The prison service needs a workforce that is representative of the people we care for, and matches HMPPS’s values as being a diverse and inclusive workplace. Having more BAME (Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic) staff will help the service better understand and provide for individuals’ needs.
I’m Officer Diwan, and I’ve worked in the prison service for nearly 13 years at HMP Preston, a Category B prison. Before joining the prison service I was studying and working part-time, so I was looking for a long-term career. I knew that I didn’t want to do something that was the same thing every day.
When I first saw the advert to become a prison officer, I didn’t know anything about it or the prison service. So I did my research, and the more I looked into it, the more I learnt and the more interested I became. I remember reading about it being a “real job with real responsibility from day one”. That stuck with me and it certainly lived up to that.
Working life as a BAME member of staff
Did I have any concerns when I first applied? Yes, and they were related to being a BAME member of staff. I come from an Asian background, I have a beard, so amongst my colleagues I certainly stood out. There were other BAME prison staff, but at the time I was the only one in a uniformed grade.
Some of my concerns were around whether or not I’d be treated differently by staff or prisoners, or if I’d be given the same opportunities. I certainly faced some challenges, such as once having to deal with a prisoner who was openly racist towards me, but overall my concerns weren’t too much of an issue.
When I first started, the people I worked with were very supportive and I could rely on them for help. This continues to this day.
All prisons have a multi-faith prayer room that is available for prisoners and staff to use. This means I’m able to do my daily prayers whilst at work. Arrangements are also made every year to observe the month of Ramadan, including providing food for sehri, iftar and Eid Salah for prisoners. In my experience, non-Muslim staff and prisoners understand the significance of these days and are supportive. This means a lot, especially when I’m fasting.
I’ve always found that prisoners treat me equally with my colleagues. In fact, I’ve often found that many prisoners (and not just Asian prisoners) feel more comfortable talking to me, discussing their issues and concerns. Even in situations that could have led to a prisoner being restrained, once they saw me they tended to calm down and talk about their problems instead, helping to diffuse the situation.
Communicating with BAME prisoners
Working as a BAME prison officer hasn’t been a problem for me and in fact it has occasionally been an advantage.
For example, I’ll always remember this time I was booking in new prisoners and 3 different prisoners came in who all spoke different languages, and didn’t speak any English. Staff were looking to get translators for them, but I fortunately I knew all 3 languages. So I did their interviews and assessments in their native languages, saving time and the need to bring in translators.
>The prisoners were happy that they had someone they could speak to, and all their immediate needs were being met from coming into custody. They received their full induction like anyone else would, without delay.
Successfully inducting a new prisoner, which can be very stressful even when speaking the same language as others around you, helps to make their first few moments in a new environment as smooth as possible, and it’s important to be able to do that for all offenders who come into our care.
In my experience, being able to speak multiple languages and be sensitive to other people’s cultures has proved to be invaluable working in a prison, as it has meant prisoners have often felt more comfortable opening up to me, allowing me to help and rehabilitate them. So in my day-to-day job, I personally understand the need to improve and increase the ethnic diversity amongst staff.
Developing my career
There are so many different jobs you can do as a prison officer, and whilst I haven’t had less opportunities to develop myself, as a BAME member of staff in any career there are some unique challenges that you face. But I’ve never come across anything that I couldn’t overcome with a bit of hard work.
The thing I find most rewarding about the job, and what I am most proud of, is the wide variety of things that I’ve done. I proactively manage my own training and development, and have embraced the opportunity to work in several different departments.
For example, I became an ACCT assessor (working with offenders who have thoughts of self-harm or suicide, giving them the opportunity to discuss their problems), a diversity rep, a foreign nationals liaison and an anti-bullying rep. I became a staff tutor in mental health awareness, how to deal with cell-fires, and prisoners in crisis. I’m also trained in a wide variety of specialisms, such as being a hostage negotiator and a control room operative.
Currently I am working towards maintaining an inclusive environment for all staff and to ensure equal outcomes for underrepresented staff. I’m keen to learn and always seek out opportunities to develop myself and others.
When I first started I got asked all sorts of questions about what it was like from friends and family. Even now, when people find out that I work in a prison, they’re fascinated by it. I think there’s the perception that prisons are mysterious; all anyone ever sees are the big external walls. What happens inside, no one knows. They also only ever hear negative stories in the media, and all the good work that happens on a daily basis is never seen by the general public.
If someone from a BAME background was considering applying to the prison service I would say go for it. No two days are the same. It really is a challenging but rewarding role with real responsibility from day one. There are so many different things going on inside a prison that you can get involved in.
So, if you’re genuinely interested in a long-term career that can really make a difference to people’s lives, but aren’t quite sure whether it’s for you, then I encourage you to do your research and find out more about working in the prison service.
You can find out more information on the prison and probation jobs website, or leave a comment below to ask a question.