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Colleges of crime

Mark Easton | 16:23 UK time, Thursday, 31 March 2011

The man running the prison today selected as the trailblazer for the government's Payment by Results (PBR) policy says one secret of his success is removing "gates and locks" and trying to create a "college atmosphere" behind bars.

HM Prison Service flag

John Biggin, director of HMP Doncaster, helped convince Justice Secretary Ken Clark to award the contract to the private company Serco on the back of some exceptional results since taking over the running of the jail.

But Mr Biggin's methods may not be the liking of some backbench Conservatives and parts of the national press. He favours programmes involving arts and media, film-making and theatre for prisoners. Professional sports clubs including Doncaster Rovers FC, Featherstone Rovers RLFC and Yorkshire Cricket Club run academies inside the jail.

Having got rid of most of the “extremely stark” security measures inside Doncaster prison shortly after his arrival in late 2009, he painted the corridor walls and hung them with pictures. Serco stresses, of course, that the prison still conforms to all the security requirements of a category B jail.

The Ministry of Justice says the PBR element of the new contract to run Doncaster prison means that 10% of the contract price will only be payable if Serco manages to reduce the one-year reconviction rate of ex-inmates by 5%. Should the company do better than that, they get bonus payments.

The Ministry won't tell me what the total contract is worth (commercially sensitive, apparently), but they insist that, even if reconviction rates fall by the maximum 10%, it will still come in at £1m less than we currently pay.

It sounds like a win-win for the tax-payer, but how will people react if they believe that improving recidivism rates is at the cost of a less punishing regime?

In a recent interview with trade publication The Custodial Review, Mr Biggin explained what he tells the prisoners about his philosophy:

"I tell them that I will provide a whole range of innovative and interesting programmes that will engage, interest and work. Such as family involvement, sports academies, Restorative Justice Mediation instead of adjudications, arts and media, film making and much else besides. What they must do in return is buy into these initiatives and also recognise I have two red lines that must not be crossed. This is a zero tolerance policy for drugs and violence. It's the carrot and stick approach."

It is a system that appears to work. Doncaster, a category B prison and young offenders institution, has won a string of awards, with violence at a 16-year low. It has moved from being a jail with one of the lowest performance ratings to one of the highest in less than a year. John Biggin himself was named Public Servant of the Year last November at the Guardian public service awards.

The government clearly believes that the ideas being pioneered at Doncaster can deliver the results they want: lower reconviction rates, saving the taxpayer lots of money.

However, criminal justice is about more than budgets. There is a powerful lobby within the Conservative party which worries Ken Clark is going "soft" on the punishment element of custody.

When Prisons Minister Crispin Blunt announced in a speech last summer that he was rescinding rules introduced by Labour's Jack Straw on "acceptable activities" behind bars - rules which prevented governors from allowing any arts activities that might fail "the public acceptability test" - he was rounded on by the Daily Mail and ticked off by Downing Street.

Mr Blunt had argued that Prison Service Instruction number 50 was evidence of what he called "the last administration's flakiness under pressure".

He said: "At the slightest whiff of criticism from the popular press, policy tended to get changed and the consequence of an absurd overreaction to offenders being exposed to comedy in prison was this deleterious, damaging and daft instruction."

The Daily Mail responded by headlining: "Tory minister says taxpayer must fund balls and comedy workshops for criminals".

Here, though, is the alternative question: Are taxpayers prepared to fund the costs of punishment? It is not a free good. Locking people up and making their lives unpleasant is expensive both at the time and for years after their release, because the evidence shows that such regimes tend to make recidivism more likely, not less.

This is the question that lies at the heart of the current debate about prisons policy and payment by results. The answer may be in Doncaster.


  • Comment number 1.

    PbR came up in the stratergy blog here
    David Oliver was nice enough to reply about them in the 2nd blog.

    What is PbR how will payment by result work? at what popint is rehabilitation considered a result?

  • Comment number 2.

    The point of prison should not be to punish for the sake of it, but to reduce future crime. However, recidivism is not the only consideration (nor is physically keeping some people away from the public): in theory it's also there as a deterrent to people who haven't yet been incarcerated. Would less cushy prisons do better at preventing crime and imprisonment in the first place? I doubt it, but it's something to consider.

