Ann Owers: 'We are just recycling offenders, not keeping people safe'

The Monday Interview: Chief Inspector of Prisons
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The Independent Online

These are among the "interesting experiences" of the first female chief inspector in the masculine world of prisons.

Yet she is not intimidated by the clink of locks and says walking home from Stockwell Tube each night is "a much more frightening experience" than visiting a prison.

Some of her most grisly encounters have been in women's jails. During one inspection she discovered staff cutting down six women who had tried to hang themselves - and this was a daily occurrence. "They were alive having ligatured themselves with blankets and bits of sheet," she says. "The trouble with ligatures is you don't get a lot of time. If a ligature is tied in the wrong place you have seconds."

In other prisons, hundreds of women are deliberately cutting themselves, in an epidemic of ritualistic self-harm.

With the prison population nearing crisis point with a record 77,000 inmates behind bars, the job of chief inspector has never been more stressful.

On Friday a 19-year-old boy on remand became the 50th prisoner to kill himself this year. Thousands of others have been rescued just in time and resuscitated by prison staff.

Ms Owers, a veteran human rights campaigner, is in little doubt that overcrowding is having an effect on the suicide rate. "If you look at what has happened to the male prison population, which has grown exponentially since April, we have had 35 suicides, most of them in local prisons at the front end of that pressure," she says.

In contrast, the number of women in prison has dropped in the past nine months. There has been a "dramatic" reduction in suicides because there is "space" and a "less pressured" environment. "The women's prison population has flattened out to the extent that there are now surplus places in women's prisons. Over the last six to nine months we have had very few deaths of women in custody. Only two."

Tony Blair and his wife, Cherie, have spoken publicly about the need to cut the number of women sent to jail for non-violent offences. They have highlighted the effect of female incarceration on children and their families. Ms Owers says their message "probably has helped to create a climate where sentencers will quite rightly consider all the other options before using prison as a last resort".

Male prison numbers had also been going down. But in recent months they have dramatically shot up again - to the point that men's jails are now close to full capacity. Is hardline rhetoric from politicians - both Labour and Tory - about the need to crack down on antisocial behaviour and violent crime contributing to swelling prison numbers? Ms Owers seems reluctant to become embroiled in the debate about sentencing. But she says "rhetoric" has certainly helped create "climates" where criminals are locked up.

"My job is to say 'that is what you are doing; this is what the result is. Think about it,'" she says. "All I can do is signal to ministers what is happening."

Ms Owers says there have been "some unintended consequences of sentencing policy", including overcrowding and suicides. The messages from ministers have been "mixed" about jail terms, she says. She warns the media and politicians who bray for criminals to be locked up, to "be responsible".

"It is actually saying to everybody out there, 'if you lock up this number of people this is the consequence. This is what is going to happen. More people are going to die in our prisons but also our prisons aren't going to be able to do the positive stuff nearly so well,'" she says.

Ms Owers, a calm, no-nonsense figure who projects competence and compassion, says the cell shortage in male prisons is now so acute that the authorities have to shop around for empty prison beds, NHS-style.

One of the trends has been for the courts to order longer sentences, which is creating "the equivalent of bed blocking" because long-term prisoners are not being released. Inmates are now sleeping in police cells or in prisons hundreds of miles away from their families. "It is like some sort of horrific game of musical cells," she says.

The constant shunting around is increasing stress on prisoners, which is contributing to the suicide rate. The suicide risk is highest during the first days inside, or after transfer to a new prison. In many overcrowded jails prisoners are now spending 23 hours a day locked up "with only an hour out for statutory exercise".

Two or three prisoners are occupying cells built for a single person with conditions so cramped some have to eat three meals a day locked up.

"Prisoners will be eating their meals together with their lavatory in a cell. One of them will be sitting on the bed and one of them will probably be sitting on the loo," she says.

Surely eating on the loo poses questions about hygiene? Ms Owers raises an eyebrow, diplomatically. "You would think so wouldn't you?" she replies.

Ms Owers is surprisingly cheerful, given her job entails dealing with serial villains. She admits she sees things that are "difficult and dreadful" but maintains that prison can have a positive effect on prisoners including those "seriously damaged" by years of abuse.

As if to reinforce her optimism, her Whitehall office is packed with artwork by inmates, including a sculpted model of a prison cell, with bars and bunk.

Prison, she insists, serves a crucial purpose in protecting society from "extremely troubled and troublesome people". Is the old adage true, that an offender sent to jail emerges a hardened criminal? "It is something that you really have to watch out for, particularly for young people," she says. For some young men, prison is becoming "part of a lifestyle", she warns, and carries a perverse form of "street cred".

She concludes that a prison system under such pressure is not making society safer in the long term. "The public is protected for a very short time while the person is in prison," she says.

"Real public protection" entails equipping prisoners for a life beyond crime. At the moment we are just recycling them," she says.

With 70 per cent of prisoners functionally illiterate, rehabilitation is not a perfunctory task. Ms Owers says great strides have been made in educating prisoners, although progress is hampered by overcrowding.

Part of the problem is that so many inmates are drug addicts who take up the habit, and the criminal life to fuel it, once they are released. Others are mentally ill and have ended up behind bars because "nobody knows what else to do with them".

Ms Owers praises the work of prison officers in giving hope to young people whose lives have been "very damaged". She is clearly touched by the stories of prisoners whose lives, shattered by abuse, are turning around. "I am astonished by the resilience of some of people in prison who have survived some of the most appalling experiences and are still alive," she says. She recalls one young man who spent Christmas behind bars. Far from being resentful, he smiled. "This is the best Christmas I have ever had," he said.

The CV

* BORN: 1947, Co Durham

* EDUCATION: Washington Grammar School, Co Durham; Girton College, Cambridge (MA history).


1968-80, Researching for a PhD in African history and teaching in Zambia

1981-92, researcher, then general secretary, Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants

1992-2001, director of Justice, the human rights and law reform group

2001, appointed HM Chief Inspector of Prisons

* FAMILY: Separated, with two sons and a daughter