Colleges of crime
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.
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.