February 6, 2012 / 11:03 AM / 7 years ago

UK prison has ambitions for inmates beyond its gates

DONCASTER, England (Reuters) - Shane has been in jail more times than he can remember.

Burglary at 15 earned him his first sentence and began a cycle of crime to fund a heroin addiction - a cycle he is now determined to end with the help of a pilot prison scheme.

“You used to come to jail and if you didn’t have probation work when you got out of there you were on your own,” Shane, now 32, told Reuters in an empty canteen at Doncaster prison in south Yorkshire, England.

“A lot of people were out the gate with 45 pounds, nowhere to live, and were back on the street spending it on class A drugs or drink. They’d be back inside in weeks or months.”

Serving 20 weeks for an offence that caught up with him from 2009, Shane does not blame his wrongdoings on a bad upbringing or education, but on running with the wrong crowd.

Serial offenders serving short sentences cost Britain up to 13 billion pounds a year and make up a significant proportion of the prison population. In America, annual state and federal spending on corrections is a cool $52 billion.

The program at Doncaster - the latest in a long line of attempts to improve Britain’s prison system - aims to fix that.

From its red brick buildings and grey wire fences to local communities and housing estates, Doncaster’s officers are teaming up with voluntary and social enterprise partners to try to reduce reoffending rates that show almost half of adults who leave UK prisons are reconvicted within a year.

In the world’s first payment-by-results model, Doncaster’s operator, Serco, a FTSE 100-listed outsourcing giant responsible for running services from London’s traffic lights to Australian immigration centers, will gamble part of its 250-million-pound contract on the outcome.

Working with male prisoners serving 12-month sentences or less, many of whom come from broken homes and have drug or alcohol addictions, Serco has teamed up with charity Catch22 and social care organization Turning Point to offer inmates tailored rehabilitation programs that promise more continuity by extending beyond prison and into offenders’ lives.

“My job is to motivate prisoners to want to change. The alliance then takes over and makes sure that doesn’t fall flat on its face as soon as they leave the prison,” Doncaster director John Biggin, who has been with Serco since 2005, told Reuters.

While the prisoner is on the inside a case manager helps him with family relationships and other core issues like housing, drugs and debt that might otherwise prove a stumbling block on release and signal a return to a life of crime.

Secondary school education courses like Math and English are offered from the very beginning of the prison term, as are jobs ranging from chefs to producing corporate training videos or material for an in-cell TV channel.


Such support has traditionally evaporated upon release. Offenders are now in contact with Catch22, Turning Point and local businesses on the outside through home visits, 24-hour helplines and meetings to discuss employment options.

“The first problem that a person hit quite often was enough to send them piling into a spiral of behavior that would send them back to prison,” said Biggin, a softly spoken but imposing man with a goatee.

“The key to what we do now is that we have someone there with them to offer support, to get them into housing and to make sure that if they do falter they have someone to talk to.”

Serco, which employs over 100,000 staff in more than 30 countries, has run Doncaster since it was built in 1994 and renewed its original contract to 2026 last March as part of a wave of private prison management deals sought by a government looking to cut costs in an economic downturn.

The four-year pilot, by which 10 percent of Serco’s annual revenue is dependent on reducing reoffending rates by 5 percent, was included in the renewal.

At less than 2 million pounds a year, the amounts at stake are small for a firm with a 2010 turnover of 4.3 billion pounds, but success could see the pilot rolled out nationally by 2015, signaling much bigger deals in the UK and possibly abroad.

Mark Leech, a British convict for almost 20 years and former Chief Executive of the national ex-offenders charity UNLOCK, is one expert who is skeptical.

“You may find that something which works in a small and structured environment doesn’t work when you roll it out nationally,” Leech told Reuters.

“You have no control over what prisoners do, who they associate with when they come out, what drug habits they acquire when they are in prison or once they come out.”

Leech set up UNLOCK with actor and broadcaster Stephen Fry and is now editor of an annual guide to the penal system of England and Wales, The Prisons Handbook.

“The serious social problems we have are far more ingrained than six months in Doncaster prison can overwrite,” he adds, and says many of Britain’s charities lack the resources to contribute to such schemes.

“I admire the willingness to look afresh at these issues, but I can’t ignore the fact that they have been tried before and I’ve heard nothing new.”


Up to 12 weeks before their release from Doncaster, a medium-security prison that holds around 1,145 inmates at any one time, offenders are moved to a “resettlement wing.” Resembling a youth club with its pool tables and sofas, case managers and volunteers sit at a row of canteen-style tables working with inmates on housing and bank account applications. Cells and classrooms are upstairs.

Shane, who was made available for interview by Serco who asked that he be identified only by his first name, is being helped by his case manager, a Catch22 employee, to enroll on a college course and address debts and other problems that wait on the outside. An appointment at his local drug clinic to continue managing his heroin addiction is also scheduled.

Appearing upbeat and motivated, he says: “This is the first time after all these years of coming to jail where I’ve seen that there is something beyond the prison gate.”

A big emphasis is placed on improving family ties. Biggin, who is putting his 26 years experience into writing a book on what makes prisoners change, says research shows that inmates who do so are six times less likely to reoffend.

A “Daddy Day Care” operation in a colorful room decorated with crash mats and Winnie the Pooh paintings allows inmates to spend time bathing and feeding their babies.

Chris Wright, Chief Executive of Catch22, a 50-million-pound charity which has been helping young offenders since it was established by an act of parliament in 1854, says the personal touch is key.

“What we are trying to do at Doncaster is very much based on desistance theory, the notion that individuals come into the lives of offenders and it is those individuals who can make a very significant intervention and hopefully pave the way for offenders to think differently about their situation.”


Inmates move freely through Doncaster’s bright corridors on their way to jobs and classes, passing anti-bullying posters and prisoner artwork. Despite a college feel, heavy double-lock doors are a reminder that this is a prison.

“This is no holiday camp,” Biggin said above the noise of barking prison dogs outside. Doncaster’s low levels of violence and recent drug-free tests are evidence of his zero tolerance regime.

Quarterly research from Britain’s Sheffield Hallam University will help show Biggin and Serco, which also runs other prisons in the UK, New Zealand and Australia, what is working since the pilot started in October. Officials say the pilot has already attracted attention in the United States.

“There is very significant interest at both federal and state level in the U.S. This is a new way of doing business,” Britain’s prisons minister Crispin Blunt told Reuters. “There is a possibility that this will be as significant in the end as privatization was in the 1980s.”

Despite the U.S. quadrupling spending on corrections in the past two decades, more than four out of 10 adult offenders still return to prison within three years of their release, according to a study last year by The Pew Center on the States, a U.S. organization which conducts research on state policies.

Michigan, Oregon and Missouri have made progress using in-house rehabilitation techniques similar to Doncaster and the study estimates over $635 million in prison costs alone could be saved if all 41 states surveyed cut reoffending by 10 percent.

Louisiana State Penitentiary, America’s largest maximum security jail where prison sentences average more than 90 years, is even running a scheme which sees criminals serving up to 10 years sent there to learn trades and skills from inmates that have reformed but are unlikely to be released, in the hope that they turn to work rather than crime when freed.

Louisiana’s warden Burl Cain - a 30-year veteran of the business and the prison’s longest-serving warden - said in a telephone interview that Doncaster’s pilot has a big chance of being replicated in the States, and sees private sector firms as the most likely to deliver such schemes due to often having better funding and resources than public sector bodies.

“We know that charities and community are the solution to the crime problem, so what’s happening in England is essential... I’m anxious to see that work,” he said.

Editing by Sonya Hepinstall

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