'There was so much potential and now it's gone' - An axed careers advisor speaks out

"After 18 years it’s heart-breaking.  It’s been so sudden. It’s so sad to see such a vast pool of experienced and dedicated NCS Advisors desperately looking for alternative employment."

I’ve worked at the same prison for the past 18 years. My dad was an officer for 24 years before me, and when I moved back to my hometown aged 30, I suppose I decided to follow in his footsteps.

I’ve had a number of different jobs since I started – in education, in inductions, teaching personal social development, even running industrial cleaning classes. About 18 months ago I decided to take up a role with the National Careers Service, helping prisoners to access higher education inside, and find work after release.  

I must say I enjoy my job. I see the full journey – I sit with a lad just after he’s come in and we make a plan together – we think about what they could achieve with their time here. Lots of them are very despondent at first, saying ‘Whatever I do no one’s going to employ me.’ We try to show them that with a little hard work, a change of attitude and motivation they can achieve, whether it’s applying for distance learning, enrolling on a vocational course or finding a job, it all plays a part in completing the jigsaw.

I have been lucky to meet some fantastic lads who are desperate to change their way of thinking or lifestyle choices and just needed someone to support them and give them the encouragement and information they needed. We’ve got a lot of lads going out to construction – there’s such a big gap there and they’re crying out for lads and willing to take on ex-offenders. Others have started working as delivery drivers and in factories. For many of them it’s their first job – maybe even the first job in their family. It’s a huge step.

I also help people get onto distance learning courses. We had a lad recently doing an OU Psychology degree – he’d worked as a Samaritans Listener and had progressed from a Level 3 Counselling course funded by PET. Learning in their cell helps them use to the time productively and means they’re not sat worrying about family, or what’s going on in the prison, or getting into mischief. They’re also mixing with more focused prisoners - talking about learning and what they’re achieving.  

You experience some difficult things. I had a lad in my office the other day who was struggling with a heroin addiction. It turned out he had lost his mum to an overdose when he was two, and was brought up in foster care. He had no one to show him direction, and he’d developed his own coping skills. I started him towards basic English and Maths. Even with the lower-level qualifications you can see the change in them. They might never have really achieved anything before – but now they’re getting praise for doing something positive rather than people noticing something negative.  

I found out I’d be losing my job in January. When we first heard we thought ‘Oh no, they’ll sort it out – they can’t not deliver this service. They’ll go back round the table and work something out’. But we kept waiting and hoping, and the contract end got nearer and nearer, and now it looks like it’s too late. My last day is next Wednesday. After 18 years it’s heart-breaking.  It’s been so sudden.

It’s so sad to see such a vast pool of experienced and dedicated NCS Advisors desperately looking for alternative employment. A lot of what drew people into the prison service was the idea of job security. We’ve been flexible as the contracts changed around us. I understand that some areas of the NCS weren’t delivering or hitting targets but surely that means they should be looked at, and good practice should be shared to bring the underperforming areas up to scratch. Instead they’ve decided to scrap the whole service.

All I’m doing with my last few days are saying ‘Take this number, ring it when you’re out - maybe they can help you out.’ It will just knock them back.

There’s little chance that distance learning will continue once I’ve gone - there aren’t the staff or the budgets to manage it. I feel so sorry for the lads. How can you expect prisoners to work to a goal when you take the goalposts away? They’ve no way of accessing the right information by themselves. All I’m doing with my last few days are saying ‘Take this number, ring it when you’re out - maybe they can help you out.’ It will just knock them back.

There have been quite a few tears in the last few months. I’ve managed to find a zero hours contract working with a local charity about two days a week and  I am trying to fill the rest. I’m selling my house and moving in with my dad, who I’m a carer for now. I can’t risk falling behind on bills. I’m hoping I’ll be able to keep my head above water and that when new contracts get drawn up in October I’ll be able to go back to work in the prison again, if a job like mine is created again. But it’s all completely uncertain.

I don’t get the feeling the staff, or the prisoners were ever given a second thought in this decision. There was so much potential in what we were doing and now it’s gone. We all have lives and responsibilities outside work and to pull the contract without a thought of the impact… well I really hope they had good reason.

‘Lyn’ is one of around 200 careers advisors who will lose their job at the end of March, marking the termination of NCS services in prisons in England. What, if any, service, will replace them is still uncertain. As part of the PLA, PET has attempted to challenge this decision, and the issue has been raised in the House of Lords. Read more.