Prison & Probation Service

Although their approaches are necessarily different, protecting the public from the actions of criminals is the main role of the UK’s Prison and Probation Services. How can a military background help you become part of their work?

During your time in the Armed Forces, your role has essentially been to help defend the United Kingdom of Great Britain, it’s territories and communities from external or even internal aggression. However, there are other threats and other ways to protect our communities, which is where the UK’s Prisons and Probation Services come to play.

These Services have the primary goal of protecting the general public from the actions of criminal individuals. The UK’s Prison Services do this principally through the safe and humane custody of offenders – in prisons, remand centres and young offenders institutions – and endeavour some degree of rehabilitation through a range of training courses. Probation Services, meantime, essentially ‘manage’ a wide range of offenders within a community setting – either after prison or as part of a non-custodial sentence – with often one-to-one programmes that aim to guide offenders away from their criminal behaviour. While prison staff may work in fairly isolated settings, the majority of probation staff are concentrated in urban areas.

Despite what you might think from some of their names, there are no single national prison or probation services operating across the whole of the UK. HM Prison Service and the National Probation Service operate only in England and Wales while the Northern Ireland Prison Service and NI Probation Service operate in the Province. North of the Border, the Scottish Prison Service and local authority social work departments have responsibilities respectively for prison and probation services.


Prison Service
The most publicly recognised profession in our prison system is that of the Prison Officer. Their main responsibility is keeping inmates secure; this can include assessing prisoners, carrying out security checks and search procedures, supporting vulnerable prisoners (particularly those deemed to be at risk of self-harm or suicide), supervising prisoners and keeping order – using ‘authorised physical control and restraint procedures’ where necessary.

According to Careers Transition Partnership (CTP) lecturer Bill Hodge, the uniformed, disciplined background of members of the Armed Forces – in particular their Òtransferable skills and dedication to dutyÓ – make them of particular interest to the Prison Service. The CTP runs regular courses to help members of the Armed Forces successfully complete the Prison Officer Selection Test (POST), which assesses skills including basic numeracy, writing and reading ability as well as comprehension and attention to detail.

Prisons, however, are not just about imprisonment; they are also intended to play a role in the rehabilitation of offenders before they return to the community, running programmes helping prisoners to gain new skills and qualifications, to recognise and change their offending behaviour, and also to give advice on welfare issues. Some qualified Prison Officers may well take part in vocational instruction in a wide range of work-related sectors from catering and horticulture to printing and tailoring – designed to reduce the chance of prisoners reoffending by increasing their employability.

Particularly within HM Prison Service, however, this kind of training is increasingly the responsibility of separately employed Instructional Officers. Career opportunities in the also exist for healthcare professionals, for chaplains from a wide range of faith traditions, qualified psychologists, and managerial and administrative staff. There are also a wide range of industrial careers covering agriculture, catering, building and allied trades which ensure the smooth running of the Prison Service and its premises.

Probation Service
Probation Officers (in Scotland, Criminal Justice Social Workers) supervise offenders, encouraging them to address their behaviour, comply with court orders and not reoffend. This is usually done in conjunction with other agencies including social services, the Police and the Prison Services. The work is both varied and challenging, including the preparation of pre-sentence reports (PSRs) which offer guidance on the most appropriate way to deal with offenders. All in all, Probation Officers are likely to spend a lot of time with offenders – not only before, during and after sentencing, but also while they remain ‘under supervision’. Responsibility for probation services in Scotland are held by local council Social Work departments.

In England and Wales, the National Probation Service also provides Victim Contact Teams who work exclusively with the victims of offenders who have been sentenced to twelve months imprisonment or more for sexual and other violent offences. This work is equally important; not only can these Officers help individuals rebuild their lives, they can also act a route for people to get information about the criminal justice process and the progress of the offender through their sentence. Victims can also comment on and influence the conditions of release through the Contact Teams and have the right to be informed when important changes take place – such as appeals.

Qualifications needed for posts in both Prison and Probation Services vary significantly, but desirable attributes across the board include strength of mind, physical fitness, good communication and people skills, maturity, confidence, personal integrity and a willingness to make a difference.

