Unlocked Graduates: the graduates hoping to transform youth custody

Unlocked Graduates is a training scheme designed to get more talented people working in prisons. Two of the first participants to enter the youth secure estate share their experiences with CYP Now.

The abuse scandal at Medway Secure Training Centre has brought standards in youth custody into sharp focus. The case raised questions over whether youth justice professionals have the right skills to deal with the needs of young people in custody today.

On the one hand, youth custody is a success story of the past decade - the development of effective alternatives to incarceration for dealing with offending has seen the number of children and young people in the secure estate fall by more than 70 per cent since 2008.

However, children who remain in child prisons - around 900 at the last count - tend to have the most entrenched behaviour problems - seven in 10 are there for violent crimes and one in 10 have children of their own. This in turn creates major challenges for the professionals caring for these troubled young people.

In addition, the reduction in children receiving custodial sentences has benefited white children more than other ethnic groups - half of children in prison are from a black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) background, the highest rate ever recorded. Meanwhile, around a third of children in custody have been in care, and one in five has a special educational need.

It was these urgent challenges that persuaded Natasha Porter, founder and chief executive of Unlocked Graduates, to expand her work into the youth estate after just one year of the scheme coming into existence.

The Unlocked Graduates programme came from one of the key recommendations of a review into education in prison led by Dame Sally Coates. It aims to attract new talent into the prison system in order to lead reform and - crucially - help tackle the reoffending rate.

Having initially placed participants in adult prisons around London and the South East that had the most pressing recruitment shortfalls, the decision was then made to expand into the youth estate. This was in part down to Porter's personal experience: "Having started my career as a teacher in some really tough schools, I was acutely aware of children who slipped through the gaps, both while I was teaching them, and after they left the supportive structures of school," she explains.

"Like all teachers I wondered about the children we weren't able to help. Working in the youth estate was an opportunity to help some really vulnerable and challenging individuals, to support them when beliefs are less embedded and positive change will be longer lasting."

The launch of the programme has been met with scepticism in some quarters. They ask, does a history degree prepare anyone for life in one of the toughest working environments?


  • 900
    On average there were just under this number of children and young people aged 18 and under in youth custody at any one time during the year ending March 2018 - a slight increase on the previous year.
  • 16.7
    Average custodial sentence in months for indictable offences given to children and young people. This has increased by five months over the last 10 years.
  • 58%
    Proportion of custodial episodes ending within three months.
  • 24%
    Proportion of children and young people held in custody who were on remand in the year ending March 2018. This is a 19 per cent increase on the previous year.

Change the status of the role

According to Porter, the focus on recruiting graduates was an intentional move to highlight the need to change the status of this role.

"Prison officers often seem like the ‘invisible' public sector role," she says. "The job is often dismissed as too dangerous, too boring, or both. The reality is that prison officers have unprecedented potential to help people who really need it. A good officer is a combination of mentor, negotiator, teacher and more - and that is the kind of exceptionally talented person we are looking to attract to the position."

However, she stresses the decision to target graduates should not be read as a focus on privilege. Unlocked Graduates aims to recruit a diverse range of people: the majority are women, 80 per cent went to a state school and more than half were the first in their families to go to university. Even more unusually for the existing prison service workforce, one in five Unlocked Graduates' officers come from a BAME background.

The new recruits are offered comprehensive training and support from a mentor and are funded to undertake a master's degree that looks at innovative solutions to social challenges linked to offending. Despite this, they face a daunting task - trying to build a professional relationship with challenging prisoners, some of whom have been given sentences longer than they have been alive. Prisoners will often have grown up in deprived circumstances where violence is both accepted and expected. For example, an Unlocked Graduates officer, Scott, described how ingrained gang culture is among the prisoners he works with.

"We can't let prisoners from one side of the prison mix with those from the other, because they'll come into contact with people who have committed serious offences - perhaps even against their family," he says. "I was quite surprised at how deep-rooted those issues are."

Despite the challenges facing the secure estate, those behind Unlocked Graduates say there are encouraging signs of reform. Prison officers that have graduated from the scheme have spoken about the culture of care they have encountered, of other colleagues who are committed to going the extra mile to help those they have responsibility for. Custody can provide a pause in someone's life, an opportunity for the staff to help individuals turn their lives around.

The first Unlocked Graduates to be placed in Cookham Wood Young Offender Institution in Kent have been in their roles for less than six months. Here, two of them talk about their experiences. They have requested their surnames be withheld due to the nature of their work.


Cherilyn's story

Nobody expected me to join the prison service. I was studying International Business with French at the University of Warwick where there was, unsurprisingly, little discussion of the criminal justice sector. I'd lived an incredibly sheltered life, growing up in a small village. But what many of my family and friends didn't account for was my desire to be challenged and to make a difference to others. The prison service offered me both.

My interest in rehabilitation and crime prevention first started when I found out that a local amateur dramatics society I was heavily involved with during my teenage years was partly created to reduce youth crime in the area. Later, at my internship with the think-tank New Local Government Network, I encountered policy researchers who specialised in the social causes of crime and the future of prisons.

Unintentionally, the world of prison and the needs of prisoners had become a theme in my sheltered life.

When I first encountered the Unlocked Graduates programme I saw it as an incredible opportunity to make a difference - both at a human level, with the daily interactions we have with the young people, and at the systemic level, via the opportunity to write a policy paper for government. It also offered me the chance to start gaining invaluable work experience and insight into the sector while furthering my academic studies and developing new skills.

At the end of my initial training I was confronted by two imminent realities: I would be working full-time while completing a master's degree; and I was going to be entering a dangerous environment on a daily basis as part of my job. I had been warned of the frequent violence at my establishment by experienced prison officers and academics alike.

