Trainee prison officers ‘encouraged to be more violent’ in sexist graduate scheme that sees a third drop out

Exclusive: Women hired as prison officers through a university graduate programme claim a boys’ club of male officers made their lives hell

Tom Watling
Saturday 30 December 2023 15:33
<p>One female graduate trainee prison officer said her year at Belmarsh was the ‘roughest part of her life’ </p>

One female graduate trainee prison officer said her year at Belmarsh was the ‘roughest part of her life’

Female graduate trainee prison officers have described a toxic and sexist culture where they were encouraged to be more violent as new figures show one in three on the scheme drop out, The Independent has learned.

Established in 2016 as a response to high rates of reoffending, Unlocked has hired around 750 young officers, 70 per cent of whom have been female and 30 per cent male.

But a recent freedom of information request, submitted by the Prison Officers’ Association, shows that nearly a third of participants withdraw from the programme every year.

Former participants who served at two of the UK’s most violent prisons have told The Independent the main issue is not the difficulties of dealing with inmates but problems with other staff.

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They spoke of facing a misogynist and toxic culture where female trainees are asked questions about their sex lives and trainees are applauded for being more violent with prisoners.

Ms B, who did not wish to be named, spent a year at the notorious Belmarsh prison while in her early twenties as part of the Unlocked scheme. She says she often found herself the butt of sexist comments and jokes by colleagues.

“I was being asked straight up if I was a lesbian within 48 hours of knowing some of the staff,” she said. “It would be just me and six other male officers. They would ask me which male officers I would f***. It definitely felt like they thought they could get away with it because I was a young woman and I was more vulnerable.

“In a similar way that I learnt how to deal with the way prisoners talked to me, I also learnt how to deal with the way prison officers spoke to me.”

A graduate who worked at Feltham Young Offenders Institution criticised the scheme

Ms B said her year at Belmarsh was the “roughest part of her life”.

“I felt very isolated,” she said. “I recognised very quickly that nobody else in that prison had the same mentality as me. The only people who were interested in talking to me were people who were trying to date me.”

Ruth Cadbury, shadow prisons minister, called for these allegations to be investigated by ministers, saying women had a right to feel safe in their occupation.

She told The Independent: “Female prison staff have a right to feel safe at work, so they can focus on the vital job of rehabilitating prisoners to protect the public.

“These allegations of unacceptable behaviour must be urgently investigated by ministers.”

The Unlocked scheme encourages university graduates to join the programme to “play a part in reforming the [prison] system and supporting some of the most vulnerable people in our society”.

Alex Chalk, the justice minister, endorsed the programme this summer after speaking to the 2023-24 cohort who were undergoing training at the time. He said it was encouraging to see so much talent joining the prison service.

Shadow prisons minister Ruth Cadbury urged ministers to investigate the claims included in this piece

Another trainee, Bex Towey, 27, dropped out halfway through her course, in part due to the “toxic culture”. She worked at the Young Offenders Institution (YOI) Feltham, west London, in 2018, part of the second cohort of Unlocked graduates, when she was 22.

Ms Towey described senior officers suggesting her “privileged” background prevented her from carrying out her job properly and that she ought to be more violent.

After her first few months, Ms Towey was called into a meeting by senior officers who oversee the use of force against prisoners in Feltham, where it was suggested she lacked the physical experience and build to handle the young offenders. She said she was asked if she had ever been in a fight before, to which she replied no.

According to Ms Towey, the officer responded: “Don’t take this the wrong way but you’re quite petite, so you can probably get away with things that we couldn’t, see?

“So you could hit the boys harder than me because you’re a small petite young woman and I’m a mean aggressive man, get it?”

She was subsequently put into a refresher course on how to use force against prisoners. She says she was applauded for hitting one of the officers on the head with a baton while he was pretending to be a teenage prisoner wielding a knife.

Feltham is a youth offending institue that houses teenagers between the ages of 15 and 21

Ms B said she had been told of multiple instances in Belmarsh where prison officers had used excessive violence against prisoners for no reason other than they did not like a certain inmate.

But she said it was difficult to report such instances because complaints were often leaked to fellow members of staff.

She said: “I was so scared to report anything in case they found out it was me who had spoken up. So I didn’t say anything.

“That kind of messed with me at work since I didn’t want to be in a position where I’m doing something that I find completely morally wrong just because I am scared I won’t be safe.”

While she said she did not believe she would be directly threatened by other prison officers, she said she feared not being properly supported when it came to physical confrontations with prisoners.

A spokesperson for Unlocked said it was aware that negative workplace cultures exist within the prison system but claimed it addresses these issues explicitly in its training.

They said: “We are concerned to hear of these reports. We take all feedback extremely seriously and tackle it as necessary. We know that the prison environment can be very challenging and that negative cultures exist and need to be rooted out. We address these issues explicitly in our training and support.

“We will continue to develop our work, support our graduates, and – in partnership with the leaders of the Prisons Service – directly confront unacceptable behaviours.”

But when asked whether Unlocked had discussed this negative culture during its training periods, both Ms B and Ms Towey said they believed the programme had failed to explain the extent to which these behaviours existed.

Labour MP Kim Johnson said the drop out rate was ‘scandalous’

“During our training, we did role play for different, difficult situations,” Ms B said. “We did it both in terms of prisoners and officers. But it never covered those extremes. It was a much softer language.”

Ms Towey said she and her fellow graduates were warned that prison officers would be problematic but said they were not taught about the nuances of how that might manifest itself.

Labour MP for Liverpool Kim Johnson, an outspoken advocate for prison reform, told The Independent that Unlocked’s dropout rate was part of a bigger problem.

“While the treatment of young women in the workforce in prisons is leading to scandalously high dropout rates, the reality is that this is symptomatic of a broader crisis in recruitment and retention in our prison staff,” she said.

“Prison staff are under huge pressure working in dangerously overcrowded conditions. Underpaid and underprotected, they face widespread physical violence with dwindling resources and support.

“Rethinking our prison system and providing it the proper funding and resources is the only way to alleviate the significant pressures on the prison workforce and end the widespread crisis in recruitment and retention, especially of young women prison officers recruited through the Unlocked programme.”

The Ministry of Justice has been contacted for comment.

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