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Photograph: Andy Parsons

Meet the Brixton prison officer who’s been rehabilitating inmates for 12 years

‘People think all we do is open and close doors’

Isabelle Aron

When Gemma Torrance applied for a job at Brixton prison at 25 years old, she didn’t expect it to turn into a career. But 12 years later she’s still there – and more passionate about rehabilitating prisoners than ever. Over the last few months, on top of her day job, she’s been part of a small team organising activities to keep the inmates’ spirits up during the pandemic.

When I first joined the prison in 2008, I was nervous. You’re going into unknown territory. After the job interview, we were shown around the prison to see what it was like. I’d never been to a prison before; I didn’t even know Brixton had one.

The wing I work on is where inmates go when they first arrive. The first 24 to 72 hours can be overwhelming, so we try to make the transition easier. Once you get speaking to the guys, you build relationships and get a rapport going.

During the pandemic, I’ve been coming up with weekly schedules to keep the prisoners busy. We wrote quizzes they could do with their cellmates. I’d go through and mark them and there would be little notes saying how much they enjoyed the quiz or suggesting topics for the next one.

On Father’s Day, they couldn’t have their social visit, so they got dressed up and we took photos which they sent out with a letter to their kids. So many prisoners came back and said: our families wanted to say thank you. They really appreciated it because they haven’t been able to see them.

I was a key worker for this guy who was in and out of Brixton prison. I told him: ‘You’re better than this’ and we devised a plan. He went through drug rehabilitation and reconnected with his family. By the time he was ready to go, he had his whole life mapped out. He got a job looking after ex-offenders. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so proud. For me, those moments are what it’s all about.

There’s a stigma around prison officers. People might think we’re all big, rude and aggressive or that all we do is open and close doors, but we’re nothing like that and that’s not what we do. Our job is about rehabilitating people so hopefully they don’t reoffend when they get released.

I take on so many roles: I could be a social worker giving advice or a nurse dealing with an incident. Some prisoners don’t have a family so you become like their family – they need someone to talk to.

The saddest thing is when someone is released and you see them back inside a few months later. But people don’t always get it right the first time. It might be the second or the third time. We have to show them that someone genuinely cares.

I feel like we’re the forgotten sector, yet our role in society is important. We’re all here because we want this part of the world to be a bit better.

The best part of my job is seeing people change. Whether they’ve got anger issues and learn to channel it in a different way, or drug issues and get clean, when they get released, you feel good that they’ve got it right this time.

Find out more about prison jobs.

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