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Jon Biggin On The Cascade Foundation

 Jon Biggin was the Director at HMP Doncaster during the Payment by Results trial. One of the programmes he brought into the prison was specifically to tackle dyslexia and the problems it brings with it. This programme was run by Jackie Hewitt- Main and it subsequently transformed into the Cascade Foundation which has subsequently had very solid results in tackling dyslexia and the recidivism associated with it. This also involved a ‘through the gate’ programme that provided support on release..

Jon has now retired from the Prison Service and after a couple of months to catch his breath he is again becoming involved in offender management issues.

Custodial Review (CR):           What part of the Cascade Programme was so attractive to you that you took them on at Doncaster?

Jon Biggin (JB):            It came about when I was having a conversation with a young man on one of my house blocks who’d been locked in his cell for days. He was only coming out for association or exercise and he was absolutely desperate to get a job within the prison. He wasn’t able to do this because he hadn’t been to education and achieved his basic numeracy and literacy qualifications that are precursors to getting employment. The reason was because he was dyslexic and so was never going to engage with the traditional Prison education system no matter how difficult things were for him. So he couldn’t earn any money, he was therefore having a real hard time of it and I just thought, “that can’t be right!”

So when Jackie came along, and I was able to commission my own services under Payment by Results, I was able to spend some money with Cascade because I could see it would answer a need that lad had highlighted.

I was also attracted to Cascade because I know that a mentoring relationship is more effective if it can be sustained going through the gates. If the same person is then able to meet the inmate on day one of release and get them to where they need to be and help them through those first few weeks after custody they stand a better chance of not reoffending.

Another important issue about trying to tackle reoffending is that you have to have a wide  variety of programmes because one solution is never going to fit everyone. If you can pick out groups with unique needs and match them to an organisation whose DNA is about meeting those needs then the intervention stands a far better chance of working.  As soon as I heard what Jackie was doing it just clicked straight away that it would be a good fit for that lad who was having a really hard time of it.

CR:       Now you’ve worked with Cascade, how do you see other prisons working with similar organisations?

JB:        I think that Jackie’s organisation is an ideal example of a ‘tier three’ provider for community resettlement companies. The problem for organisations like hers is that historically the first question that CRC’s are asking is ‘Where’s the research to back it up?’

I am of the opinion that we can listen to what the Justice Secretary is talking about with the mixed economy of different interventions to meet different needs and giving governors the ability to commission those services. That makes it quite a compelling rationale for community resettlement companies, but you have to follow the logic of what’s on offer from organisations like Cascade and not necessarily insist on the extensive research to back it up.

CR        Can you see that your ability to make the decision to ‘take a risk’ could be replicated elsewhere because of governors are now to be given that freedom?

JB:        Yes, it needs two things. It firstly needs the government to actually deliver the freedoms and that requires the adoption of massive degree of trust on their and the MOJ’s part. It also requires those Governors who have the vision, diligence and confidence to spend money on something that may involve straying away from the mainstream. The MoJ need to give prison governors enough autonomy to try things that they feel will work but they also have to make sure they have the right people in the job because with this level of responsibility comes a lot of potential repercussions.

CR:       Spending £100,000 on an untried project is sticking your neck out isn’t it?

JB:        Yes it is and there isn’t usually any immediate evidence to back up the decision. The difficulty of new and innovative interventions is it takes so long to get real, tangible and solid information on reoffending rates. At Doncaster we had to wait 2 ½ years to find out if we had been successful, because each PBR cohort is a full years releases. Then all of those prisoners have to be out for a year and there has to be time built in for potential court appearances before you actually know the real results. In Doncaster I had 10% of my revenue at risk if I didn’t deliver the agreed results. So we were really taking a punt on our knowledge and experience in one respect, but actually if you talk to one of the prisoners you see the results in action.

