Keys jingle, doors slam shut, doors lock, footsteps can be heard from a distance, on each landing 60 doors look back at you, and behind each door are men who are ready for what today's regime will present to them. After 6 weeks of initial training I am finally here, my fresh uniform hugs my skin. I'm stood ready, nervous yet eager. I remind myself that this, this right here is the beginning of all I have ever wanted to do. I prepare myself for the stories they will share with me about how they got here, for the men who won't talk to me, for those who fear that my uniform is my way of telling them that I am better than them because I am on the other side.

I think of how many times I will have to remind the masses that we all make mistakes, and that despite the fact that they are serving time for theirs it is not the end rather it is their learning curves. The SO (Senior Officer) screams from the landing "unlock 2's and 4's" and at this point, the anxiety kicks in, I don't know if I'll be able to shoot the bolt or if I will be one of the officers with the horror story of being dragged in. Ten doors later I am smiling, each greeting from the men reassures me that unlocking the door is the easy part, and the conversation that will come after that will be harder to digest.
My first conversation is with a young man who openly admits that he is in for attempted murder, the voice in my head reminds me that we are not here to pass judgement. He starts the conversation questioning why I would want to work in the prison, he tells me I am young and can be doing something better with my time. I begin to explain things to him, I grew up in a neighbourhood where gun and knife crime was highly prevalent. I witnessed someone getting killed at 11 years old and since then cannot count how many people I have seen get stabbed, shot or end up in prison. I tell him of the countless number of friends I have seen go in and out of the system, and remind him that I think everyone can change and that I am here to help the men in whatever way I can. He smiles, then challenges me "you'll become like all the officers who stop caring about us, everyone starts off wanting to help, but the job is hard and they get tired and forgot why they started the job in the first place".

He hits a nerve this time and there is a lump in my throat, I swallow and then I remind myself to be a swan. The swan that gracefully moves on a lake is a picture of elegance in motion but what is hidden from the eye is the activity going on beneath the water’s surface. We don’t see the hard work conducted by the swan’s webbed feet which propels the graceful motion we see and admire. I digressed, I smile at him as I say "if I ever find myself losing who I am here, or no longer doing what I came here to do, then that will be my cue to leave" he smiles shakes my hand and says "you're the first officer I have heard say that, I like you, you're going to be an amazing officer, don't let this place change you".
A month later I still remember his words, it stands as the constant reminder that I came here hoping I can help people. As a teen, I remember wondering why the boys around my area were constantly re offending. At the time, I blamed the prison system for failing these young men, I swore I'd grow up and go in there and fix everything. Being on the other side I have only been given a reality check. I see prison officers, limited in numbers on each wing, who work hard every day to ensure the men get what they are entitled to, and where there is room for more they make it happen. I see young men who put their time and effort into working on the servery, in the application office and being painters or cleaners on the landing, to make everyone's life that little bit easier. Of course, I see anger, frustration, tears and even I have shed a few. Being in a prison environment is hard, it is challenging and sometimes having to work as a team to restrain someone is difficult. As is seeing someone with clear mental health issues being held in the confinement of the prison walls.

As a founder of a Mental Health organisation (SAIE – Survive, Achieve, Inspire and Elevate) myself, I must say it brings me joy to see that the prison has a Mental Health Unit where nurses work actively to help inmates with mental health issues. I guess as much as the job is challenging, it is very rewarding and extremely humbling, and I wouldn't change what I do for a living because I simply love it.
I’d encourage any recent grad looking for a challenge to consider applying for the Unlocked Graduates scheme. It is honestly the best thing I have done and it is time well spent. Unlocked has helped give my life more meaning and allowed me to feel like I have a real purpose. Being a prison officer is an incredibly rewarding role and we get the chance to study for a Master’s alongside our two years on the front line. A free master’s degree yay! I know I’ll be able to use this time to make a real difference.

Written by Saida, graduate from the University of Birmingham and Unlocked Graduate in the 2017 cohort.
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