HMP Doncaster - John Biggin
John Biggin is the Director of HMP Doncaster. He says he always wanted to be a Prison Officer from as early as he could recall so he joined as soon as he turned 21. He started his career in the Prison Service in 1986 at HMP Lindholme not long after it had opened. He was then a training officer at Wakefield, was promoted to Principal Officer and served at Pentonville. He then worked at HQ in a consultancy role examining how some prisons became effective and efficient. This sort of self examination was new to the Service at that time. He went back to Pentonville as a governor grade before moving to manage the Court escort programme in London where his job was to oversee the contract then being delivered by Securicor. He was head hunted by that company in 2002 and became responsible for delivering the same contract!
When SERCO subsequently won the court escort contract he transferred over and later became the Head of Residential at the SERCO run prison HMP Dovegate. He then succeeded Guy Baulf as the Director at Lowdham Grange and was then asked to transfer to HMP Doncaster in late 2009 to ensure the that the prison was working at full efficiency and to ensure Serco retained the contract to manage it.
CR: Custodial Review
JB: John Biggin
CR You and the Prison recently won an award, what was it for and why did you win it?
JB We have won quite a few awards this year, The Doncaster employer of the year Award, The Prison Action Net award for our arts and media work, The POPs Crystal Heart award for our work with families. I won the Chartered Management Institute award for leadership and management. The latest award was the Guardian Public Servant of the year award, which I won for the work done in delivering a good prison. It mainly involved our work with families because it’s a proven fact that prisoners who maintain and develop good relationships with their families are six times less likely to re-offend. We focus on that and it’s a big part of what we do to tackle re-offending.
CR When I was waiting in your foyer I read the information on the posters. It was more than just a simple mission statement. It spoke of silos and thematics and their effects on reoffending. In the last edition of the Review the new Chief Inspector of Prisons spoke of his opinion that if a prison wasn’t directing almost all of its activity at tackling reoffending then it needed to ask why. You have done this by putting a comprehensive structure and ethos in place to cut reoffending in a traditionally tough group, what is it and how did it come about?
JB We have made cutting reoffending the central reason and theme around which the prison is run and organised. This strategic plan is based on concepts I brought with me from Lowdham Grange.
I was already convinced that the new thinking emerging about rehabilitation was the way forward. One report that was very significant to this was called ‘locked up potential’ by Ian Duncan Smith and Johnathan Aitken. Broadly its thrust was about having a different approach to treating reoffending that wasn’t reliant on flogging the dead horse of centralised methods and targets. It spoke strongly about matters that included the importance of strong family ties and different locally sourced methods of getting inmates engaged in treating their problems. All this struck a chord with me and the 20+ years of experience with prisoners. It proposed taking what was already proven, added what was also known to work and freeing the people doing the job to use their innovation.
The concepts organisational thinking is this; Prisons are silo based and almost all have the traditional vertical departments. These include Security, Residential, Administration, and offender management. Almost all are self contained units that are directly responsible for their own areas, have their own management, method of operation and structure. They don’t usually meet other departments until they report to the Governor. To me this seemed counter productive when trying to get a message or change thinking right across a prison. The thematic approach I introduced was intended to change peoples thinking so that they recognised that what was done in one department had a direct effect on another. For instance what may seem a good decision for the Security Dept may not be the right one for Offender Management and so on.
CR What were the first things you decided to do to implement these strategies, and why?
JB I decided how I wanted the prison to be structured in order to achieve them. I wanted outside agencies involved and family contact to be given the importance it needed to work. I then introduced the new directorates to manage these; the most important was called Partnerships and Innovation and is run by Debbie Hall. She also worked with me at Lowdam Grange. She is the sort of person who can engage with people, turn a fairly nebulous brief into a solid policy and get people to buy into it fully. She contacted local organisations, from the worlds of business, sport, charities, local authorities and so on. With the express aim of getting them involved in stopping prisoners reoffending.
One reason why we need their involvement is that we have a very transient population and we need to get to work with them quickly. This means we must have a large armoury of effective short courses and programmes that will enable us to engage their interest quickly. Long term programmes are not what’s needed here as we turn our population over more than 3 times a year. So using the Partnerships programme we get many organisations from the Doncaster area involved in rehabilitation. The people in these organisations know this area and its problems, they deal with the local issues all the time and the Partnership programmes give them the opportunity to tackle problem people at a time when their help will be at its most effective.
So the Partnerships and Innovation Directorate under Debbie’s management finds and brings those people and their skills into this prison. For example; The Princes Trust set up a sports academy; Doncaster Rovers run a football academy twice a week, Yorkshire Cricket also run an academy. Featherstone Rovers run a rugby league academy; Doncaster Knights with Rugby Union, Danum Eagles basketball and the list goes on and on. Arts and media are another example. We have a partnership with the Central School of speech and Drama in London. They send final year students here throughout the year to teach the inmates, they deliver the applied theatre programme that also helps inmates to confront their offending behaviour. They also help to deliver the film and magazine courses. West Yorkshire playhouse also work with us, they are helping to produce our New Year theatre production about veterans in custody.
