Anne Owers: You Ask The Questions

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons answers your questions, such as 'Can anything be done about drugs in jail?' and 'Are prison officers sadists?'
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The Independent Online

You've inspected prisons since 2001. Do they work? WARREN HART, Caithness

They can work, for the right people, at the right time and with the right resources. Obviously, there are people whose offenses are so serious, or who are so dangerous, that they have to be in prison, sometimes for a long time – and the task then is to try to reduce the risk they pose, which takes time and skill.

But there are also people – for example, those who are mentally ill or those who currently get very short sentences – for whom prison is likely to make things worse. Prisons have got better at trying to support those with mental health problems, treat those who abuse drugs, and provide education and skills for those who lack them. But they can often do little in the short time people are there – and this begs the question of whether prison is the place where we should be educating our children or treating those who are mentally ill or addicted.

Your latest report on our prisons was absolutely damning. So if you were creating a system from scratch, what would it be like? PHILLIPA PIRIE, Seaton

While I would be the first to say that prisons are not all that they need to be, I've also been clear that many things have got better in prisons over the last 10 years or so – healthcare, education, a focus on resettlement and an emphasis on "decency". Of course, of the 82 reports a year we produce, it's the worst ones that get most publicity. That's good in terms of putting pressure on bad places to improve, but it's unfortunate for the better prisons and staff, who get little credit.

But there is still a lot to do, and needs that are much greater than resources. If I were creating a system from scratch, I would invest much more in "not prison" – in other words in the things that should happen earlier to prevent people getting there, that should be available as effective alternatives, or that need to happen later to ensure that any progress made in prison can be carried on in the real world outside.

Do you think prisons have got better or worse under this government? LUKE CHAMPION, London

In general, prisons are better places than they were. We should not be apologetic about that, as it has made prisons safer, more secure and more likely to rehabilitate those within them. But the constantly-rising population, at a time of restricted public spending, is a real concern, and I am afraid that we are close to reaching a tipping point, when we will lose hard-won gains – and some recent inspections have shown that this is happening in some prisons.

Is there really nothing to be done about drugs in prison? CHRISTOPHER MURDOCH, Cottesmore

It is a real problem, and you can't deal with it without tackling both supply and demand. A very large proportion of prisoners come in with a drug habit. Prisons are now better at detoxification, and drug treatment systems are improving as well. But prisons, because of their population, will always be a target for those who want to sell drugs, and there are many ingenious (and sometimes unmentionable) ways of getting them in.

But my experience is that the better-run and better-managed a prison is, and the better the relationships between staff and prisoners, the more likely the authorities will know what is going on and be able to take preventive action quickly.

With prisoner numbers growing, what realistic alternative is there to the Titan prisons that you oppose? KIM WILLIS, Liverpool

There are two ways of addressing this question. The first is to ask what kinds of prison are most effective. All the evidence shows that small prisons, close to home, work better. They tend to be safer places, with better relationships between staff and prisoners (which is crucial to motivating and challenging prisoners to change).

Resettlement, which is the key to preventing reoffending, is much easier if links can be sustained, and made, in the community where someone will be released. But the second answer relates to what I said earlier about investment outside prison. The more that we focus our resources within prisons, the less will be available to deal with what leads to crime, or to provide the support that ex-prisoners need – so the "revolving door" into and out of prison will continue to spin, and prisoner numbers will continue to rise.

Shouldn't prison life be as unpleasant as possible? Surely that's the whole point. NEIL LOCK, Manchester

That depends on whether we want prisons to work or not. If all they do is replicate the worst of prisoners' experiences, or teach that those with power over others can abuse it, then they simply reinforce a negative, anti-social lifestyle. Prisons can be places that encourage irresponsibility, and allow prisoners not to face up to how the way they behave has affected their families, victims and communities.

So an effective prison is one that challenges prisoners, that offers something different, and expects something different. There is a lot of evidence that, unless something positive happens in prison, it can increase the likelihood of reoffending, which has consequences for the rest of us.

Will we ever have a rational approach to prisons policy while politicians who have to win elections are in charge of it? Aren't you toothless to change it without enforcement powers? MARK HUMPHREYS, Eastbourne

We don't have enforcement powers, and we don't run prisons. However, I believe that we do make a difference. Every year, we go back to prisons (without warning) to check whether our recommendations for change have been implemented, and we find that between 66 per cent and 70 per cent of them have – that's over 1,500 things every year that become better as a result of inspection.

The bigger things take longer – inspectorate thematic reviews into healthcare, mental health, resettlement and race point to systemic problems which are, often too slowly, being addressed. But you are also right that the fundamental underlying issues are political, and require political decision-making. I have been critical in both my most recent annual reports about the lack of a joined-up and properly resourced strategy for both prisons and probation.

Why would anyone who wasn't a sadist want to be a prison officer? KEITH GILMAN, Huddersfield

Clearly, those are the last people that should be working in prisons. Prison officers do a crucial job, with incredibly little training – only six weeks' basic training, which is far less than in any other western European country. They then have to engage with some of the most difficult and damaged people in our communities.

I've seen some extremely good work being done every day by very committed staff, who feel they get little public credit for it. Obviously, prison staff have considerable power, which can be abused, or not exercised effectively – and this is something that always needs to be carefully managed and monitored in a closed institution. But the more that we think of, or treat, prison officers as just turnkeys, the more that the right people will be put off working in prisons.

Have you ever felt scared for your personal safety in a prison? ANNA FROST, Glasgow

No, I can honestly say I haven't. And it is a huge credit to our prison system that I, and my staff, can safely walk around, with our own keys, and without being chaperoned by staff, go into prisoners' cells and talk to them. There aren't many countries in the world where that would be the case.

What would you do for fun if you were locked up for 23 hours a day? GEORGIA HUNTER, Bristol

I don't think fun would enter into it. Imagine being in a small cell, with no handle on the door, perhaps shared with a total stranger coming off drugs, needing to use the toilet in front of them, and with nothing to do except watch TV and, in some places, count the cockroaches. It engenders apathy, depression, and sometimes fear, rather than fun. And it does little good to anyone.

Which is your favourite prison movie? NADIA PAULTON, Leicester

I tend not to watch prison movies – too much like work. But I did see The Shawshank Redemption before I started doing this job – obviously nothing like anything I've seen in reality, but it stands as a reminder of how abusive and corrupting the total power in a closed institution can be, for staff and prisoners. That's why we need independent inspection and oversight.