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‘Prison’ on Channel 4 – what being a prison officer is really like

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Personal stories, Recruitment advice, Ways of working
close up of the face of prison officer John Matthews
Prison officer John Matthews from Channel 4's documentary 'Prison'. (Photo credit: Spring Films and Channel 4 Television)

I’m prison officer Matthews. I appeared in Channel 4’s documentary ‘Prison’, where they filmed for over 7 months at HMP Durham.

If you've watched the Channel 4 documentary you’ll know I work in an incredibly challenging environment. Yes, it’s difficult at times, but I love what I do. So, I wanted to write about my experiences of being a prison officer, and hopefully encourage others who’re thinking about joining the service to take that step.

Being in Channel 4’s documentary ‘Prison’

Having Channel 4 around the place was a surreal experience at first. A few of the staff at HMP Durham were a bit apprehensive. What if they make us look stupid? What angle are they going for with this? Just 2 of the many questions repeatedly asked in staff rooms around the prison. However, having seen it, I think the team have done a wonderful job of capturing the very nature of day-to-day prison life: the difficulties the staff face, the difficulties the prisoners face, but also the funny moments.

The reality of prison life

No one really knows what goes on, on the other side of the wall. It’s a bit of a mystery. They think people take drugs all the time or are having fights. But actually, most of my day is talking to the prisoners.

I didn’t really know what to expect when I joined the job. I guess you only ever really hear the negative stories that make the media, rather than the success stories – and there are success stories.

We bring people who have no desire to continue living back from the brink and many go on to have decent and successful lives. It’s a difficult and challenging working environment but it is also rewarding, something that is often overlooked.

Being a prison officer

It’s difficult to summarise my experiences as a prison officer in a short blog post. Every day, when we walk through the gates, we’re walking into the unknown, with fresh challenges that need to be dealt with, often with little time to prepare. I’ve witnessed acts of violence and self-harm, but I’ve also had moments of great satisfaction and experienced a comradery that I don’t believe you can get anywhere else. You become almost like family to the people you work with.

It may be difficult to believe for some, but I really do enjoy the work I do. I’m motivated by challenging situations and finding solutions to problems. A lot of what I do involves problem solving and bringing the right people together in order to give people the opportunity to make changes and improvements in their lives.

Of course, the ultimate responsibility for change lies with the individual, and there's no greater feeling than seeing their moment of realisation that there’s more to life than prison.

Who can become a prison officer?

I think it takes a particular type of person to become a prison officer. The best ones are those that can communicate effectively, as this often resolves conflict before it’s had a chance to begin. If you want to help change lives, protect the public and do something that makes a difference, while at the same time making friends for life, then the service is for you.

There’s still a lot of experienced staff walking the landings and if you’re prepared to listen and learn, while at the same time bringing your ideas and personality into play, then the service is definitely for you.

If John’s blog post inspired you to think about a career in the prison service, find out about how you can take on the challenge in changing people’s lives on our recruitment website.

‘Prison’ first aired on Thursday 19 July 9-10pm on Channel 4.

If you’ve seen the documentary, what did you think of it? Leave a comment below (please see our moderation policy).

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  1. Comment by Graham John posted on

    After watching Channel four last night, i consider you do and extremely difficult job. However I can't help thinking that the known "wing leaders and drug barons", who appear to run the jail with violence, are not brought to book. Why was the prisoner found with 2,000 worth of hard drugs in his cell no punished. He appeared to laugh at the prison system.

    • Replies to Graham John>

      Comment by Emily posted on

      Hi Graham

      Thank you for your comment, and apologies for the delay.

      We know the serious harm that comes from organised crime in prison, and anyone found committing crime behind bars risks the prospect of more jail time.

      You may be interested to know we recently announced a £30 million investment into improving safety, security and decency in prisons. This includes putting money towards new digital technology which will enable prisons to identify and deal with those who orchestrate crime in prison.

  2. Comment by Rebecca posted on

    How many episodes Is there for this

    • Replies to Rebecca>

      Comment by Emily posted on

      Hi Rebecca - thanks for your query!

      There will be 3 episodes in total:
      - Drugs
      - Mental Health
      - Violence

      Due to legal reasons, 'Violence' will air later on this year - likely some time in November. You can watch the first two episodes on Channel 4's catch up All4 now.



      • Replies to Emily>

        Comment by Upset viewer posted on

        Has anyone given a thought to how the victims and families of these men feel. When you turn on the tv and their face is advertising life in prison and they show no remorse in the advert .

        • Replies to Upset viewer>

          Comment by Helena posted on


          Apologies for the delay in our response. We understand any upset this may cause to some viewers.

          Spring Films had full access to HMP Durham, following a number of men on their journey through custody. Their crimes were not discussed nor did the documentary identify the victims of these crimes.

          Those included in the documentaries were carefully selected to ensure that any victims of these men would not know it was them, and due diligence was conducted via internal departments and wider court services in order to ensure that the documentary didn’t include prisoners who had been charged with violent crimes or crimes of a sexual nature. Men were offered the option of opting out of any filming that took place in order to protect both their individual and families identities.

          I hope that helps provide some clarification.


  3. Comment by Matt posted on

    Being a prison officer is a difficult job. You have to be an officer, police officer, fire fighter, paramedic, councillor, teacher, mentor, support worker.
    You never know what to expect. Prisoners are unpredictable and the environment can be treacherous. Hats off to every officer making a difference

  4. Comment by Stephen M Thomas posted on

    Being a nurse for 14 years and a social worker for 30 I've had contact with prison officers and prisoners over the years. I've visited prisons a few times and was really impressed with their care and compassion (I don't mean soft). They developed beneficial relationships with the prisoners I had contact with to aid good outcomes for them and the prison service. Like all services they have been cut to a point where they are just running around fire fighting. Same in the police, health, education, social service etc. How have we got to the stage where we believe the 5th richest country can't afford decent services. Money just goes to those who make it but not to the people who made it for them. The government appear only care for their rich patrons, dupe their voters and not the well-being of the nation. Prison Officers.... what a difficult job but we need them and a bit of understanding of what they need to do their job for us.

  5. Comment by arman posted on

    when exactly will episode 3 be aired?

    • Replies to arman>

      Comment by Emily posted on

      Hi Arman

      I'm afraid we can't be sure, but it we estimate it to be by the end of this year. I'd keep an eye out on Channel 4's TV schedule to find out exactly when episode 3 will be aired.