Career Guide

Prison Officer

Ben Maples  · Feb 28th 2022

When you think of mass criminals like Charles Bronson, Charles Manson or Jeffrey Dahmer, we all sleep well at night knowing that these people are locked behind bars and will hopefully never be seen again.

Prison Officers chatting

When you think of mass criminals like Charles Bronson, Charles Manson or Jeffrey Dahmer, we all sleep well at night knowing that these people are locked behind bars and will hopefully never be seen again. For this, we have the investigation services that arrested them and the Prison Officers that keep them, behind bars and not on the streets. But what does a Prison Officer actually do and how do you become one? Well, luckily, we’ve compiled a useful career guide for you to show you everything that you need to know about becoming a Prison Officer, so let’s jump in.

Prison Officer Career Guide

What is a prison guard?

Prison officers are responsible for the supervision, rehabilitation, training and security of people sent to jail by the courts. The prison officer role will also motivate inmates to do what is best for themselves and others while providing a healthy and safe living environment. A prison position is a demanding job which requires excellent communication skills, patience and practical problem-solving skills.

A prison custody officer role will establish and maintain positive working relationships with inmates while balancing their official duties. It requires someone who is understanding and compassionate, who believes in the rehabilitation process.

The prison officer ranks have changed throughout the decades, but it currently stands as four progressive positions: operational support grade (OSG, prison officer, supervising officer, custodial manager. The term prison warden is widely used in the USA and Canada, but in the UK it’s referred to a prisoner governor (some may incorrectly use prison manager). What is a correctional officer?

It’s also another job title used in other countries, but we tend to use ‘prison officer’. It’s common for people to ask ‘is a prison officer a civil servant?’, with the answer being yes. A civil servant is someone employed by the crown and other public services like the NHS or local authorities.

You can expect to work mostly indoors with some supervisorial duties outside.

What does a prison officer do?

A prison custody officer will manage, supervise and control inmates in a lawful, secure and safe manner. They’ll need to keep an account of the individuals in their charge and ensure the order is maintained. Prison officer duties involve supervising visits, carrying out patrol duties, performing security checks and carrying out search procedures on staff, visitors and the prisoners themselves.

The role of a prison officer also consists of assisting prisoner reviews, taking care of personal property and advising inmates and making sure they have access to professional help if required. It’s a difficult job which may involve unexpected events, and you may come across violent or distressing incidents while working as a prison officer. This may extend to employing physical control and restraint procedures during particular episodes if appropriate.

The prison custody officer job description involves developing relationships with health and social workers and other specialist staff, assisting prisoner reviews, and escorting inmates to external visits, like the hospital. You should know and understand prisoners’ rights and dignity as well as their responsibilities.

Preparing reports and documents for quality checks or managers, and updating records and writing reports is also considered part of the role. Above all, a prison officer will comply with all local and national policies and legislation at all times.

Life as a prison officer is not just about managing inmates; you may also promote suicide prevention and anti-bullying policies, take part in workshops and rehabilitation programmes and provide support for inmates at risk of self-harm or vulnerable prisoners. The benefits of being a prison officer include knowing you have an active role in an individual’s rehabilitation while ensuring they have access to services to help them do this.

Furthermore, the responsibilities for a prison officer may change slightly depending on the type of institution you’re working in, i.g, the level of security and the age of prisoners. Category A prisoners require closer supervision and management than category C, and working with children or teenagers may involve specific duties. Prison officers at a higher grade may have additional responsibilities like managing other officers or looking after a particular wing or area of the prison.

Prison Officer Career

How to become a prison officer?

Now, what qualifications do you need to be a prison officer? There are prerequisites for prison officer training; being 18 or over, having the right to work in the UK, have excellent hearing and eyesight and being reasonably fit. For those wanting to work in a category A prison, the individual must have been a UK resident for at least three years. However, academic qualifications are not the most crucial thing when becoming a prison officer, as personal qualities and life experience are valued highly.

Applying for prison work consists of an online application where you can confirm your eligibility to live and work in the United Kingdom. These two online tests test your situational judgement and a maths test. Next, you’ll complete game-based assessments and attend an assessment and recruitment centre to assess physical fitness. These processes will check whether you have the skills and qualities it takes to be a prison officer.