    The biggest worry about privitisation of prisons is surely lobbying. Even these PbR prisons will have an incentive to have a constant stream of people being sent to prison (though perhaps these public prison unions do too...). In America, the prison industry lobbies against changes to unjust laws, and pushes for ever more punitive ones. By all means improve prison standards and results, but such lobbying must be avoided at any cost.

  • Comment number 3.

    There is nothing wrong in a Tory behaving untory like if it gets results. Is this a success story that is more to do with a single visionary than a method of procuring prison management? What will the forced and contested privatisation of Birmingham do for reducing re-offending which is a more realistic model to be pursued by the Coalition. Alternatively Cameron may have to cull this pinky old stager who dares to think creatively.

  • Comment number 4.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 5.

    prisons are not for profit this just about cutting jobs and saving money

  • Comment number 6.

    Prison and other forms of punishment have two, and only two, functions: to deter potential offenders, and to reduce recidivism. If it's successful on both counts, brilliant; if it's successful under only one heading we need to know its net effect and to seek further improvement; if it's successful under neither heading (as has so often been the case in the past) something is seriously wrong. The vindictive screaming of the Daily Wail and its readers should be ignored - such attitudes will only ever make things worse.

  • Comment number 7.

    Last year a student of mine got a phone call from a friend who was in prison for the first time. The inmate said that although he would rather have been on the outside, it was a positive experience: gyms, TV, language courses, etc. For long-term recidivist career criminals there is no point in making their lives a misery, but for first timers the regime should not be a pleasant one. When I was a young man I was terrified by the very thought of priso. Are young people today frightened?

  • Comment number 8.

    The big issue is that they are behind bars where they can not commit crime against citizens for the duration of their sentence. Once released most will return to their profession. The key concern for ordinary people is the cut in prison places and the doctoring of sentencing guidelines to release more criminals onto the streets.

    Having said that, various regimes are possible within a prison.

    It will be interesting to see what happens long term. Post Strangeways in the early 1990s various prisons tried the butlins approach - for example the ice cream van and barbecues at Parkhurst. After a while the consequences in terms of criminality within the prison, escapes etc came to the fore and resulted in a return to an understanding that it is a prison, not a fun palace.

    Let's see what happens at the erstwhile 'doncatraz' over the next, say, five years before making an evaluation.

    But in any event the bigger problem for the public will be the release of thousands of criminals on to the streets at the same time as unemployment rises and other resources such as police are cut.

    Sounds like a good time to put some bigger bolts on your doors and buy a baseball bat.

  • Comment number 9.

    2. At 19:02pm on 31st Mar 2011, lipsofashes wrote:

    The biggest worry about privitisation of prisons is surely lobbying.

    Clarke must be approaching 'retirement' - look forward to seeing him on the board of Serco/G4S.

  • Comment number 10.

    Just keeping an eye out waiting to see if I feel the need to 'post' in the case of misinformation or bad mathematics

  • Comment number 11.

    I remember a case in the USA from a couple of years back where a privately run youth prison was found to be giving kick-backs to certain judges for giving harsh custodial sentances to first time young offenders.

  • Comment number 12.

    I am 54 years of age; I have never been in Prison before 7th September 2010. I was released from a Cat ‘B’ Prison on 10th March 2011. I am smart (some say not so!), intelligent, compliant, respectful, but made a mistake.

    I’m dismayed by the treatment of Prisoners, especially if Society expects them to reform and rehabilitate on release.

    The Probation Service people are totally overloaded, therefore ineffective and held with no regard by offenders.

    There is a huge gap between what goes on in Prison and what is available for the ex-offender on the outside. I am still waiting for my Prison Offender Manager to contact me (a promise that one will be contacted within 14 days of imprisonment and given your Sentence Plan) and I’ve served six months and been released for over three weeks.

    So what are the positives to come out of my experience?

    Privatisation is not an option. It will not work. Make the Wing Officers more accountable and respected. They are face to face with the prisoners.

    Prison Officers at “the coal face” will tell you how their role has changed from interactive, proactive members of the correctional system to “clocking in, unlocking/locking cell doors, herding prisoners from here to there, breaking up the odd fight, clocking off and going home”. My experience confirms that.

    There are too many prisoners sent down these days, almost a conspiracy between Courts and Governors – my Prison’s licensed capacity is 225 but it’s occupancy level is average 302! (Official Government figures March 2010)

    What is the whole Criminal justice system doing about reoffending? I met many Prisoners who don’t want to reoffend but “there is nothing out there to help”. However, there is help, it is just that there is little continuity between what goes on in Prison and what goes on outside.

