From lectures to lock-up: Graduates join fight to reform jails

Hundreds of graduates applied to join a prison officer recruitment programme (Anthony Devlin/PA) Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

A degree from an elite university opens doors – now, hundreds of top graduates are competing to unlock them in jails.

From this month, prison officer ranks will be boosted by the arrival of new recruits with qualifications from leading institutions including Oxbridge.

Just over 100 successful applicants are poised to start work in jails in London and the South East after successful applications to the Unlocked Graduates scheme.

The two-year programme, which was launched in 2016, sees participants complete a masters degree while working  on the frontline alongside existing jail staff.

Those joining the service under the initiative are paid the same entry level salary as other prison officers – up to £30,000 depending on where they are posted.

Unlocked, the charity which runs the scheme, said it had seen a “dramatic growth” in applications for the 2018 intake.

Figures show more than 4,500 graduates registered their interest, with more than 900 full applications for 100 places.

More than half of successful applicants are from Russell Group universities, including four new officers with degrees from Oxford or Cambridge.

Jack, an Oxford geography graduate who has joined the scheme, said: “I’m really excited to have the opportunity to work in a prison. It’s not a career I would ever have considered before, but once I’d learnt a bit more about the impact you can have I was hooked on the idea.

“This is definitely a job where I feel I can make a real difference.”

Applicants studied a range of subjects including anthropology and theology.

Students in the 2018 cohort included for the first time an economist and a biologist.

Graduates from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds made up nearly a fifth of successful candidates.

More than two thirds, 69%, of those joining the scheme are women.

Staffing numbers in prisons in England and Wales have come under the spotlight after a safety crisis gripped much of the estate.

Natasha Porter, chief executive of Unlocked Graduates, said: “We know that the prison system faces real challenges.

“And yet despite – or indeed because of – the way prisons are portrayed, we’re attracting phenomenal candidates who have the drive, curiosity and skills to meet those challenges.

“Just two years in, we’ve successfully established Unlocked Graduates as a unique option for the leaders of the future.”

Ministers have launched a wider recruitment drive to boost the frontline in an effort to improve standards and drive down surging levels of violence.

Justice Secretary David Gauke said: “I’m pleased to see a growing number of talented graduates applying to Unlocked’s scheme – their desire to make a difference is inspiring.

“Prison officer numbers are at their highest level since 2013 which is vital to ensuring prisons can fulfil their purpose of protecting the public, reducing reoffending and rehabilitating offenders.”