London -- Monday July 10, 2006
'Access to prisoners is a genuine privilege'
Overcrowding, poor resources and children locked up without charge ... Anne Owers, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, has a lot to cope with. As she tells Eric Allison, she couldn't do the job if it didn't make her angry
Anne Owers: HM Chief Inspector of Prisons
In the summer of 2001, when Anne Owers had just been appointed the Chief Inspector of Prisons, she knocked on the door of Dartmoor prison to make her first unannounced inspection. Accompanied by two inspectors, a male and female, the group was greeted cordially by a prison officer. "Hello, girls," he said. "Hello, sir."
The story serves to illustrate what most people suspect: that there are few spheres more traditionally masculine than the penal system. Five years on, though, Owers suggests that changes are afoot, the system gradually shifting under an increasing female influence. So, for instance, about 33 jails out of 130 now have women governors - 30 of these presiding over male prisons - and there are many more female officers throughout the system. Owers says that she is no longer regarded as an oddity when she goes behind the walls.
As the first woman to hold the top job, however, her appointment came as something of a surprise to prison watchers. A former director of the human rights charity Justice, Owers is quietly spoken, and was not the obvious replacement for Sir David "Rambo" Ramsbotham, who was often a vociferous critic of the penal system. However, Owers' inspection reports have shown that she can be just as robust in questioning prison policy and practice as her two male predecessors.
I ask her, for example, about one of the most pressing issues in the penal system - the state of women's prisons - and Owers rattles off statistics taken from a survey of Styal prison in Cheshire: 80% of inmates have drug addictions; incidence of mental illness is two or three times above expected levels; about a third of inmates have already made serious suicide attempts; 40% of women at Styal are in custody for the first time; most have experienced physical or sexual abuse in their lives.
"The thing that strikes you most when you inspect women's prisons," she says, "is the extreme vulnerability of the women and the fact that, by and large, they are not convicted of violent offences. They bring to prison a lot of damage and then prison often makes them more damaged."
Owers adds that three quarters of them are serving sentences of less than a year. She does not comment officially on this, but by noting that most sentences are short, she implicitly raises the question of why so many women are put behind bars in the first place.
"The problem is that we don't have alternatives to custody for women," she says, "when what is needed are units where women could get treatment and support [a large proportion are incarcerated for drug crimes]. Our prisons are organised around the needs of men. We've had too few women's prisons for some time, and now there are even fewer with the recent re-roling [conversion from female to male prison] of Brockhill and Buckley Hall. We need smaller units for women, with more contact with the community and closer to their families." As it stands, this streamlining of women's facilities has led to the vast majority of female inmates being at least 50 miles from home, with many 100-200 miles away. It is hardly conducive to sustaining the close family and friendship ties that provide support both during a sentence, and beyond.
Owers says these children "have not committed any crimes" and she remains very concerned about their welfare. Far from the interests of the child being paramount, she argues, there is no evidence to suggest that they are taken into account at all. Her inspectors came across some truly dreadful stories in these detention centres: a five-year-old autistic child who had not eaten for four days and another who had been taken into detention just before his GCSEs. When these cases were raised, the families were taken out of detention but Owers argues that nobody seemed to have questioned whether detention was appropriate in the first place.
Given all the problems within the system, the Chief Inspector role seems an essential check on the sprawling (and ever-increasing) penal community. However, unless a future home secretary has a change of heart, Owers will be the last Chief Inspector to head her own department. When she stands down, the post will be merged into a new inspectorate, embracing justice, community safety and custody. She has made it plain that she fears the merger will reduce the powers of the inspectorate, a view shared by virtually every professional in the penal arena.
"It's not about my job," she says, "it's about the job. It's about handing over an effective, proper tool for the inspection of places of custody."
Surrounded by so much misery, doesn't the job ever get her down? "Yes," she admits. "I do sometimes get depressed and I sometimes get angry. The moment I stop getting angry it will be time to walk out of the door." But she insists the job is also hugely rewarding. She sees people who are very badly damaged, and, some of them, at least, are starting to be rehabilitated. She sees some staff doing amazing jobs, and others doing much less amazing jobs.
She describes prisons as a parallel world that most people are unaware of until it touches them. "Meeting prisoners, you get a sense of people who were excluded and marginalised in society, long before they were physically excluded in prison. Access to these people is a genuine privilege."
And it is nice to go back to a prison and find that three quarters of her recommendations have been implemented. "Even if it's only that prisoners are now getting clean underwear. That's important, that's what actually keeps you going, that's what gets me up in the morning".