Another central plank is the Family first initiative that makes retaining and improving contact with families a central purpose. It’s within Debbie Halls Partnership Directorate. I did this because I consider that a visit is a family affair that needs security and not a security issue with a family involved.
I moved visits away from the security remit and over to the Partnerships and Innovation Directorate, they run it under the Family first initiative. This sent the message to staff and inmates that family contact in a secure environment was what we were doing. This, and other initiatives, took some driving through, however, once people realised that it worked and improved the contact, and so the chances of avoiding reoffending, then the sceptics brought into it full time.
CR How many staff do you have and how did you change the way they behaved towards inmates, and how did you sell it to them?
JB 590 is the staff headcount and I started planning in July last year as soon as I knew I was going to be the Director here. I had already found out what sort of prison this was, its history and working practices.
I also used the Prison newsletter ‘Celebrate Success’ to communicate my ideas and proposals. I specifically targeted staff that had been here for a long time. I asked them for their comments and thoughts on the changes. One of our security officers who has been here since the prison opened 16 years ago, Richard Proudman, recently expressed the opinion that he initially thought the changes to visits would cause chaos. And in the early stages it was challenging to manage those changes. However once the changes had settled down he realised that inmates and visitors now place such value on the new visiting ethos that they will not jeopardise it by attempting illegal behaviour. So the smuggling dropped dramatically.
Changing staff behaviour was a very interesting journey, one of the things that I first changed was some of the security, Doncaster was originally built as a Cat A prison, So there are long connecting secure corridors between buildings. All gates and locks were doubles, movement was highly restricted. It was extremely stark, like a hospital from years ago. As we do not need that level of security I changed it. The electronic security was nearly all removed, movement was freed up, Corridors were painted, pictures were hung and a college atmosphere was encouraged. Half the staff thought I had lost it, even more became of the same opinion when I announced what changes all the family work and contact we were going to do would entail.
CR What are the Strategic Themes and how do they work in practice, can you give any examples?
JB The strategic themes for this prison include:
- Security, this goes without saying.
- Safety, but this isn’t just safety within the prison, it must include the people a prisoner will meet on release. This is something I have been concentrating on for a long time and Doncaster is now becoming the realisation of it. What I mean by this is that the safety of the people of Doncaster, and the wider population as well, should be at the root thinking of everything we do inside this prison.
- Responsibility, so we operate initiatives that make prisoners take responsibility for what put them in here and to make sure they do not do it again on release. An example is that we have systems in place to address this such as victim / offender mediation, correct initial assessment to ensure we identify criminogenic behaviour, history and needs. The next part is to ensure that prisoners take responsibility for what happens during their time with us. So we expect them to take part in activities that address their offending behaviour and so may be outside their comfort zone.
One example is the applied theatre where inmates are expected to take part in plays. One play was written and performed recently that had the theme of restorative justice. The men involved in the play gained a massive insight into how victims are affected and they get a very close look into the effects of their actions. We work with groups such as REMEDI and the Forgiveness Project that also do this. It is usually very life changing when an offender takes responsibility for the real impact of their actions.
CR The process of making offenders address their behaviour sounds very much like the regime in place at the Therapeutic unit at HMP Dovegate where everything is targeted at getting the inmate to address personal issues that are very uncomfortable but necessary to their rehabilitation. Is this a valid comparison?
JB In a way, but Dovegate is designed for long term prisoners; we are delivering something that must be packaged to a population of prisoners who are serving less than 12 months sentences. A group where reoffending has been historically difficult to tackle. We deliver a package of measures that have the best chance of success within the short time these people are with us.
We make the inmates feel responsible for what happens to them after their release too. We have a community re-entry team, who were graded very highly by the CIP. We have created a special wing that offenders move to when they are twelve weeks from release. It’s staffed by specially trained officers who have the skill and remit to prepare inmates for the outside world. This involves the inmate in getting access to housing, benefits, employment and or training, getting a bank account and obtaining a mentor. To this end we are engaging with a group called Catch 22, a mentoring group who will come into the prison and one of its members will form a mentoring relationship with a prisoner who is due for release. This person will be available 24/7/365 when the inmate leaves the prison. This is a completely new scheme for any prison who has short term prisoners. Up to now there has not been any statutory supervision for this group and from now on they will have a mentor available to them in the first 3 to 6 months after their release, this is a very vulnerable time and this kind of support should help them bridge it successfully. It will be more relevant to the inmates because it will also have ex offenders on the staff. It will enable newly released inmates to relate better to their mentor because he will have been there and done it. We are also seeking permission to issue a recycled mobile phone to an inmate on his release that has his mentors number programmed into it. He will then be able to access help at whatever time he needs it, not just 9-5 Monday to Friday.
