Wednesday Webinar: Unlocked Graduates on the Role of Prison Officers in Education

Home > Wednesday Webinar: Unlocked Graduates on the Role of Prison Officers in Education

24 June 2021

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In this webinar we are joined by Natasha Porter, CEO and Founder of Unlocked Graduates, and Maria, a prison officer graduate of the programme, to learn about the role of officers in promoting prison education.


Prison officers should be central to prison education. They get access to every prisoner: prisoners who don’t opt in to education; prisoners who are too scared to leave their cells; prisoners who have mental health problems… Prisoners are the workforce that gets access to them. Therefore, anything we want prisoners to be engaging with requires engaging the prison officer – that is the relationship which can make a difference.


At the core of the Unlocked mission is reframing perceptions about the complex and crucial role of prison officers on the landings, while training the next cohorts of these frontline workers. The Unlocked Graduates programme was created in response to one of the key recommendations of the 2016 Coates’ review of prison education: that education must be at the heart of the prison service if Government genuinely intends to facilitate prisoner rehabilitation. Through two years of practical and theoretical training, Unlocked Graduates supports university leavers to become frontline prison officers who can fortify the good practice of current officers.
With CEO and Founder Natasha’s background in education and teaching, the Unlocked Graduates programme holds academics in high esteem – throughout the training, participants complete a bespoke Master’s degree. This fully funded MSc in Applied Custodial Leadership was designed with Dr Danielle McDermott (Senior Lecturer in Psychology) and Claire Vilarrubi (Lecturer in Criminology/Psychology) at Leeds Trinity University, who have over 30 years’ experience in the criminal justice system collectively.


My plea is to not see the prison officer as a block that needs to be gotten around, but rather seeing them as a big part of the solution – especially in a time when prisoners are locked up for so many hours… Having high quality education resources and a wraparound support of the prison officer is more important than ever before.


The Unlocked Programme Structure

The programme begins with a six-week residential course, held in both prison and university environments, which introduces students to the foundations of prison officer work and commencing their Master’s studies. Each student is allocated to a prison in England, and assigned an experienced prison officer as a mentor for the duration of the Unlocked Graduates programme. The student’s mentor joins them on site at their prison for two days every week, supporting their professional development. Similarly to the student roles, these mentor positions are highly competitive.

In their second year on the Unlocked Graduates training programme, students are invited to complete a two week work placement with a partnering organisation. Options include: KPMG, the Howard League for Penal Reform, the Ministry of Justice, and the African Prisons Project. Students are also offered the opportunity to spend two weeks working in another prison to enrich their prison-based knowledge and experience.

Participants are expected to innovate throughout the programme, with a particular focus on improving the prison system. From writing policy papers to be shared with the Prisons Minister to creating and effectuating a pilot project on their prison wing. Funding and mentoring from PwC is available to students who set up these projects.


The Unlocked Perspective

With a retention rate of around 70%, in the webinar Natasha highlights the emphasis that Unlocked places on graduates’ continued support following the programme.  She also emphasises the importance to the workforce of a diverse career portfolio, and as such values the power that the programme holds to influence not only a new generation of prison officers, but also a broader range of professionals throughout society.

 If [graduates of the programme] work in positions where they’re the boss, that’s great – they can recruit ex-prisoners. If they become a politician, that’s brilliant – don’t make funding cuts to prisons anymore! … If they become prime minister, that’s excellent – they actually care about prisons, it’s going to be on their agenda and it won’t be the public service they never think about.


Launched in 2016, Unlocked Graduates is now available in London, the South East, West Midlands and North West of the UK.

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