If you enjoy a challenge, can remain calm under pressure and want to help people make better choices with their lives, consider a career as a prison officer

As a prison officer, you'll have 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 your custodial duties, you 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

As a prison office, you'll need to:

  • supervise, manage and control prisoners lawfully, safely and securely
  • keep an account of those in your charge and maintain proper order
  • perform security checks and search procedures on prisoners, staff and visitors
  • supervise visits and carry out patrol duties
  • escort prisoners on external visits, to hospital for example
  • assist in prisoner reviews
  • advise and counsel prisoners and make sure they have access to professional help if needed
  • deal with incidents as the 'first on scene' and work as part of a team to resolve the issues
  • employ authorised physical control and restraint procedures where appropriate
  • take care of prisoners' property
  • be aware of prisoners' rights and dignity and their personal responsibility
  • provide appropriate care and support for vulnerable prisoners and those at risk of self-harm
  • promote anti-bullying and suicide prevention policies
  • take an active part in rehabilitation programmes, including workshops
  • develop relationships with other specialist staff, including health and social work professionals
  • prepare relevant reports and documentation for managers/quality checking purposes
  • maintain and update records and write prisoner reports
  • comply with national and local policies and legislation.

Some aspects of your work will vary according to the type of prison you're working in and its level of security. For example, category A prisoners require closer supervision than category C.

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

Salary

  • Salaries in Her Majesty's Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) vary between different grades, areas of the country and individual prisons.
  • Starting salaries in London prisons can range from £29,453 for a 37-hour week to £32,486 for a 41-hour week. In the South and South East, you can earn up to £27,688 for a 41-hour week.
  • In many locations in England and Wales you can earn £23,052 (41-hour week).
  • In Scotland, the starting salary for operations prison officer recruits is £17,921. If you perform well in your probationary 12 months and beyond, you can expect to progress to the maximum within the starting band (currently £22,467) over a period of around five years.

Prison officers are also entitled to a Civil Service pension and further benefits, which may include childcare vouchers and a season ticket advance.

Pay conditions and pension schemes in private prisons may vary from the above.

Income data from Prison and Probation Jobs. 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, although you can be contracted up to 41 hours per week.

Salary and working hours vary between prisons, so check out the terms and conditions before applying.

There are opportunities for part-time or job-share work. Flexible working is available to prison officers who have successfully completed their probation period.

What to expect

  • Prison buildings vary from very modern to late 19th and early 20th century builds. 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.
  • The work can be challenging and requires a flexible approach. Difficult, confrontational situations may arise.
  • Prison officers are provided with a uniform.

Qualifications

To apply to become a prison officer in England and Wales with HMPPS, 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 HMPPS considers to be racist.

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

All applicants must complete a short online application to confirm their eligibility to live and work in the UK. You will then have to take an online test consisting of a situational judgement test (to check how you react to real-life scenarios) and a maths test.

If successful, you're then required to attend a recruitment assessment day (RAD) to assess your physical fitness and whether you've got the required skills and qualities to be a prison officer. The assessments will include a written test, role plays and fitness test. Good eyesight is also essential.

You'll need to go through the vetting process, which can take a few months to complete. Find out more about the application process.

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 Scottish Prison Service (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.

Skills

You will need to have:

  • strong interpersonal skills, including assertiveness and self-motivation
  • excellent communication and people skills, with 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
  • 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:

  • HMPPS - runs 104 of the 118 prisons in England and Wales
  • SPS - 15 Scottish prisons in total, 13 are publicly managed and two are run by private sector operators under contract to the SPS
  • 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're governed by the same HMPPS/SPS rules and regulations. For a list of private prisons in England and Wales see the Ministry of Justice: Contracted-out prisons.

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

Look for job vacancies with NIPS, SPS or the Ministry of Justice (for external opportunities).

Private prison providers, such as Sodexo Justice Services, Serco Justice Services and G4S Custodial and Detention Services, also advertise vacancies on their websites.

Professional development

You'll spend your first week of training in your service meeting colleagues and making yourself familiar with the prison routine, before taking the ten-week Prison Officer Entry Level Training (POELT) course at one of a number of training sites across England and Wales.

The POELT course is a comprehensive training programme designed to develop your interpersonal skills and ability to work with prisoners. The course will teach you control and restraint techniques, as well as search and security procedures.

On successful completion of the POELT, you'll return to your service and have a consolidation week, where you'll apply what you've learnt from your training.

During the course, you'll need to complete the Skills For Justice (SFJ) Level 3 Diploma in the management and care of individuals in the custodial environment in order to take up your full duties as a prison officer.

The probation period for prison officers is one year in England and Wales and your initial training will continue throughout this time. In order to successfully complete your probationary period you'll need to pass every part.

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

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.

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

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.

You can progress through managerial posts 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. mothers and babies, vulnerable prisoners 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 HMPPS 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.

In Scotland, promotion for officers is available at residential officer, officer instructor/vocational training officer, 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.