A prison officer has responsibility for the security, supervision, training and rehabilitation of people committed to prison by the courts. This includes motivating prisoners to do what is best for themselves and others around them within a safe and healthy environment.

In addition to their custodial duties, prison officers must be able to establish and maintain positive working relationships with prisoners, balancing authority with a large amount of understanding and compassion, in order to effect rehabilitation.

The nature of the role demands the ability to think on your feet, make quick decisions and deal effectively with unexpected situations.

Responsibilities

Some aspects of the work vary according to the type of prison and level of security. For example, category A prisoners require closer supervision than category C. However, typical work activities include:

  • supervising, managing and controlling prisoners lawfully, safely and securely;
  • keeping an account of those in your charge and maintaining proper order;
  • performing security checks and search procedures on prisoners, staff and visitors;
  • supervising visits and carrying out patrol duties;
  • escorting prisoners on external visits to, for example, hospital;
  • assisting in prisoner reviews;
  • advising and counselling prisoners and making sure they have access to professional help if needed;
  • dealing with incidents as the 'first on scene' and working as part of a team to resolve the issues;
  • employing authorised physical control and restraint procedures where appropriate;
  • taking care of prisoners' property;
  • being aware of prisoners' rights and dignity and their personal responsibility;
  • providing appropriate care and support for vulnerable prisoners and those at risk of self-harm;
  • promoting anti-bullying and suicide prevention policies;
  • taking an active part in rehabilitation programmes, including workshops;
  • assessing and advising prisoners;
  • developing relationships with other specialist staff, including health and social work professionals;
  • preparing relevant reports and documentation for managers/quality checking purposes;
  • maintaining and updating records and writing prisoner reports;
  • complying with national and local policies and legislation.

Higher grade prison officers have extra responsibilities, such as supervising other officers or looking after an area or wing of the prison.

Salary

  • The national starting salary in England and Wales is £20,545 (Band 3) for a 37-hour week, which includes a 17% unsocial hours payment. It's possible to commit to working an additional four hours per week at an enhanced rate of pay, which would increase the starting salary to £22,823. It may also be possible to volunteer to work further additional hours at a premium rate. Salaries vary depending on your location.
  • In Scotland, the starting salary for operations prison officer recruits is £16,171. If you perform well in your probationary 12 months and beyond, you can expect to progress to the maximum within the starting band (currently £21,400) over a period of around five years (Scottish Prison Service (SPS)).
  • Starting salaries for graduates on the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) Graduate Programme (England and Wales only) range from £26,450 to £28,750 for the duration of the programme, plus a location allowance for those based in London. Once qualified, salaries rise to around £32,000 (on the operational manager pay scale).

A choice of two Civil Service pension schemes is offered to prison officers across the UK. Other benefits may include childcare vouchers and a season ticket advance. Pay conditions and pension schemes in private prisons may vary from the above.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Prison officers are required to work regular unsocial hours, including nights, weekends and bank holidays. Working hours are, on average, 37 hours per week over the shift cycle.

What to expect

  • Annual leave allowance varies slightly between the nations, but is roughly around 25 days, plus 10/12 days in lieu of public, bank and privilege holidays, rising to 30 days after five to ten years' service.
  • Prisons vary from very modern buildings to those built in the late 19th and early 20th century. Major refurbishment is in progress at many of the older establishments.
  • Most of the work is indoors, although patrolling and supervision duties involve spending time outside.
  • Opportunities exist for staff to work on a part-time or job-share basis. Flexible working is available to prison officers who have successfully completed their probation period.
  • Opportunities are available at prisons throughout the UK.
  • The work can be challenging and requires a flexible approach. Difficult, confrontational situations may arise.
  • Prison officers are provided with a uniform.
  • Escort duties may require spending time away from the prison, for example, supervising a prisoner who is taken to hospital, but it is unusual for this to involve extensive time beyond the normal shift pattern.

Qualifications

In order to apply to become a prison officer in England and Wales with HM Prison Service, you must:

  • be aged 18 or over;
  • have been a UK resident for at least three years;
  • have the right to work in the UK;
  • undergo security and identity checks prior to taking up a post;
  • declare whether you are a member of a group or organisation that HM Prison Service considers to be racist.

Personal qualities and life experience are more important than academic qualifications.

All applicants must pass an online application and numeracy assessment called the Prison Officer Selection Test (POST). If successful, you are then required to attend a Recruitment Assessment Day (RAD) and pass a range of assessments, including a written test, role plays, a medical assessment and fitness test. The whole application process can take between three to six months.

In Scotland, the recruitment process consists of four assessments - psychometric testing, application assessment, competency-based interview and fitness test. For full details on entry requirements see the SPS. For more information on the role of prison officer in Northern Ireland, see the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS).

Contact individual providers for information on entry requirements and training for private prisons.