To work out what was actually needed to reduce reoffending we sat down with a lot of the short term sentence prisoners who regularly reoffended and asked ‘What could we have done that would have made the difference?’ Almost unanimously it was just providing some support through the gate and that was what just wasn’t available for under 12-month offenders. So we decided to target that group and if you look at reports into Doncaster that the MOJ had done independently, we disproportionately impacted on the short term prisoners reoffending rates and it was actually the longer term sentence prisoners that skewed the figures and brought them down.

I think my frustration was that I think it could have worked a lot faster and I would have really liked to have jumped in and asked people to be confident and follow the logic and not wait for the extensive research to be obtained. The logic behind the decision was that you take a group of prisoners who’ve never had support and you offer them that support and deliver it then it has to make a difference.  That’s what we did and fortunately, we were successful.

CR        If Jackie takes this system into another prison, what would be the most immediate effect within that prison from your experience?

JB:        I can see this working in two ways. In a longer term prison programmes this will allow people into work and proper training. I think the main power of what Jackie is doing is in the local prison with a high churn of prisoners. It doesn’t take long to change someone’s life but the beauty of this system is when you’re so much closer to the street, as in a local prison. In a longer term prison they may be in for six or seven years and it is very hard to see what made the difference but in a local prison environment you can see far more quickly. I can see that there would be a need for this in any prison though you see the results far more quickly in a local prison.

It isn’t just what Cascade does, there are other organisations such as the Shannon Trust. In the past intervention programmes like this have been done in great big chunks. For a great chunk of prisoners this is exactly what they need but for an increasingly obvious number of people it is never going to meet their needs. So when it comes to interventions have to have a mixed economy and you’ve got to commission services to meet the different needs of a smaller number of prisoners and be aware that these needs are constantly changing with the local economy. Local employment is a key factor, as is the police choosing to target young people.  Are gangs suddenly a real local issue? You have to be able to react fairly quickly to these things and bring in appropriate interventions. You don’t do that by commissioning great big contracts with providers who are just doing the one programme.

CR:       In order to react fairly quickly organisations to be relatively small but be highly integrated is that part of the solution?

JB:        To make this work a key skill governor’s need is to be able to make everybody feel as if they are a part of the management of the prison.

Prisons are becoming very strange places now because they are made up of relationships that are very different from a few years ago. As a governor you’re managing relationships with people in education and healthcare, providers who are not directly contracted by the Governor as they have been directly contracted by the MoJ. So the business relationship is with the MoJ however they have a massive impact on what the Governor and staff can do. This can be a bit difficult to manage when people are more at the margins and you can also have contractor relationships like Catch 22 and Turning Point. The key for me has always been getting the people in those organisations on my Senior Management Team. All of those organisations contributed to my planning and were on the prison SMT. This meant we all knew what the impact of what we’re doing had on each other.


CR:       Can new organisations feel a bit ‘siloed’ in a prison and feel as if they have to defend their turf?

JB:        Governors have to make sure that that doesn’t happen. When it’s done well and those people feel part of one team, you gain a fantastic amount. For instance; for a long time the Prison Service directly recruited their own healthcare staff. However I don’t know anything about healthcare so when things went wrong and I couldn’t recruit healthcare professionals I didn’t know where to go for a solution. Prisons now work with an organisation that provide healthcare on a national basis, and gain not only their ability to staff the place but also gain their knowledge and bandwidth when things do go wrong. It’s a win-win situation.

It’s the same with offender charities such as Catch 22. What they do for a living out of prison is support people. I don’t know enough about it to do it as well as they can! You’re buying in the bandwidth knowledge these organisations have without having to reinvent their experience, knowledge and contacts. When we ran the Doncaster PBR pilot Catch 22 volunteers were part of that. I would never have been able to reach out and get those volunteers, and train them in the right way but Catch 22 did. If you get that relationship right and they’re working as part of your team, you can do it really well. If you allow the management to become fragmented, and blame each other for things that are going wrong, then the thing fall apart fairly rapidly.


CR:       Thanks for speaking to Custodial Review.






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