduates

Laura and Toni, who are on the Unlocked Graduates programme. Picture: Unlocked Graduates - Credit: Archant

A Suffolk programme to train prison officers has attracted more than double the number of women than men - and it is being attributed to the success of a popular American box set.

Unlocked Graduates - undergoing a training session

Unlocked Graduates - undergoing a training session - Credit: Archant

Contrary to some stereotypes of prison officers as brawny, stony-faced men, it might be surprising to hear that this year, 69% of applicants to a graduate training programme at University of Suffolk for prison officers were women.

In its second year of applications, the ‘Unlocked Graduates’ programme, which trains up graduates to join the prison service, is on track to double in size, with more than 100 officers being placed in prisons in London and the South East this month.

The current crisis within the UK’s prisons reached boiling point just a fortnight ago, when a mass walkout by prison officers was called off at the last minute. So what is that’s luring so many educated young women to work in the prison system?

Laura, a 22 year old who is one year into her two-year Unlocked Graduates training programme, says the popular Netflix women’s prison drama, Orange is the New Black, could have something to do with it. “But personally, I avoid watching anything on Netflix to do with prisons,” she added. “Orange is the New Black is American, and they do things completely differently there - the prison system is much more punitive and awful in the US.

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“The orange jumpsuit prisoners wear on that show are a myth too.”

Laura claims that there are a lot of myths about prison life. “My family have misconceptions. But in UK prisons at the moment, there’s a massive emphasis on safety and decency - putting prisoners into purposeful activity, so they’re doing something productive. The aim is for our prisoners to be integrated into society when they leave prison. They’re often working towards qualifications, and there are interventions in prison to counteract the lifestyle of drugs and violence.”

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After spending her first six weeks living in Ipswich and studying at the University of Suffolk campus, Laura is now undertaking the distance Masters part of the programme, and when it is completed, she will be awarded an MSc in Leadership and Custodial Environments.

At the same time, she is on the front line at HM Prison Wandsworth, the most overcrowded jail in the UK, and one which stopped using CCTV cameras and x-ray body scanners on visitors in July “due to a lack of staff,” according to the inspectorate of prisons.

“Obviously, its public knowledge that there are drugs available,” said Laura when asked about the issue of drugs in UK prisons. “The most difficult aspect of work is the battle with drugs and violence - its a sad fact of our prisons. But the staff are so unified in prisons, it makes it bearable to deal with it in the most effective way.”

“There is also a massive support system from Unlocked Graduates which makes it easier to deal with.”

Laura admits that prisons are a “challenging environment” to work in, and “no amount of training can prepare you for such conditions.” “But its not as frightening and violent as you might expect,” she added.

Laura has found that the Unlocked Graduates course has given her different skill-sets to the other prison officers she has met through her new job.

“We also get leadership skills and scenario-based training,” she said.

Companies including the Civil Service Fast Stream, EY and PwC have lent their support to the scheme, and Unlocked Graduates claim that graduates who have worked in such a challenging environment as prison will be in demand for their resilience, grit and the ability to handle difficult situations.

Laura studied criminology before starting the Unlocked Graduates course, but applicants come from a diverse range of fields of study, from anthropology to theology. Students in the 2018 cohort include an economist and a biologist, and one of the most popular subjects amongst applicants was law; four new officers even came from Oxford and Cambridge. Altogether, there were more than 900 applications for just 100 places on the course, more than double the interest Unlocked Graduates received in its inaugural year.

Toni, 22 year old working with youth offenders at HM Prison Cookham Wood in Kent, explained that she signed up to the programme because she wanted to work with the most vulnerable in society.

“A lot of people think prison is the end of the road, when it isn’t. It’s about giving hope and not writing people off, because a lot of people have a really negative image of young people in custody.”

She added that the University of Suffolk course had opened her eyes to the prisoners’ needs. “In our roles, we wear a lot of hats - prison officers have to switch roles, and being able to talk to and advise prisoners is one part of our role.

“If you can get less of them committing crime, then we have achieved our job.”

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