The UK's prison system is in crisis. Overcrowding, self-harm and preventable deaths continue to plague prisons, and almost half of all prisoners re-offend a year after release.
David Ralfe, 32, left behind a career in theatre and hopes to become part of the solution – as a prison officer who focuses on the rehabilitation and mental health of the inmates at HMP Pentonville in London.
VICE: Hi, David. What did you do previously?
David Ralfe: After uni I went to a theatre school in Paris. I then spent most of my twenties working in the theatre industry as a writer, performer and director.
Why did it suck?
It didn't suck, necessarily – I had some fantastic experiences and collaborated with some awesome people. But I found being self-employed rough on the psyche. It was draining constantly having to hustle, pitch for work and put myself out there. I was also getting sick of how solipsistic it all was. My life was dominated by questions that only referenced me: how am I going to fund this? What will I do next? Am I good enough? I was craving something more external, and wanted my focus to shift to other people and what I could do for them.
What did you switch to instead?
I’m a prison officer at HMP Pentonville, with Unlocked Graduates.
Was there a lightbulb moment?
I'd got to a point where I wanted to change career, but had no idea what I wanted to do. One day, mindlessly scrolling on my phone, I came across an article about Unlocked Graduates – a leadership training programme for prison officers that operates a bit like Teach First. I was rapt… by the time I'd finished the article, I'd made my decision. I completed the written application and went for an interview day a little while later. Then, after a summer spent doing initial training, I began my role as a prison officer.
What do you love most about your job?
It has really opened my eyes. I lived such a sheltered existence before – especially in theatre, where the majority of people are from the same bubble. I love getting to know people with different stories and hearing about their experiences – I've learned so much about the world we live in. I also love that it's a job that has huge variety in it and uses a broad range of skills; I have to build relationships and trust with strangers all the time, many of whom are pissed off with the world. I've also had the opportunity to do specialist training in suicide and self-harm prevention for prisoners, and learned how and when to intervene to help keep them safe. I feel really passionately about mental health, and appreciate being able to bring that into my work.
A lot of people feel uncomfortable about the idea of punitive justice – what's your perspective?
At the end of the day, I do not police people or sentence them. I just deal with what’s in front of me, which is generally good people who want to do better. I see my role as trying to help them into the next stage. The way I see it, deprivation of liberty is the punishment. I'm not there to punish people on top of that, but rather to make sure they are safe and have dignity.
Are there any downsides?
There are difficult days when the chaos becomes very draining, or when a prisoner you’ve invested in emotionally acts against their own interest, and you feel disappointment – of course you do. It’s an odd job, because you never get to see the successes. You can’t stay in touch with prisoners – they never learn our first names, and we don’t have social media. You hope for the best when they’re released, and only really hear if they haven’t succeeded if they end up back in the prison system.
What was the most unexpected part of the role for you?
Honestly, I laugh so much! Having a good sense of humour is crucial as a prison officer, and the prisoners are often bored and looking for amusement. I'd never want to sentimentalise prison, but I went in expecting everyone to be miserable, and I've noticed that 99 percent of the prisoners are invested in their futures and energised to do better.
How do you reconcile what people have done with who they are?
This is probably the most thought-provoking part of the job. The answer is that, as a rule, I don’t know or have any interest in what people have done to get them there. Even when I see their charge, I know that's just part of the story. People are complex, and so are the circumstances that lead people to offend in a lot of cases. I see it as a mark of professionalism that you deal with the person in front of you rather than defining them by their past.
What do you wish you'd known about your new job before you started?
I – like most people – didn't know anything about the prison system before starting, and feel strongly that this is a really unhealthy thing in society. It also contributes to the stigma offenders face once they leave prison, which, in the worst cases, will narrow their chances of rehabilitation.
What was the single worst moment of your dull job?
Getting yet another Arts Council application rejected.
Rate your life out of ten before, and now:
At the time, I thought it was going well, but on reflection I was a solid five. These days it's more like an eight.
What advice would you give other people who hate their jobs?
Give yourself permission to do what you actually want to do. If you like the structure and security of a regular paycheque, there's nothing wrong with that! Embrace it.