What private prisons can teach you about innovation

High scrutiny and tough regulations mean that prison services have to think out of the box, says Serco's justice and immigration MD.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 18 Mar 2019

On the face of it, the private prison service is the last place you’d expect to find lessons about innovation. It’s a sector synonymous with stunted margins, scandals and regulation rather than creative solutions.

Julia Rogers is managing director of outsourcing giant Serco’s Justice and Immigration business, which oversees six prisons holding 5,400 prisoners. Since joining in 2015, she’s had to lead the company through the shadow of serious fraud investigations (which originated before she started and also involved outsourcers G4S), navigate the regulatory and financial constraints of onerous government contracts and intense - if necessary - media scrutiny.

She admits that while this doesn't leave the company much room to experiment, it doesn't mean innovation can't or doesn't happen.


"We have to understand deeply the things that could make a difference to the prisoners in our care, and sometimes it is the smallest innovations that make the biggest difference.

"For example in our Lowdham Grange prison the director and his team installed a photo booth in the visitor area. The prisoners pay for it themselves out of their allowance and every quarter it gets dressed up with a different theme.

"You might ask ‘what the hell has that got to do with anything?’ But when you consider that it’s a long-term, high security prison, and some of the prisoners have no pictures of their children, the idea of giving them the opportunity to have their photo taken with their kids is priceless. It costs pennies and makes a big difference to prisoner welfare*. 

"So innovation is not necessarily about big money, high complexity and risk. Sometimes it's just about understanding the purpose of the service you deliver. The statutory purpose of a prison is rehabilitation and so everything we do has to help a prisoner along the pathway to rehabilitation. For us it can’t be innovation for innovation's sake, it’s innovation against managing a decent, safe, secure and rehabilitative prison."

*Although Lowdham Grange was described as 'adequate if inconsistent', it was commended for its ‘innovative practice’ in improving the experience of inmates and their visitors following an unannounced inspection in August 2018.

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Image credits: welcomia/gettyimages

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