Life as an Assistant Forensic Psychologist in the prison service

Working in the prison service as an Assistant Forensic Psychologist involves working with offenders to rehabilitate and prepare them for their release. It’s a job that requires a very unique skill set and one that Emily Cuthbertson secured shortly after graduating from her master’s in Forensic Psychology and Mental Health. Below, Emily discusses in more detail what her job role entails and provides an overview of the master’s programme…

Before starting on the Forensic Psychology and Mental Health master’s at The University of Manchester I had a clear idea of where I wanted to end up afterwards. It was my ambition to be a forensic psychologist working in either a secure hospital or prison environment and this course seemed ideal to get me there.

The experience that I gained from completing my undergraduate degree in Psychology is the main reason why I decided to go down this route. I completed a module on Forensic Psychology and I found it particularly interesting and engaging. As a result, I sought experience in a working environment in the hope of broadening my knowledge in this area.

I volunteered for Victim Support and really enjoyed working here as I was able to see the full impact that crime can have on a victim through constant exposure to different scenarios. I also arranged a visit to HMP Frankland where I was allowed to shadow a forensic psychologist throughout the day and after this visit I knew that this was the career for me.

Course overview

I was very impressed with the course. The course covered a wide range of areas including offending behaviour interventions and psychology and the legal system. I was also very impressed with the course lecturers who offered extensive knowledge and substantial experience to the students which proved invaluable. Various guest speakers also came in to talk to the students and this allowed us to understand the importance of forensic psychology across the spectrum, from police interview techniques to hostage negotiations.

One of my favourite aspects of the course is the large emphasis that is placed on mental health, which is unique for a forensic psychology master’s degree. This is always an area I have been interested in and definitely prepared me for working in forensic settings where there is a high prevalence of mental health diagnosis.

My career in the prison service

I am currently working as an Assistant Forensic Psychologist in a psychologically informed planned environment within a prison. This involves working closely with the clinical team, prison officers and the prisoners. I work on a wing which is designed for prisoners who have completed their offender behaviour programme and are wishing to consolidate and utilise the skills they have learnt. We aim to develop therapeutic relationships with all the prisoners, through group and one to one sessions to reduce re-offending on release.

No day is ever the same and this is what I love about my job! Typically, we run several structured group sessions throughout the week. These are based on a four fundamental areas; communication, perspective taking, problem solving and emotion management. These are all skills that the offenders have learnt on their programme and we try to apply these skills to the real life situations. Our Psychologically Informed Planned Environment (PIPE) is primarily officer led, so we spend a lot of time supporting and supervising the officers to encourage the therapeutic relationships they have with the offenders.

I really enjoy working within a prison setting and seeing the difference and impact that interventions can have on offenders. I can see myself staying in this sector for a long time to come.

Advice to prospective students

Get as much experience as you can because it will make it so much easier to find an assistant psychologist job when you finish the course. The best experience I got was working as a mental health support worker in a secure hospital. It was through this job that I was able to put my skills that I learnt on my masters into practice, especially skills in understanding and working with individuals with mental health diagnosis .

It is definitely not easy to become a forensic psychologist, there is a lot of competition and hard work involved, but it is certainly worth it when you see the impact  you can have on an individual’s life. I definitely could not recommend the course more, it allowed me to enhance my skills which allowed me to succeed in working in a forensic environment.


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