Each of the UK’s Prison Services have their own entry requirements. Regardless of any academic qualifications, all entrants in England and Wales must be able to pass POST. Those entering the profession in Scotland, in contrast, must have the equivalent of five Standard Grades (1-3, including Maths and English) or three years managerial experience, and be able to pass an interview, psychometric tests judging verbal and numerical reasoning and a situational judgment questionnaire to reflect your values and attitudes. Currently, you must be aged between 18.5 and 57 years old (20 and 57 in Scotland) at the time of your appointment. (The Northern Ireland Prison Service is not currently recruiting for any new positions.)

To qualify as a probation officer in England and Wales, you will need to obtain the Diploma in Probation Studies (DipPS) awarded by Skills for Justice; this is only open to those already employed as a trainee probation officer by a probation service, who have (if aged under 25) the equivalent of five GCSEs. (Candidates over 25 may be accepted without formal qualifications.)

In Scotland, entry to criminal justice work is through a four-year Honours Degree in Social Work awarded by the Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC), for which qualifications will be specified by the course provider. A two year postgraduate programme is available, although the SSSC also runs a fast track scheme (running between 16 and 19 months) whilst employed as trainees.

The Probation Board for Northern Ireland is not currently recruiting for any new positions.


Prison Service
Staff are recruited regularly by HM Prison Services (covering England & Wales) and the Scottish Prison Service, but not the Northern Ireland Prison Service – which has been reducing its overall staffing levels in recent years. There are also, currently, eleven privately managed prisons in England run by companies including GSL, Premier and G4S Justice Services, all of which are ultimately responsible to the Home Office.

In England & Wales, current Home Office policy means that instructional and training duties are increasingly performed by civilian instructors, rather than Prison Officers, although there remain opportunities to move into specialist roles such as physical education instructor or dog handler. In Scotland, however, there remain real opportunities for prison officers to extend their experience beyond purely security work.

Across the UK, promotion to more senior officer posts (including governor grades) is by examination and interview, after a minimum of two years service.

Over the last two years, responsibility for commissioning healthcare services within prisons has been taken on by the local Primary Care Trusts, meaning that all healthcare professionals working in the prison system can enjoy the same career development opportunities as NHS staff.

Currently, prison officers salaries in England & Wales range from £17,319 to £26,433 depending on length of service, with salaries for Senior and Principal Officers ranging between £28,202 to £30,643. In Scotland, prison officer recruits start on £14,373; if they perform well during their probationary twelve month period, salaries will begin to rise to a current maximum of £19,130 (usually over a period of five years).

Probation Service
Probation Officers in England & Wales train in one of the National Probation Service’s 42 local service areas, with recruitment for these places most commonly taking place in the spring. Trainee salaries range from £14,476 to £15,351, with additional payments for those working in inner or outer London. After qualification, salaries for main grade Probation Officers are on a scale of £20,804 to £27,973. North of the Border, Criminal Justice Social Workers working within Scotland’s local authorities can earn between £17,000 and £28,000 a year, depending on experience and length of service.

Although the number of trainee posts is increasing – and qualified Probation Officers are very much in demand – competition for places, particularly in England and Wales, remains ‘fierce’. In contrast, the Probation Board for Northern Ireland is not currently recruiting for any new positions.

Promotion opportunities in the Probation Service can mean moving into management or to specialise in particular areas.

There’s no denying that moving from the Armed Forces into either the Prison or Probation Services will still involve a significant culture shock, even though shift work is still a 24/7 reality for the likes of prison officers. Nevertheless, they still offer an opportunity for you to protect the general public from a real and palpable threat. And, above all, they’re people-centred professions that are surprisingly wide-ranging in their scope and offer both a challenging and ultimately worthwhile career that can make a real difference to other people’s lives.


HM Prisons

National Probation Service
020 7217 0659

Northern Ireland Prison Service
028 9052 5065

Probation Board for Northern Ireland
028 9026 2400

Scottish Prison Service
0131 244 8745

Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC)
01382 207101

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