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“I’ve never looked back”: a life-long career that started in the Scottish Prison Service

Workers in a prison - Iona talks us through her incredible early career, professional development and journey to becoming a manager in the Scottish Prison Service.

At the age of just 21 and not knowing what to expect at all, Iona McLay applied for a job with the Scottish Prison Service. Now, 12 years later, she talks us through her incredible early career, professional development and journey to becoming a manager.

The Scottish Prison Service (SPS) is the type of employer that people stay with their whole working lives – after all, it’s rewarding work. But it’s also somewhere you can build a career, and not just do a job.

There is no formal pathway into the SPS, with individuals joining the organisation from a variety of backgrounds and with a wide range of skills and experience. SPS invest in their staff and offer numerous opportunities for professional and personal development from the start.

Iona McLay, currently a residential first line manager, is proof of this.

What is it like to start working in the Scottish Prison Service at 21?

HMP Perth
HMP Perth

Iona, who had little knowledge of the service and didn’t know anyone working with the SPS, joined as an operations officer. She shares: “I was only 21, probably still very naïve and quite nervous and quiet. But there’s a good sense of teamwork in the SPS and I had good support from my managers.

“You start by doing a foundation training course at the SPS College, so that gives you the background and the ins-and-outs of things.

“For me though, the best learning came from when I actually got into the establishment and started working.”

When she thinks back to starting her career with the SPS, it was nothing like what she had imagined it would be. She says: “Typically in your head, when you think of a prison officer, you think of a big burly man. But actually, it takes a diverse range of people, and I think that came as a surprise to me.”

“Also just the jail environment itself was unexpected – it’s not this big, scary environment that you see on TV.”

In fact, Iona discovered a supportive team environment and is now in her 12th year with the SPS.

Early career professional development and promotions

While working with the SPS, Iona has progressed in her career at regular intervals.

In terms of early career professional development, as well as the initial training, Iona managed to achieve her first promotion to a residential officer within just two years. In this role, she was responsible for looking after people in custody within residential areas. She was directly involved in the case management of individuals, guiding them through their sentence and preparing them for their release back to the community.

A couple of years later, Iona progressed to the activities area as a community safety officer. This involved group work with people in custody, focusing on things that typically influenced them to offend, what can be done to prevent reoffending and the support SPS can offer: all of which contributes to the rehabilitation journey.

She adds: “By 2018, I began to act up [temporary promotion] to a management role. Then, in 2021 I was formally appointed as a full-time residential first line manager.”

Further career development – and helping others progress too

Scottish Prison Service officers

Today Iona is in charge of one of the residential areas where people in custody are housed – and she loves her job. She says: “I’m fortunate I get to deal with both prisoners and staff, so I feel like I can make positive changes. Because I’m the manager, I have a bit more influence to change things for the better for the prisoners.”

But she has plans to go further still. She adds: “I’m a first line manager now but as for my next step, I’d like to be a unit manager. I’m actively working with my current unit manager to continue developing my skills. To achieve this promotion I will probably have to move establishments, so it’s a big jump.

“I’m a mum as well, so I want to be a great role model for my daughter. I want to go as far as I can within the Prison Service, so I’ll be hoping to take the next step in the next couple of years.”

Supporting staff with families is something the SPS prides itself on, offering flexibility and ongoing support to help all employees balance work and life commitments.

Iona is also dedicated to helping her own team members’ progress too. This could include broadening your skillset by experiencing roles in other functional areas whilst remaining at the same level. Iona explains: “People are surprised when they start with the Scottish Prison Service because there are so many different avenues to take, and it doesn’t necessarily mean progressing up the ladder.”

For example, some people might prefer the case management side of things, while others may enjoy working more closely with those in custody and supporting them on a daily basis.

Scottish Prison Service jobs: is it the right place for you to develop a career?

If you are looking for a rewarding job and the chance to develop a life-long career, then a role in the Scottish Prison Service might just be for you.

And Iona has one message if you are considering joining: “Do it and try it! I came into the Prison Service not knowing what to expect and I have never looked back. I feel so proud to work for the SPS and I love what I do.”

Whether you are looking for early career professional development, or to bring in years of experience and transferable skills, you’ll find room to grow working with the Scottish Prison Service.


Get started on an exciting new career. Find out more about job opportunities in the Scottish Prison Service, including how to apply.

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