Over the past 10 years I have seen a lot. Being a prison forensic psychologist is not a job for the faint hearted, but I love it.
As a forensic psychologist I am closely involved in assessing and treating criminal behaviour. I frequently go to parole board hearings and advise on whether violent and sexual offenders are suitable for release. It took an undergraduate degree, a masters and an ongoing professional development diploma to get here. It is a huge responsibility – and yet my salary is £29,000. I take home just £1,500 a month.
My colleagues and I feel undervalued. It is taken for granted that we will continue to work for the public sector out of love and loyalty. But the sector cannot rely on employees’ goodwill alone forever.
The government’s austerity measures have impacted me in other ways too. I have been assaulted at work because there aren’t enough officers around to ensure civilian staff are protected in the work they do. They are similarly undervalued, underpaid and overstretched.
My colleagues and I have been stretched further and further, so we are now providing the bare bones – and I do sometimes fear for my safety.
We are all expected to carry on, regardless of the threats and the struggle to make ends meet, because of the love of the job. That was once enough – but now I want to start a family, and that requires more income.
Advising on whether prisoners are suitable for release can take weeks. Weeks of interviewing the prisoner, reading their file information, reviewing their behaviour on the wing, checking their correspondence. Weeks of speaking to the staff who work with them, liaising with the security department and the probation service.
And then come the big decisions about whether prisoners need more treatment; whether they can go to a lower category prison without risk of trying to escape; or whether they can be safely released. I have to ask myself if I am confident they can return to society without harming someone else. And if they did, how would I live with myself knowing I had advised the parole board that I thought they were ready?
I have seen profound changes in prisoners I’ve worked with over time. I’m most proud of the work I did with a man with learning disabilities who had previously reoffended within a week each time he was released. The treatment he’d had didn’t work because he simply didn’t understand; it was too complicated for him. I worked with him over months, adapting the work by using different techniques, like drawing and role play.
I took the time to understand why he’d committed his crimes and what his learning needs were. I worked with his family so they could continue to support him. I helped him gain supported accommodation. He was released again and has stayed offence-free. That was five years ago. He still sends me letters because he says I made a difference in his life.
I take so much pride in my job and want to continue doing it, because I know it allows me to make a difference to society as a whole. As a previous victim of violent crime, my greatest motivation is to ensure that future crimes are prevented and people don’t experience what I went through.
But I’m not going to lie: sometimes it is hard to remain motivated when I have such little income coming in. I look around me and see friends who work as personal assistants to businesspeople earning more than me. The low pay makes me question whether I have taken the right route.
I have seen colleagues leave for private practices. They are working fewer hours for more pay. But if everyone does that, who will be left to do this work for the public sector?
I feel passionately about the work I do and feel it deserves fair pay. I’m not asking for the earth. I’m not asking for a massive wage. I’m just asking for a fair reflection of the work I do, the commitment I show – and the responsibility I have.
This series aims to give a voice to the staff behind the public services that are hit by mounting cuts and rising demand, and so often denigrated by the press, politicians and public. If you would like to write an article for the series, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
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