Graduates can also work as a prison officer via a two-year accelerated leadership development programme, which aims to produce future prison leaders with the necessary skills to reform the prison service and to reduce reoffending. Prison officer entry requirements for this programme consists of a 2:1 degree in any subject, GCSEs in English and maths at Level 4/C or above, have the right to work in the UK for the duration of the two years.

To become a prison officer in other countries based in the UK, it may be different. The recruitment process in Scotland involves four assessments, application, psychometric testing, competency-based interview and a fitness test, as an example. Before starting your job, you’ll go through a vetting process, which can take up to a few months to complete, ensuring your background and eligibility pass.

Prison officers are responsible for the supervision, rehabilitation, training and security of people sent to jail by the courts.

What are the prison officer shifts like? Most prisons have their guards work on a changing shift pattern of around 39 hours on average per week. You may work nights, weekends and public holidays - with these days added to your holiday allowance. Prison officer shift patterns follow regular hours, but the start and finish time may differ depending on where you work. A prison officer shift pattern example may include weekend night work and having days off during the week, or a week of early morning or night shifts. However, it would depend on what cover is needed and when at each prison.

What skills are needed for being a prison officer?

Prison custody officer jobs require individuals who are self-motivated, assertive, organised and self-confident. Having excellent interpersonal, communication, and people skills is essential as well as organisation, problem-solving and decision making skills. Working in the prison service in the UK involves being able to get on with a range of people and having a commitment to how prisons fit into the broader judiciary system and the community.

A prisoner custody officer will need resilience, personal integrity and high emotional intelligence. Physical stamina, being able to deal with confrontational settings and potentially distressing incidents are all part of a prison job. Individuals with the ability to remain calm under pressure, leadership potential and who are responsible are ideal for prison security jobs. If you want to test how you’d respond in a particular situation try prison officer role play with a friend or family member and read blogs on prison guards already in the service to find out what it’s really like.

Prison Officer

How much do prison officers earn?

The prison officer wage follows Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) grades, but they can vary between areas of the country and individual institutions. Starting salaries for a 39-hour per week job in London can be around £30,000. In the south-east or south of the country, prison officer pay scales vary and can instead be approximately £22,000.

In Scotland, the starting salary for operations prison officer recruits is typical £20,000, with a prison officer pay rise increasing it to £26,000 over four years. However, when moving up the prison officer ranks, your wage is expected to increase. Individuals will also be entitled to the Civil Service pension and other benefits like travel loans, childcare vouchers and a cycle to work scheme.

The prison officer recruitment process

Firstly, there are lots of positions within a jail, and you may also be interested in other roles, like prison admin jobs, management staff or working as an allied professional (health and social care). However, after searching for prison officer vacancies and completing the prison officer application, you’ll complete the assessments and tests as mentioned above. You should think carefully if this hardworking but rewarding job is for you before you apply to be a prison officer. There are also options for job-share or part-time work as well as flexible working after completing a probation period.

You can expect to work mostly indoors with some supervisorial duties outside. Most prison buildings are late 19th and early 20th century buildings on large sites, so you’ll cover an expansive area. The role is challenging and can be confrontational at times, but if you think you have what it takes, you can apply at the various institutions across the UK.

For those wanting to work in a category A prison, the individual must have been a UK resident for at least three years.

The HMPPS runs 109 of the 123 prisons based in Wales and England, and the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) has 15 prisons, with 13 publicly managed sites. Some prisons in England, Wales and Scotland operate under a private contract and control their recruitment. They may differ in some ways compared to other jails but are still governed by HMPPS/SPS regulations. You can also apply for private prison providers, like G4S Custodial and Detention Services, Serco Justice Services and Sodexo Justice Services.

Prison officer career progression

The clear progression pathway involves being promoted through the ranks and working in positions with more responsibilities and staff management. However, other opportunities consist of working within training or service headquarters, as well as within specialist programmes like rehabilitative work. Prison officers looking for promotion are encouraged to apply and go through a series of selection procedures which assess the skills and ability to progress to the next level.

Prison officers can also apply for seconded and temporary roles in other offices or HM Prison Service London headquarters to expand their skills and experience. Another option is to work towards the managerial side and works within different functions, for example, performance management and security.

After this experience, individuals can apply for senior manager accreditation and eventually govern their prison. Prison governors oversee the overall management of the institution, including the management team, officers, duty governors and other roles. Another opportunity is to transfer to a senior part within HMPPS or outside the prison service, i.e., the Civil Service or the Ministry of Justice.

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