A career in the prison service


What is your image of the prison service? According to Carol Carpenter, HR director of The National Offender Management Service, there are a lot of outdated stereotypes around. “We are always trying to fight against the media perception of the prison service. Our workforce do an amazing job on behalf of society with little or no recognition,” she says.

“They are dealing with troubled individuals. Many have been in and out of care. Society has an image of offenders which doesn’t take their circumstances into account. It is the role of the prison service to help them to reflect on their behaviour and accept that it was wrong and help them to lead normal lives. We keep 23,000 people alive each year and no-one notices.”

Its recruitment strategy aims to tackle these perceptions head on and Carol is particularly keen to reach women.

Until 1988 women were not allowed to work in male prisons. “In the early days they were not accepted mainly because of their physical size, but women bring a rich bag of skills, including parental skills if they have children. They have had to work much harder to feel included,” she says, adding that the prison officer role has evolved from turnkey – keeping people safe and alive and not allowing them to escape – to a much more complex one. “You need a range of skills now from carer to teacher to disciplinarian. Women do very well in our assessment and selection processes,” she states, citing statistics that show women’s pass rate is comparable with men’s. “We want to encourage more to apply because when they do they tend to be very good at it,” she adds.

Career progression
Carol says there is a much higher proportion of women in the probation service than in the prison service. In the probation service it is around 70: 30 in favour of women and in the prison service it is the reverse. Carol says the physicality and violence associated with the prison service can put women off. Whenever the service is in the news – as last week when the chief prison’s inspector’s annual report said prisons were in the worst state for a decade due in part to a rising number of assaults – it is generally to do with violence.

However, the number of women, including working mums, at deputy director level in the prison service and the number of women prison governors is growing. As of March, 29% of prison governors and 15% of deputy prison governors were women, compared to 24% of prison officers. “We need good role models,” says Carol, “who show how to make it work and also have a family life.”

She adds that the prison service is open to flexible working, particularly for new recruits. If requests can’t be accommodated in the short term, the service will look at long term solutions and look to recruit people to cover the hours that people want to drop. “Given the service is 24 hours there can be a lot of flexibility, although we do expect everyone to do their share of unsociable hours,” she says.

“Working patterns are definitely starting to change and both men and women have sought to take advantage of flexible working,” adds Carol. “We are challenging how we run secure environments and allow people flexibility and freedom around their schedules.

The service has a Work Life Balance committee to better understand how the service can accommodate individual requests.

Another area that NOMS is working on is improving line management. “We want to move to a place where we have consistently good managers who support and care for their team. We have some amazing line managers who are making difficult decisions,” says Carol. “We want to role model what good line management is. It’s a real organisational challenge as they are working in a really busy environment where so much of the focus is on offenders.”

Recruitment strategy
Overall, NOMS’ recruitment strategy is ambitious. “We want to ensure no-one graduates from a criminology or psychology course without considering a career with us.

Currently it is often not even on their list, says, Carol, even though, she adds, “NOMS offers a well structured and competitive progression route for graduates from those disciplines.” NOMS is therefore working hard with universities and engaging with local communities. “We need to educate and help people understand the complexity of the roles we offer,” she adds. “Behind the prison walls is a whole village of roles.” She adds, for example, that NOMS is the single biggest employer of psychologists.

Carol admits retention has become harder in recent years. “Thirty to forty years ago prison staff used to get housing and their terms and conditions were really strong. People used to stay in the service for life. People move around more these day and the prison service has had to become more competitive. As a result we have had to work harder at retaining people in the right place with the right talent and skills,” she says. Those who do stay in the service develop a real camaraderie, says Carol.

Violence reduction
Another issue is rising violence in prisons which is leading to many leaving the service and is part of the reason for the increasing focus on recruitment. This is being tackled through the introduction of a ‘Violence Reduction Programme’ and NOMS has recruited over 1,700 people in the last year, many in lower grades. Carol says the service is keen to build its talent pipeline and that there are good
prospects for career progression.

When they apply they have to pass a numeracy and literacy test and take part in development and assessment days. “It is quite important that they have some basic physical skills and we need to see how they react to pressure and confrontation,” says Carol. “We role play this with actors to test how they respond.” Dependent on the role applied for, there is also a short physical test to test running ability and strength and whether you can hold a riot shield for a minute. Prison officers have to do a fitness test once a year and are given training and support. Training lasts for six weeks and includes control and restraint techniques. Aside from physical stamina, the skills the service is looking for range from empathy and the ability to suspend judgement to self confidence and the ability to communicate effectively.

Carol is passionate about NOMS and the kind of complex and challenging roles on offer within it. She is a case in point. She was appointed HR director in November 2012 and immediately took on a huge restructure which involved the closure of several prisons, redundancies or redeployment for staff and the relocation of prisoners to other prisons. Soon after came the reform of the probation service, the closure of 35 probation trusts, the creation of new national probation service and the opening of 21 community rehabilitation companies focused on areas like housing support for low-risk offenders.

“It was a huge scale public sector transformation and I was empowered to be creative in how I went about it,” says Carol, who has two children aged 11 and eight. Despite having a huge job, she is able to work flexibly and works some days from home. “It’s a challenging role and I do what I have to do, but there is some flexibility,” she says.

Previously she worked at Wormwood Scrubs and was area HR for London prisons. Prior to her current role she worked at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport during the Olympics. She found being in a government department rather than a government agency fascinating, but her heart has always been with the NOMS workforce.

“They do so much good on behalf of society. They work with really challenging individuals. Their role is to protect future victims and the rest of society by trying to rehabilitate people who are going to be released,” she says. “Every time I talk to staff I am overwhelmed by what they do. I am completely proud of what we are about. There are not many jobs where it is not about widgets but about making a difference.”

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