CR What else is being done to prepare for release? You have spoken of ‘living responsibly within the prison so that you can do the same outside. How do you ensure this happens?
JB We run all the wings the same way life happens on the outside. Inmates must behave and be treated as they would after release. For instance disputes on the outside are not settled with violence, it must be the same way here. So about half my front line officers have now been trained in Tier One mediation which is a combination of restorative justice and mediation that is used internally instead of the traditional ‘nick them, put them on report and bring them up in front of the Governor’ prison discipline routine.
When a discipline situation happens its now immediately considered for a Restorative Justice Mediation (RJM). In its most practical application, a fight on a wing, we no longer ignore the underlying cause and just move the antagonists apart and put them on report. We now sit them down in a quiet room with a RJM trained member of staff who guides them through a process of examining why the conflict occurred and what could have been done to resolve the problem differently. There is always an outcome to one of these meetings and some form of reparation has to be made. We started training our staff in this technique in September and the system is now starting to really show results. So much so that we are now able to record statistics of how many RJM’s have occurred, who was involved and we can see a trend that shows an improvement in their behaviour.
CR Do you have statistical evidence from KPI’s that what you are doing here actually works, or are you relying on a different method of measurement?
JB I can categorically show that the levels of violence in this prison are lower now than they have ever been in the 16 years since it opened using the KPI assessment methods all prisons use when reporting to the MoJ. The level of drug misuse has also dropped.
CR How do you get the prisoners to ‘buy in’ to the new procedures, requirements and ethos and not take advantage?
JB 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, RJM’s 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. They clearly know what will not be tolerated and what will be available if they adhere to the rules they want what is on offer so they obey the rules and also buy into the ethos. This is a reflection of how society works on the outside so it’s how we operate on the inside.
CR Are there more detailed results from this ‘deal’?
JB Drug and violence levels are lower than ever. In an 1100 capacity prison including 350 YOIs, where many of the inmates are on a short sentence I have a MDT positives at 6% against a target of 9%. This is exceptional for this type of prison. Adjudications are about half of what they were for the same period last year which indicates that levels of crime within the prison are lower than they have ever been. It’s too early to say exactly what effect it is having on levels of reoffending but the recidivism rate is in South Yorkshire is already one of the lowest in the country. The new mentoring scheme will enable us to measure exactly the effect our policies are having.
CR What is the new visiting ethos and how did it develop?
JB It came about because I decided that if we were going to take advantage of the fact that retaining good family contact is one of the best ways of tackling recidivism then we were going to do it fully and properly. If it means we had to do things very differently and take some well thought out risks then so be it, tackling reoffending is paramount so the whole prison must be changed if we are to produce this essential outcome. The only red line here is that security can be changed to accommodate the new ethos but it must not be compromised. The Family first initiative now has a powerful strategic voice within the prison management, and two huge responsibilities, visiting security and family contact. It operates successfully because it has the ability to balance these two crucial issues and thus enable them to produce the benefits of good family contact without compromising security. Debbie will talk further on it, however, to give you a couple of examples; we allow new fathers to feed and bathe their babies in a separate area, in the summer we allow visits to take place outside and we arrange activities for the families to do together.
CR How does the new ethos work in attracting partnerships with outside agencies?
JB Because the concept of using outside agencies, and enabling them to function effectively, is now rooted in the management of this prison and they have the knowledge and confidence to commit to working in the prison long term. They know that the regime and the security is designed to enable them to operate except in extreme circumstances. They don’t have to fit in with us, we have changed so that working with us is not beset by the usual structural problems in prisons found by external partners.
CR You have had this system up and running for about 9 months now, where do you see it going in the future?
JB I want the Family initiatives to be so thoroughly embedded into the prison regime that it is second nature to everyone who works and is held here. I also want to expand all the work done by external companies and organisations to as full an extent as possible so we are utilising all the talents we can to tackle reoffending. I also want to pilot payment by results. It’s the future and I have a proposal ongoing to embed the system into the plans we have for Doncaster’s future. It fits in perfectly with all the other programmes and the ethos we are building here. This will be the judge of the success of our ethos.
CR So to sum this up. You are taking what is traditionally the hardest group of inmates to treat for reoffending, you are organising the prison around the power of family connections and the skills available in the local and national community with the aim of making the payments by results system work and so reducing reoffending and its effect on the local community? That seems a bold ambition! But one the Chief Inspector of Prisons would approve!
JB Yes it is a very ambitious aim, but it’s what we must aim to achieve. The local community suffer the effects of reoffending, so we are making ourselves fully responsive to their needs, using their skills and ours, so making everyone safer.
One reason for this is partly the present attitude in the ‘Justice’ world is that we must spend less, and the obvious conclusion given is that we will be delivering less. I don’t agree with that. Because there are organisations all over the country that have strong corporate policies requiring a high level of social responsibility. They want to help the hard to reach hard to teach members of society. Which is exactly what we have in here.
Thank you for talking to the Review.