Second chance

A behind-the-scenes look at how Serco-run HMP & YOI Doncaster is tackling reoffending rates and using a new payment by results system

John Biggin, Director of Doncaster prison, is driven by just one overarching aim: to reduce reoffending rates. It’s a more than worthwhile ambition, with nearly half of all criminals in the UK reoffending within a year of release. As a remand prison, the average stay at Doncaster is just 12 weeks, so Biggin does not have long to persuade prisoners to leave criminal behaviour behind: “We keep our programmes short and intense, typically just two weeks.”

Any such programme needs to be both immediate and long-lasting, as the Serco-run prison is contracted on a ‘payment by results’ model – the first of its kind in the UK prison sector. Ten per cent of the prison’s annual revenue is dependent on a 5% reduction in reoffending rates. Quite simply, if released prisoners end up back in court and are convicted – on any charge within a 12-month period – HMP & YOI Doncaster faces a financial penalty. But Biggin is unbowed by this pressure: “We know what we’re doing works, and we’re prepared to bet our revenue on it. Payment by results makes perfect sense in the current climate. It means taking total responsibility and enables me to make decisions at a local level, tailoring programmes to the needs of the prisoners.”

A career criminal may commit as many as 40 offences each year

Reducing reoffending creates huge savings, too. “A career criminal may commit as many as 40 offences each year,” says Biggin. “When you take into account the time and money spent on each offender by the police, the courts, probation, and the NHS if they are abusing drugs, not to mention the support services required to help victims of crime, a reduction of 5% means a significant saving across the board.”

Of course, behind the statistics are real people in need of support to help them break destructive cycles of behaviour. The programmes on offer at the prison aim to provide transferable skills and qualifications that offenders can use after they leave, to help them find new ways of life. NVQs can be taken in manufacturing, printing, catering and bricklaying, to name but a few, while drama workshops, sports and military-style training help to build individuals’ confidence and sense of self-worth. This is possible thanks to the prison’s pioneering work with more than 150 external partners. “We have a massive network of local organisations and communities helping us,” he says.

The partnerships thrive because they are mutually beneficial. For example, the Central School of Speech and Drama’s applied theatre students are required to learn to teach ‘hard to reach’ groups, and so visit the prison to run short courses. In turn, the prisoners are helped through drama and role play to explore issues such as drug addiction and domestic violence. The course culminates in a play, performed by prisoners for other inmates and their families.

Offenders who develop and maintain family relationships are six times less likely to reoffend

Offenders who develop and maintain family relationships are six times less likely to reoffend, so another key focus for Doncaster is the promotion of family ties. The Families First programme ensures that emphasis is on communication rather than security during visits. There are toddler mornings and a scheme to help fathers get in touch with estranged offspring, while Daddy Newborn classes introduce fathers to children born during their incarceration.

A special room, kitted out by partner Mothercare, lies away from the noise of the meeting hall. New dads are encouraged to bathe, feed and bond with their babies, and to understand the challenges their partners face in bringing up a child alone.

The prison also runs a social enterprise, Second Shot Productions, that offers creative services to generate profits that are reinvested in the company. The prisoners offer filmmaking and graphic design services to external clients, while also training in these disciplines. Second Shot aims to offer jobs to nine ex-offenders during the next three years.

A ‘privilege system’ of basic, standard and enhanced levels provides incentive for prisoners to stay out of trouble. Those with enhanced privileges spend less time in their cells, for example. Biggin operates a zero tolerance policy to drug taking and violent behaviour. If a prisoner commits an offence, a mini ‘court’ decides on a punishment. This approach has resulted in a 40% reduction in cases such as these since September 2009, and drug abuse and violent incidents are down to the lowest levels in the prison’s history.

Ex-offenders are most vulnerable in the first three months after release – they may have lost their homes and jobs and have little to return to. This is when they are most likely to reoffend, and why Serco’s bid to continue running the prison included an outline for a ground-breaking offender-management programme.

Partnerships with charities Turning Point and Catch22 offer mentoring to offenders during their stay and after their release – what Biggin refers to as ‘through the gate’ support. Volunteers make regular visits to give advice and help on practical matters such as employment options, housing and benefits. The relationships continue after release and, crucially, the same case manager is involved. “There is a big gap in the prison system around those serving less than 12 months,” Biggin says. These are often the people who go on to commit further crimes, so filling this gap benefits everyone. The effects of payment by results and these programmes are the most exciting prospects for criminal justice in my 20-year career.”


At a glance

  • Serco has run HMP & YOI Doncaster since it opened in June 1994. In August 2000, Serco was awarded the contract to continue running it for another ten years. In March 2011 a further 15-year contract was agreed.
  • Payment by results is being trialled for two years with extension periods built in until the five year mark.
  • The prison is a Category B establishment with capacity for a population of 1,145 male prisoners.
  • Serco runs four adult prisons, a Young Offenders Institution and a Secure Training Centre for juveniles. The company also operates two prisons in Western Australia and provides non-custodial services to Hunfeld Prison in Germany.

Is it working?

Awards in 2010

  • John Biggin was voted the Guardian’s Public Servant of the Year
  • He received a special award from the Chartered Management Institute for inspirational leadership
  • He also won Inspiration Leader at Serco’s annual Pulse awards
  • HMP & YOI Doncaster won Large Employer of the Year (awarded by South Yorkshire Newspapers and voted for by readers of the local paper, the Free Press)
  • Social enterprise Second Shot Productions won the Koestler Trusts’ Drama Platinum Award for their staging of the play, My Darling Son
  • The Sword of Honour (from the British Safety Council), following its five-star health and safety management audit
  • POPs (Partners of Prisoners) Crystal Heart Award for Family Ties
  • The PrisonerActionNet Award for Arts & Media
  • The prison has Investors in People accreditation, and an HM Inspectorate report described its work with families as “amongst the best we’ve ever seen”

Further reading


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1 comment

  • Great video really showing what you are hoping to achieve. The through-the-gate focus is much easier to describe than achieve, but is absolutely essential to prevent re-offending.
    Good luck

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