Chickens and chats form basis of new prison life
To some people, Tony Corcoran's ideas on how to run a prison mean giving criminals an easier life when they should be punished, plain and simple.
They would balk at his introduction of chickens to tend, and an apple orchard with beehives lining a wall of the yard at Channings Wood prison, Newton Abbot, which has a population of 700 and specialist units working with sex offenders and drug addicts.
Such critics would also be horrified at his policy of allowing the best-behaved to ditch their uniforms and dress as they please.
But Mr Corcoran, 51, has a ready answer, claiming rewarding good behaviour yields better results than merely punishing the bad.
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Ultimately, he believes his techniques will help prisoners rediscover that they can be good citizens, instead of being forced back into a life of crime when released.
"It may sound gimmicky, because this is supposed to be a prison and a place of punishment, but the people I'm charged with looking after are some of the most troubled and troublesome members of society," he said. "Their individual backgrounds are horrendous in terms of not having a father figure, and a lack of education and the opportunities that you and I experienced."
Through treating prisoners with "decency" and giving back a sense of respect, staff are already seeing a drop in incidents of bullying and drug abuse. A large number of prisoners have volunteered to sign up to a scheme to donate a small weekly sum to the Victim Support Service.
Since Mr Corcoran arrived just over a year ago, the number of prisoners working out in the community has risen from four to 15, who all live in a self-contained unit without bars on the windows, separated off to protect them from bullying and pressure to smuggle items into the prison.
Their building is surrounded by a pond they built themselves, vegetable beds and a polytunnel and assault course which are both taking shape, and they are able to plan visits home or into town.
These are not just low-level offenders who have never posed a real risk to anyone. Some have been locked up for serious crimes, but are turning their lives around by taking full advantage of the programmes run by the prison.
Mr Corcoran is reluctant to specify exactly where they work, but said they are to be found in every industry. He sees no reason why sex offenders – indeed rapists – could not also head out to a day's work, assuming they no longer pose a risk to the public.
"I was really keen for sex offenders to have this experience, and we are working on that," he said.
So far, none has fulfilled the criteria, but Mr Corcoran is confident it is only a matter of time. "For me, it's about giving people the same opportunities. I don't want people being released and saying 'What's the point?' and returning to their old offending ways."
And that is the nub of Mr Corcoran's philosophy. As well as protecting the public, he emphasises reducing reoffending by treating the prison as a "small town", and creating environments where prisoners can learn new skills and a way of responding to the outside world which involves respect, not crime and violence.
All of it has been created at relatively low cost, which is just as well considering the prison service is by no means immune from the financial pressures elsewhere.
But what about the horror scenario, where a seemingly reformed prisoner suddenly snaps while out in the community? Mr Corcoran believes the prisoners are so carefully selected for the programme that it could never happen.
"It's all about a very robust risk assessment," he said. "It's about asking 'Has this person addressed their behaviour and reduced their risk?' What we won't do is knowingly put the public at risk." Mr Corcoran's approach has impressed watchdogs the Independent Monitoring Board, which described him as a "breath of fresh air" to the prison.
But the governor refuses to take sole credit.
Initially, he was reluctant to be the subject of this interview, and throughout he pays tribute to his team so frequently that it becomes something of a running joke.
But if the workshop's lead instructor Tony Langdon is anything to go by, they are indeed an impressive bunch.
He exudes pride and enthusiasm during a tour of his absolutely spotless woodwork shop, which is incongruously producing pastel-coloured beach huts for customers including Torbay Council, generating a small profit, as well as churning out the standard issue furniture for their main customers, the prison service itself.
Mr Langdon said external projects were much more constructive for the prisoners, as they required a higher degree of skill, planning and through-thought.
The workshop is run exactly as a factory would be on the outside – prisoners bring a bag of top-of-the-range tools to work. "Some people used to frown on it and say 'Why are these prisoners getting all these great tools?' But if you are rehabilitating people, you can't give them the ancient stuff. You have to bring them in line with the industry."
Mr Langdon said that Mr Corcoran was enabling a better environment for all.
"The panic alarm hasn't gone off here for 18 months," he said. "It creates a far better working atmosphere. We offer these guys access to work, and that's what they want. They work through their breaks here, without being asked."
Touring the prison by Mr Corcoran's side is like walking through a park with a friendly undertaker. His black trousers and jacket and sombre hat smack of authority, but he has a smile and a wave for everyone we meet, and both staff and prisoners jauntily wave back.
Mr Corcoran believes that signs such as prisoner demeanour and the state of the grounds can earmark a good prison.
He takes obvious pride in the fact that the prison gardens are impeccably kept, with every spare space dedicated to allotment-style tending, to occupy and train inmates, help bring down food costs and provide fresh ingredients in the process.
As we inspect the enclosure where he is hoping to launch a chicken-breeding programme, one prisoner, whose good behaviour has allowed him to ditch his uniform and dress instead in head-to-toe denim, stops the governor to volunteer his idea for maximising the profit of the project by selling chicks instead of older point-of-lay hens.
This is a man who clearly knows his poultry, having reared hens on the outside, and Mr Corcoran cheerfully agrees to put the idea forward to his business manager.
Yet, approachable as he may seem, Mr Corcoran is no pushover. A key part of his method has been to change the punishment system, too. In the past, any wrongdoing inside prison would result in a judge who visited once a month imposing a sanction which effectively meant the offender spent longer in prison by having his good behaviour reduction slashed. But it meant a delay in the delivery of the punishment which created a disconnect between cause and effect.
"A lot of crime is impulsive, it's about the here and now: it's instant gratification," Mr Corcoran said. "My view was that we should turn it on its head and punish crime immediately. It isn't a soft option. I give solitary confinement and take away their privileges more readily than before."
The judge no longer visits, yet crime is down. "Anecdotal evidence is that prisoners don't like having their TV taken away, because it hits them immediately," he said.
Mr Corcoran was at Dartmoor Prison for two years. It is suggested that this is a relatively short term of employment, but he insists 18 months is about average for a governor, as they are often moved around by higher powers.
He was relocated just over a year ago in a reshuffle which saw Mark Flinton, formerly governor at Exeter Prison, moved to Dartmoor.
Mr Corcoran says his time at Dartmoor was "relatively successful", but he did not implement any of the ideas which have taken off at Channings Wood. Asked why, he cites issues with financing the maintenance of the 200-year-old building and the isolated location, as well as a "different" culture to Channings Wood. Pressed to elaborate, he thinks hard as a smile flickers across the corners of his mouth. "It's just… different," he finally concludes.
It's difficult to see how "different" could mean "better". At Channings Wood, he has been able to implement a philosophy he cemented when he did a Masters at Cambridge in 2004, with a thesis on the subject of restorative justice, which can involve bringing victims face-to-face with perpetrators of the crime to promote understanding and reduce reoffending.
"It's about making good the harm someone's done," Mr Corcoran said.
On a low level, that is the purpose of the voluntary tax towards victim support. But the prison has also organised "powerful" meetings between inmates and the victims of their crimes, and quite regularly brings together two prisoners who have fought each other to talk through their problems to great effect.
So how much of this new approach came from Mr Corcoran's studies? "I think it showed me that there's no such thing as a panacea. What you need is a collaboration of interventions. There's no silver bullet. That's absolutely right, simply because of the complexities that we are as people."