I Worked In A Prison For Men Who Harmed Women — Here's What I Learned

Photo: Tony Weller/Getty Images.

After I left my nursing career behind, my fascination with psychology and criminal behavior led me to seek out a job within the prison service. It took a while to find something in my preferred area, but finally, a job opened up.

I was so nervous about the interview that I very nearly drove on past the prison, deciding I couldn’t do it. However, I gave myself a stern talking-to and went in. There, I was faced with a group of much younger, more qualified and experienced people all waiting to go through the interview process, which didn't do much to calm my nerves but, to my amazement, I was successful and secured the position of psychological assistant.

And so, in 2010 I began my role in a male, category C prison which housed around 750 inmates, including a vulnerable prisoner unit mainly for sex offenders, serving a variety of sentences. Their crimes ranged from drug-related offenses to burglary, rape, and murder. If I’m honest, I had little clue about what to expect – the only knowledge I had came from TV shows, and they certainly didn’t prepare me for what lay ahead.

Walking through the prison grounds on my first day was a nerve-racking experience. But I was with a colleague, and she had the keys to let us through the many large gates to get to the psychology department. After my induction week, however, I was handed a set of my own keys and no longer had someone to hold my hand. My first walk through the prison alone was a day I won’t forget in a hurry. It was unnerving. I timed it badly, getting to work just as the prisoners piled out of the living blocks to go to their activities – and found myself at a gate with about 20 men jostling around me, all wanting to be let through. My hands shook as I asked each of them for their movement slips to check the reason for them moving through the grounds. They tutted, getting agitated with my slowness. I felt sick. But I managed, and it didn’t take long before it became less scary.

My first ever contact with a prisoner will always be a standout memory for me. It was a man my age who had been convicted of a young woman’s murder some years before. As part of his assessment for an offending behavior programme, I listened as he described how he’d met, raped, and strangled the woman, then dumped her body. The way he detailed what he’d done was shocking to hear. The calmness in his voice still haunts me. It was the first time it hit me that a murderer could look 'normal.' He was good-looking, not scary, and I remember thinking if I’d met him outside of prison during a night out, I’d have thought nothing of talking to him. That had a lasting impact – the whole interview challenged my preconceived notions and the stereotypes I harbored. Afterwards, I thought it was probably a good way of introducing me to working with offenders – being thrown right into it.

After attending training, and following some changes in the psychology department, my role became Offender Behavior Program Facilitator. As part of this role, I assessed prisoners for their eligibility and suitability to undertake a particular program of rehabilitation, conducted initial interviews with them to find out their willingness to participate, then delivered the six-week program (at the time it was TSP – The Thinking Skills Program). I always read up about the prisoner I was due to work with and I knew what their crimes were prior to meeting them. This was not always helpful – it’s inevitable that you build a picture of what you think that man will be like and sometimes they are not as you imagined. One younger man had stabbed a 17-year-old (the age of one of my sons at the time) and, after reading his file, I was unsure whether I could see him. I did, and I ended up working very well with him. In person he was so different from what I'd anticipated. Learning about his background and upbringing enabled me to see past the crime. That worked both ways, though; occasionally an offender didn’t seem so bad on paper but was intimidating in person.

Along with another facilitator, I delivered the set program to groups of 11 prisoners at a time. We each had key participants and these were the ones we worked more closely with to reduce their risks of reoffending. I worked in a one-to-one setting with these prisoners and they had at least four individual sessions each throughout the program. During the sessions, they were encouraged to identify their personal risk factors and would discuss their crime and how they planned on managing the risks associated with their offending in the future. Prisoners often felt more comfortable disclosing specifics of their crime to their facilitator, rather than a whole group of people.

Hearing offenders talk about their crime could be challenging – in particular, those relating to sex offenses. I found the one-to-one sessions intense and listening to details of offenses often put my skills to the test. I really had to concentrate to shut out seeing the offenses in my head as they detailed them. I learned to detach myself somewhat from the victims of the crimes, as this was the only way for me to cope with some of the hideous things I was told. My role was to work well with the offender and build a rapport, so if I thought too much about what the victims went through, it made that even more challenging. I did find it difficult to shut off sometimes, and suffered from disturbing thoughts after I got home from work, particularly when trying to sleep. One offender was very open about how he’d had sexual activity with a child, going into detail about what he’d done and how he’d done it. This offense played on my mind a lot. Having children myself made me more sensitive to hearing him talk about his crime and as soon as I was away from work, I’d find myself crying. Working with sex offenders did have an impact on me; I was probably overprotective of my teenage daughter, as my fears of what might happen to her were always heightened.

After a particularly challenging time, both personally and professionally, I decided to leave the prison. Over the three years, the job had taken its toll on me, and I realized I’d begun to allow my personal feelings to get in the way of working effectively with the offenders. I found I was getting into arguments on occasion – for example with some of the more disruptive members of the group, who refused to take any responsibility for their behavior.

Even now, four years after leaving the prison service, I’m still less trusting of people in general as a result of what I read about and heard. Looking back, there were many aspects of the job I enjoyed. It was rewarding at times, there was never a dull moment and I learned a lot about psychology and criminal behavior. The team I worked with were amazing and we remain good friends. Even knowing how the job affected me, I wouldn’t change my decision to work there.

Sam Carrington’s novel, Bad Sister, is available now in paperback, digital and audio.