    What do all those Managers employed in the Prison Service by the Government do?

    I’ll tell you! Tick boxes, so their Managers tick boxes and their Area Managers/Directors tick boxes, and Government say “what a good job we’ve done”!

    Whilst inside, I wrote a report on what could be a very effective in reducing reoffending and sent it to the Governor, the Offender Management Unit and the BBC (January 2011). The only replies I have received are from Jeremy Paxman!

    I concluded, “Reduce the reoffending population by just 10% and we will save the Prison Service £247 million per annum” (Based on the reoffending element of the Prison population being 70% and a Prisoner costs £45,000 per annum). But does the Prison service want that?

    I don’t think so. Job protection.

    I heard so often (from long term serving Prisoners), “it’s always been like that” so I want to say “it isn’t going to be like that anymore”.

    Prison is easy. I was at Boarding School in Belfast from 1965 to 1973 and Prison is no worse than that was. Don’t go on about TV’s in cells – 10 crappy channels and the Prison Service gets £2.236 million annual revenue for rent from Prisoners! Where does that go?

    Lifers will tell you how it has got easier over the last 20 to 30 years.

    A small number of Prisoners want to stay in Prison, not be released because “the out” is worse! What sort of Society are we running?

    If society’s choice is to imprison people for crime, then Society has a duty to ensure these people are corrected in their behaviour and rehabilitation into Society. HM Prisons are not doing this but Privatisation is not the answer. In fact, it is totally the WRONG answer.

    There is a huge untapped resource of people in Prison who want to get off drugs, alcohol and the merry-go-round of crime-prison-crime-prison. Parts of Society want to help. Government MUST help but under the current regime it will not work.


  • Comment number 13.

    10. At 10:33am on 1st Apr 2011, nautonier wrote:
    Just keeping an eye out waiting to see if I feel the need to 'post' in the case of misinformation or bad mathematics

    Please don't - we really don't need any more misinformation and bad mathematics from you.

  • Comment number 14.

    10. At 10:33am on 1st Apr 2011, nautonier wrote:
    Just keeping an eye out waiting to see if I feel the need to 'post' in the case of misinformation or bad mathematics

    and jon112dk replied.

    Guys. The mathemetics are explaind in my post, distraughtdad.

    It's easy, fix the current system, as I have suggested to the Prison Service, and reduce the reoffending Prisoner population by 6,020 (dead easy) and the cost to the Public Purse by £247 million PER ANNUM. Ken Clarke's idea of 3,000 and £1 m (?) must be misquoted.

    My ideas would take TWO years to implement.

    But I don't think the Prison Service are listening. (Jobs for the boys?)

  • Comment number 15.

    What's the art of a successful prison?

    Surely before describing what the “art” is, one should define what constitutes a “successful prison”.

    I would have thought that the role of a prison is three fold...
    • To protect the public
    • To punish the offender and thereby act as a deterrent to themselves and others
    • To rehabilitate the offender
    The extent to which a prison manages to implement these three (admittedly sometimes mutually opposing) objectives, is a measure of the success of a prison.

    I can see how such things as
    • Family involvement
    • Sports academies
    • Restorative Justice Mediation
    • arts and media
    • film making
    may help in rehabilitation, but the rest?

    In the process of removing "gates and locks" and trying to create a "college atmosphere" behind bars, Mr Biggin may find people queuing up to get in!

  • Comment number 16.

    I think this is an excellent idea, IMHO the prison service has been for to long run on the whim of politicos to scared to upset the tabloid press. HMP Grendon had managed to perform well in rehabilitation stats for many years but the powers that be did not seem to have the political back bone to widen the scope. I hope it works well, obviously some offenders can not be helped and reintegrated to society but many obviously can. If it means treating people with respect, cutting down on reoffending, and save money - well that's a win win win.

  • Comment number 17.

    A friend of my son has been to prison many times? but it dont work on him ? After a few times his crimes' are now bigger must be what he has learned inside, the way he drinks and takes' drugs, prison must be a break for him away from his non stop life style.

  • Comment number 18.

    In re. to lipsofashes: While I am not sure what the U.K experience is, in the U.S our prisons are anything but nice (which may be the understatement of the decade). One would think the hard conditions would discourage people from committing crime but the crime rate doesn't seem to change too much.


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