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06 December 2010

Tough times ahead for prisons, outgoing Chief Inspector warns, and urges government resolve

The Chief Inspector of Prisons warned the government of the challenges ahead in maintaining progress in an overpopulated prison system. Dame Anne Owers urged ministers to be bold and think differently about prison in her valedictory lecture to the Prison Reform Trust, kindly supported by the Worshipful Company of Weavers.

Charting the progress made over the past nine years, the chief inspector stressed that prisons were brittle, but not broken, and the changes and investment made in health care, education and resettlement work, coupled with the considerable efforts of the prison service, means that prisons are better places than they were nine years ago.

But while prisons have drawn in additional skills, services and money, they have also drawn in an extra 20,000 adult men.

Welcoming the current government’s commitment to ending the revolving door of prisons, Anne Owers stated the need for rigorous and realistic planning before the implementation of any changes. She called for investment in alternatives to prison, as well as continuing investment in other services, such as mental health or substance misuse, so that prison is not the route by which people get support.

Anne Owers said:

Over the last nine years, prisons have become better places.  This is not a broken system, but one where considerable effort and resources have been devoted to trying to rehabilitate prisoners, drawing in resources and expertise from outside. But prisons have also drawn in 27% more prisoners.  That is one of the underlying reasons why progress has been slow and recidivism remains obstinately high.  We now have an inflated prison system in a shrinking state.  Our overpopulated prisons are not broken, but they are increasingly brittle.

Instead of creating and sustaining a prison system too big to fail, and drawing in more and more resources to try to make it better, the age of austerity offers the chance of tackling a prison system that has become too big to succeed – by doing things differently.

That makes it crucial to invest in ‘not prison’: both instead of and after prison. This will pose considerable problems at present. For, as the closure of the large mental hospitals showed, it is not enough simply to shut down or reduce places that provide inappropriate responses to problematic human behaviour. It is also necessary to invest sufficiently and appropriately in the alternatives. Justice reinvestment is rather different from justice disinvestment.

Over 900 people are expected to hear Anne Owers’ valedictory speech, delivered on the eve of her last day as HM Chief Inspector of Prisons. Entitled Inside Out: Reflections on Nine Years as HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, the speech is taking place this evening in Central Hall, Westminster, and will be followed by a question and answer session. The former Home Secretary and President of the Prison Reform Trust, Douglas Hurd, will chair the event. Thanks will be given by Dame Jo Williams, chair of the Prison Reform Trust.

Anne Owers stressed the importance of an independent prisons inspectorate in preventing inhuman treatment, warning that prisons, without proper oversight, can “go down as well as up” and “develop their own norms and realities”. She highlighted the inspectorate’s grounding in core human rights principles now reflected in the Operational Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture and Inhuman and Degrading Treatment, which the UK was one of the earliest countries to ratify.

As chief inspector, Anne Owers has consistently promoted best practice, and robustly criticised shortcomings in the treatment and conditions of prisoners.  She has brought public and government attention to the problems faced by individual prisons, and produced influential thematic reviews of critical areas of penal policy and practice including children and young people in custody, people held in detention and removal centres, foreign national prisoners, older people in prison, race relations and the Kafkaesque sentence of imprisonment for public protection.  She also produced evidence of the greater effectiveness of small prisons compared to very large institutions that weighed against the government’s abortive plan to build ‘Titan’ prisons. Prior to her appointment to this post, Dame Anne was director of human rights organisation JUSTICE. She is currently Chair of Christian Aid.

Commenting, Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

For nine years Anne Owers has shone a clear, incisive light on the invisible world of detention – raising to public and Parliamentary view the damage done by an ‘orgy of prison building’ and pointing to sensible solutions, many of which lie outside the justice system altogether.