I won silver at the Olympics, before working in prisons

Debbie Flood was a GB rower and Olympic silver medallist, going to four Olympic Games, winning three World Championship titles and two Olympic silver medals. After retiring, she qualified as a prison officer, working in HMP Huntercombe. You can find Debbie on LinkedIn.

People think being a prison officer is mainly about security, and of course that’s a huge part of it. But that’s not the most rewarding or demanding part. Prison officers have multiple other roles: you can be a personal officer to inmates, encourage them to go to work, and make sure the dynamic on the wing is safe.

Teamwork amongst the officers is crucial. When all the officers are working brilliantly together on the same page, everyone working to make it a safe and productive wing, it enables us as officers to then work well with the inmates and be consistent for them as a team. This then in turn enables the prisoners to have the opportunity to respond positively and to work with us.

What are the highs and lows?

When you felt like the inmates were progressing, and really understanding something, that was such a high. Their life, attitude, motivation and wanting to do things differently. When I saw those little sparks, it gave me real hope for my job. Those were the highs.

The lows were when you’d see the huge range of emotions – especially with youngsters. There would be fighting in the day: alarm bells and assaults and fights. And they show this real hard, tough side. But then later they would be crying in their cells. And it was an emotional rollercoaster especially when I started, seeing that depth – of brokenness, discontent and instability.

It was also a huge low when they’d return to prison. Sometimes they’d get released with really good intentions and feel motivated to change; but it’s actually so hard on the outside to make those changes, particularly when you go back into the same environment with the same people.

That’s why the work of the prison officers needs to go hand-in-hand with the work in the community to give them opportunities that are more inviting on the outside than they are to go back to what they were originally in for.

Why did you qualify as a Prison Officer?

I decided to work in prisons because I’d always enjoyed visiting schools and working with children. And I found I was drawn to children that were disengaged and struggling. I did work experience in a juvenile prison – under 18 men – and I realised that that was somewhere that I really wanted to work and serve, inspire, motivate and help.

My rowing skills particularly came in handy when working with others in all different capacities. In the rowing world, you don’t always get on with everyone, but you have to form close and productive relationships, and learn to respect each other. That was a huge part of my role as an officer.

You’ve learned to work with people, whether it’s someone more experienced than you, someone of your level, or a raw young talent – irrespective of whether or not you are friends.

You’ve learned amazing people skills whilst being an athlete and that transfers really well into the working world.

My advice to other athletes going into a similar role is take all that you learn as an athlete into it. All that determination, knowing that if you continue to do the right things the results will come. You will get the most out of yourself and you will get the most out of others that you work with.