Oxford University graduate on life working at Britain's 'toughest' prison HMP Belmarsh – Oxfordshire Live

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Officer Herman is a 24-year-old Oxford University graduate who is now a prison officer at HMP Belmarsh – where notorious killers and rapists are housed
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An Oxford University graduate who is now a prison officer at the high-security HMP Belmarsh has shed a light on what it's really like to work there. Dubbed Britain's 'toughest' prison, the site houses notorious killers and rapists.
Among its current residents are Michael Adebolajo, the murderer of soldier Lee Rigby, and ex-children's TV presenter Paul Ballard. The TV star was found guilty of rape, and in an unrelated offence, caused the death of two people by dangerous driving.
Despite the severity of the crimes that bring people to the prison, 24-year-old Oxford graduate Officer Herman says she has never felt in danger at work. She says her 5ft 6 frame and gender can help her to de-escalate situations in her 'spur' – where she is responsible for 60 inmates.
READ MORE: Latest crime headlines from across Oxfordshire
"The presence of female staff is really, really positive," she told The Mirror. "Obviously we need both genders in there but I find being female has an impact on being able to de-escalate situations. The [prisoners] don't see you as much of a physically threatening presence."
She says there are numerous moments of light and joy behind bars. Herman, who doesn't wish to disclose her first name or hometown, says she sees first-hand the positivity that can take hold, with encouraging education programmes, intimate scenes of inmates writing Christmas cards to their children at home, and even wellbeing days.
Every few months football tournaments take place at the men's prison – which has a capacity of 770 prisoners – where for one afternoon staff and cellmates forget about their hierarchy.
Officer Herman joined HMP Belmarsh in 2021 after studying archaeology and anthropology at Oxford. She is currently undertaking a two-year graduate scheme with Unlocked Graduates, which aims to break cycles of reoffending by attracting talented graduates to work in the UK prison service. She is also studying for a Master's in Applied Custodial Leadership as part of the scheme.
Her move to the prison service left friends and family "confused", she confessed. "Being a prison officer isn't seen as a particularly attractive job, or it is seen as a violent place, dangerous, especially in a men's prison for a woman.
"Since I started the job, I really think their [family and friends] opinion of it has massively changed and they can understand why I'm doing it. I come home from work way more often with stories about how I helped someone enrol in education, or something funny that someone told me or an interesting thing that a prisoner taught me.
"I would say there are a lot more positive stories than when I say 'this was horrible'."
She argues that in her professional role as a prison officer, she can't judge the inmates on their past crimes, and must treat them without prejudice, however horrific their offence. "It's not my place to judge people in prison – they have already been judged by the courts," she explains.
"I see my role as being supportive during their time in prison and building relationships so that I can act as a positive influence moving forward."
She has been with prisoners who appear to be doing well leading up to their release, only to return within a few weeks. One in particular was seen to be doing "everything right", always had a clean and tidy cell, and was always there on time.
But he returned two weeks later in a terrible way, and barely recognised Herman. "It's really, really upsetting to see," she admits.
"It's this cycle of reoffending, linked to the societal challenges and inequalities that many people who end up in prison have faced, that we really want to tackle." The officer, who was recently promoted to prison offender manager, argues the biggest things to have an impact on the release are accommodation, employment, and family links.
She thinks officers can do a lot to support these, such as encouraging prisoners to get in touch with their family members before their release. Although the biggest challenge in prison is staffing, she says, these checks can be prioritised.
But it appears the big answer to reoffending is money. Provisions that can facilitate rehabilitative outcomes such as education and employment opportunities rely on Government funding.
And while some might question why the country would want to spend thousands of taxpayers' money on helping felons, for Herman, it's a "no-brainer". "The cost of reoffending is so high," she adds.
"Actually, to rehabilitate these individuals, to help them, it saves lives. It improves the quality of life and the safety of our society. Wherever you're coming from politically, the right thing to do is to reduce reoffending."
Unlocked Graduates is currently recruiting new applicants. You can find out more information here.
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