Daunting and exciting

It was both daunting and exciting to enter the prison for the first time. I was concerned about the violence, self-harm, and traumatic incidents that officers have to deal with but I was motivated by the prospect that I might make a real difference. The bad moments were what I was expecting, but I wasn't expecting all the good moments: the funny moments that come with working with young people; the camaraderie between the officers; and the support that follows the more challenging times.

I was surprised by my own interactions with the young people and how the role almost becomes parental in nature. You set clear boundaries and expectations for their behaviour, not solely because the prison has certain behaviour management policies in place but because you want to prepare them for life in the outside world.

You support them because, even though they are in prison as a result of their actions, life in prison is hard. Life with such little freedom and being so far from family and friends is hard. Loss of liberty is the punishment. We are not there to punish them. We are there to support them through it.

Of course it's not just down to you. A wide range of professionals and organisations help support the young people during their time at the establishment - from the officers on the landings to safeguarding and child protection professionals, caseworkers, conflict resolution, health and wellbeing, forensic psychology, security, education and the Youth Offending Team.

Effective collaboration

Effective collaboration is essential, and one of our challenges is always to ensure more and better communication between these different departments and organisations. If information is not shared with frontline staff - about young people's home life, physical and mental health difficulties, or the most effective methods of de-escalation - things can go wrong.

I have learned a lot about myself in my first six months. Most importantly, I have come to realise the extent of my strength and my resilience. This role has pushed me to my limits, both physically and emotionally. I am more self-aware than I have ever been. The interactions I have every day force me to reflect on what I have done and to do better.

I want to be the best version of myself, not only for myself, but also in order to best serve the young people in our care and help the staff I work with on a daily basis, who keep the prison running and make me want to come back after the bad days.

I may not continue working in the secure youth estate forever, but I will carry the lessons that I have learned from the individuals who I have been lucky enough to call my colleagues. I owe a lot to these individuals and so does society, even if they do not always receive the credit they deserve.

Ellen's story

It's been six months since I started working with Unlocked Graduates, a six-month rollercoaster of emotions and experiences which have been the most challenging and demanding of my life - but also the most incredibly rewarding. Prior to joining Unlocked, I studied law at the University of Bristol. I thought I knew what it was to work hard, having spent the majority of my third year chained to the library desks, a cup of coffee in one hand and a never-ending pile of cases by the other. I was so wrong.

Having identified early in my third year that I didn't want to pursue a legal career straight away, I began searching for other options which were related but would also enable me to help create a fairer and more just society in practice. I decided to join Unlocked after studying the criminal justice system, because I wanted to reduce reoffending.

I felt that without emphasis on rehabilitation, prison merely became a punishment and somewhere to house people who had committed crime but ultimately didn't actually equip them to leave the system. Joining Unlocked would enable me to work as a prison officer and make a difference with individuals on the ground. I was particularly drawn to working with young people because I felt that the challenge was greater, and that if I could make a change it could stop a young person spending a life going back and forth to prison.

When I first set foot through the gates of my establishment, I was immediately hit with the realisation that it was going to be very different from what I imagined. For many of the young people that we work with, it's not just a case of one bad decision at the wrong time.

Often they have a history of troubled circumstances which have led to them coming to us. This may include time growing up in care and gang affiliations among much else. Often this means they have a tendency to resolve conflict with violence alongside an extremely negative view of authority figures. The challenge is therefore to unpick 15-plus years of life experience and try to rewrite their story.

Unique challenge

When people think of young offenders, they often think that because they are children, it's less intense than the adult estate. This is not the case in practice. As the youth estate population is now so small, getting into an establishment either means that you have committed quite a serious offence, or that you are a repeat offender.

For this reason, many of the young people that we work with have been sentenced or remanded for more serious offences. This presents a unique challenge as often you end up working with a young person who may have just received a sentence which is longer than they have been alive.

The first few months were the hardest and passed in a whirlwind of emotions with me often feeling like I was running from one incident to another - each one even more demanding than the last. On a daily basis, we may deal with fights, fire setting, aggression, assaults, self-harm and suicide attempts, to give just a few examples.

Once a situation occurs and has been dealt with, everything is then expected to go back to normal. As these situations are so alien from ordinary life, at first this was the most challenging part of the job because you need to develop the ability to emotionally process these kinds of events. Over time, it has become easier to bounce back and stop your emotions from getting in the way.

Altering perspectives

Working consistently on a landing with the same groups of boys has also meant that over the last few months I have got to know the boys in my care well. This means that you can more easily identify improvements in behaviour and encourage this in a meaningful way. It has been incredible to see individuals who were quite hostile or closed off when I started, come to ask me for help or voluntarily tell me about positive things that are happening in their life.

Though it's a hard environment to work in, it is so encouraging to see even small changes in the young people which have occurred in the last few months. It makes the prospect of helping to rehabilitate someone much more realistic, and often reminds me that when you treat people with respect and decency, you can massively alter their perspectives. For me this is the best part of the job because it represents so much promise in the young people that we, as officers, can encourage and help to cultivate on a daily basis. My hope is that we can build on these over the next two years and help to stop many of them coming back to the youth secure estate. 

Unlocked Graduates aims to attract the talented individuals needed to work in the secure estate. Picture: Unlocked Graduates

CYP Now Digital membership

  • Policy and research analysis
  • Evidence-based case studies
  • Leadership advice
  • Legal updates
  • Local area spotlights

From £170 /year


CYP Now Magazine

  • Policy and research analysis
  • Evidence-based case studies
  • Leadership advice and interviews
  • Legal updates

From £136 /year