Page last updated at 14:57 GMT, Wednesday, 2 September 2009 15:57 UK

'Bar work more useful than degree'

By Caroline McClatchey
BBC News

Wormwood Scrubs prison
A prison officers has many roles

The Howard League for Penal Reform believes all prison officers should be educated to degree level. However, those working on the front line believe practical skills are more useful.

She may have a degree, but one prison officer counts her experiences as a barmaid, benefit office adviser and bouncer infinitely more useful to her career.

"When you are dealing with a drunk customer and you are trying to negotiate the best outcome and they don't want to hear, that's exactly what it is like when you are a prison officer," she says.

The 41-year-old, who wants to remain anonymous, has a degree in recreation and leisure management but has worked in prisons for the past 15 years.

The experienced officer has worked in both closed and open prisons and she argues open prisons require better interpersonal and negotiating skills "because you cannot throw them behind a door".

She says her degree was useful because it included work experience, but she questions the relevance of studying subjects such as criminology, prison law or sociology, suggested by the Howard League.

'Life skills'

"Text book stuff is one thing but actual experience and interacting with people is another," she says.

"Often people with those degrees have no common sense or a sense of humour. Sometimes when you are facing an aggressive situation, a sense of humour can deflate it.

"No-one has any idea what it is like being a prison officer. When I first started it was frightening. You forget everything you have been taught and it is just down to your ability to deal with the situation."

Our job is to help and support prisoners, and make them respect and trust authority, and I don't see how a degree is going to help
Prison officer

She describes how she is required to wear several hats as a prison officer - drug counsellor, bereavement councillor, job centre adviser.

"Our job is to help and support inmates, and make them respect and trust authority, and I don't see how a degree is going to help," she says.

Born into a middle class family, she denies those with a "grittier" background make better prison officers.

"I was lucky that my parents taught me morals and values, and also to be tolerant and see other people's point of view," she says.

She points out the prison service has lowered the starting age of officers to 19 and "very few of them have the life skills". She argues the best officers are ex-members of the military who are used to diffusing situations and managing crises.

'Completely silly'

Nigel is one of those who served in the Army before joining the prison service, where he rose to the rank of principal officer.

An electrician by trade, he followed his 12 years in the forces with a job at Onley Young Offenders' Institution in Northamptonshire and Wormwood Scrubs in west London.

But after 15 years, he became tired of what he terms the "targets and cutbacks".

What does a degree provide? It means you can pass exams and write a dissertation. It doesn't mean you know anything about life
Ex-prison officer

The 50-year-old, who lives in west London, says while formal training makes officers aware of what to expect and how to deal with certain situations, it cannot teach people to listen.

"The biggest thing is the ability to listen to somebody and hear what they are saying," he says.

"You are in uniform and in control but you cannot take yourself too seriously - but you have to take the job seriously."

He describes the Howard League's suggestion as "completely and utterly silly".

'Damaged people'

Nigel, who left the prison service three years ago, argues people with degrees who enter the prison service generally want to "fast-track up the career ladder".

"What does a degree provide? It means you can pass exams and write a dissertation. It doesn't mean you know anything about life," he says.

What is crucial, he argues, is the ability to "live with people", but not just any people.

"You get a lot of damaged people in prison and prison officers are expected to deal with them. You also get people who don't want to learn and don't want to earn - they just want to take the easy way," he says.

"You will know within a year if you are up to the job. If not, you should get out because it is not good for you, the service or the prisoners."

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