Interview: Paul McDowell, chief executive, Nacro - Outside the prison gates

Neil Puffett
Tuesday, August 25, 2009

"Nacro has been too quiet in recent years," is the candid assessment of Paul McDowell. "We need to make sure we are a key player with a loud voice."

The crime reduction charity's chief executive-in-waiting is clearly a man who thinks his new role offers plenty of scope for improvement.

McDowell, who replaces Paul Cavadino, chief executive since 2001, says accepting the position was not a difficult decision to make.

Having worked in the criminal justice system for close to two decades, including the past three years as governor of Brixton Prison, he recognises the importance that resettlement of offenders and support outside of custody has on reducing crime.

While others will undoubtedly share his zeal for reducing crime levels, it's fair to say not all of his views chime with those of the rest of the sector.

Prison is right for some

McDowell, deputy governor at Feltham Young Offenders Institution before taking the job at Brixton, believes prison is the right place for some children, a stance that could create friction with other charities.

"Nacro does not do the same job as the Prison Reform Trust and the Howard League," he says. "Nacro campaigns for change but is also a service provider to over 90,000 people a year, to offenders and those at risk of offending.

"I think custody is the right place for some young people," he says. "It is vital that the public as well as the young people themselves are protected from serious harm."

"I do believe we need to have a debate about persistent offenders who find themselves caught up in the criminal justice system. If someone commits relatively low-level offences but does them 200 times, we need to be clear what we want to do with those particular young people."

Non-custodial alternatives

"My desire would be to see a more imaginative use of non-custodial alternatives to reduce the need for the number of young people in custody to be there. It comes back to the discussion about the need for us, as a society, to be brave and invest in terms of early interventions."

"We need really good community provisions so that courts aren't left thinking they have no alternative to locking children up." He cites Nacro's intensive supervision and surveillance schemes as effective in helping many prolific young offenders who have already been in custody but then continued offending, adding: "Every time a child goes into custody unnecessarily it is a moral disgrace."

While recognising the hard work of staff and history of the organisation, he remains clear about the need for new direction and leadership.

With the recession continuing to bite, McDowell joins the charity at a challenging time. It is likely public spending will face a squeeze, while the forthcoming general election could herald a new government with new priorities.

Competitive tendering

Added to that mix is the current climate of competitive tendering, making it vital that charities such as Nacro offer value for money and the best services for projects on resettling young offenders, housing, education and employment.

"We must maximise the professionalism of the organisation in readiness for that challenge," McDowell says. "If you are bidding, that bid needs to be of the highest standard. If you are not working in the right way and are not up to speed with new developments you are not going to get the opportunity to get yourself involved and have a say in the future direction."

McDowell, who describes himself as an organiser and motivator, is already busy arranging meetings with heads of other key charities in the sector about what a change in government could mean.

He is also well aware that the expected tightening of central government purse strings is something that must be prepared for.

"Something has got to give on public spending and we don't know what that will mean for Nacro," he says. "Our preparedness for whatever comes our way or the sector's way will be important."


- McDowell has been governor of HMP Brixton since 2006

- He worked in criminal justice for 19 years and was deputy governor at Feltham Young Offenders Institution

- During his time at Brixton he introduced a radio station into the prison, to help educate and increase the skills of prisoners

- He also got prisoners involved in schemes such as Jail Guitar Doors, a charity set up by musician Billy Bragg, which provides musical instruments to prisoners

- Nacro has more than 200 projects across England and Wales, with 60,000 people benefiting from its work each year

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