Graduates who have, or who are expected to achieve, a 2:1 or 2:2 degree are eligible to apply for the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) Graduate Programme (England and Wales only). The programme is designed to attract high-calibre candidates who have the potential to develop quickly and to rise to the highest levels in the service.

The application process includes five stages:

  • a short application form;
  • online situational judgement tool;
  • online numerical reasoning test;
  • an all-day job simulation assessment centre;
  • a written assessment and interview.

You will also be subject to the usual medical and fitness tests and security clearance.

Applications usually open in October to November the year before the programme starts. Applicants are expected to have a general understanding of the work of NOMS, HM Prison Service and the Ministry of Justice (UK).

Skills

You will need to show evidence of the following:

  • strong interpersonal skills, including assertiveness and self-motivation;
  • excellent communication and people skills and the ability to get on with a range of people;
  • personal integrity and resilience;
  • leadership potential and the ability to take responsibility;
  • team working skills and the ability to learn from others;
  • decision-making skills;
  • organisational skills;
  • the ability to remain calm under pressure;
  • self-confidence and emotional intelligence;
  • physical stamina;
  • an awareness of how prisons fit within the wider criminal justice system and the community in general.

Employers

The main employers of prison officers in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are:

  • HM Prison Service - runs 109 of the 123 prisons in England and Wales;
  • Scottish Prison Service (SPS) - 15 prisons in total, 13 are publicly managed and two are run by private sector operators under contract to the SPS;
  • Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS).

A number of prisons in England, Wales and Scotland operate under private contract and are responsible for their own recruitment.

Private prisons may also differ in other respects from the majority of prisons, but they are governed by the same Home Office/SPS rules and regulations. See the Ministry of Justice: Contracted-out prisons for a list of private prisons in England and Wales.

Prison officer opportunities also exist in remand centres, young offenders' institutions and open or resettlement prisons.

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Professional development

Prison officers working for HM Prison Service (England and Wales) undergo an initial ten-week residential course at the Prison Service College or one of the local training centres.

The Prison Officer Entry-Level Training (POELT) course is designed to develop your interpersonal skills and your ability to work with prisoners. You will learn control and restraint techniques, as well as search and security procedures.

On returning to prison, officers are given a brief induction course. They are then supervised by more experienced officers once the work as a prison officer begins.

The probation period for prison officers is one year in England and Wales and your initial training will continue throughout this year and you will be required to pass all parts of it in order to successfully complete your probationary period.

Opportunities for training and development in private prisons will vary depending on the company. Contact individual companies for details.

Graduates on the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) Graduate Programme start with a six-week training course at the Prison Service College in Rugby, learning about prison service values and responsibilities, as well as the practical skills needed to be a prison officer. The last week is spent shadowing a prison officer, before taking on the role.

The first 12 to 18 months are spent gaining more experience and responsibility as you develop into an effective manager, moving from prison officer to supervisor-officer level.

After this period, you'll move to a different prison and work as a custodial manager, with responsibility for a group of staff. Finally, you'll progress to a middle-management governor-grade role, working as an operational manager. This role involves management of an entire area of a prison and covers duties such as preventing suicide and self-harm.

In Scotland, new officers enter the prison service as operations officers with responsibility for the security and running of the prison and must pass the SVQ Level 3 in Custodial Care during their first two years. After completing this qualification, you can apply for promotion to roles such as residential officer, officer instructor/vocational training officer, or first line manager.

Prison officers have access to a range of training and development activities in areas such as equality and diversity, dealing with challenging behaviours, suicide prevention and anti-bullying programmes, as well as opportunities to access promotion programmes.

Career prospects

Opportunities for promotion exist throughout the Prison Service in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Posts involving greater responsibility and staff management form the obvious promotion pathway.

Other opportunities include work at training or service headquarters, or work within specialist projects in the service, such as rehabilitative work with specific groups of prisoners or their families.

Officers with ability are encouraged to apply for promotion as soon as they feel ready. This involves going through a series of selection procedures designed to assess skills and the ability to operate at the next level.

Opportunities may also arise for secondments to other establishments and for appointments at HM Prison Service London headquarters and area offices throughout England and Wales.

In Scotland, promotion for officers is available at first-line managerial and senior managerial levels. Having completed the probationary period of one year, officers are able to apply for promotion and will be assessed on individual merit and ability.

Graduates who successfully complete the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) Graduate Programme (England and Wales only) can apply for a managerial post in order to build up further experience of different prison functions (e.g. security, performance management), different categories of prison or the different prison populations, e.g. male, female or young offenders.

Following this, you can apply for senior manager accreditation and then go on to govern your own prison. Prison governors have overall responsibility for the management of a team that includes prison officers, duty governors and other staff.

Alternatively, you could transfer to a senior management position within NOMS or move to a role outside of the prison service.

Opportunities for senior managers include policy roles within the Civil Service or the Ministry of Justice, working with third sector providers or in ministers' private offices.