Anne Owers: We should care about our prisons

From the British Institute of Human Rights lecture by the Chief Inspector of Prisons
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The Independent Online

When I came to this job, one of the images that stuck in my mind was a scene from David Hare's play Murmuring Judges.

I cannot claim that anyone has yet been sick on any part of me: the worst damage was wet paint on my coat. But in the two years or so that I have been Chief Inspector of Prisons, I have negotiated my way round a dirty protest or two; discussed her "voices" with an articulate young woman, held in segregation, who had just tried to stab another prisoner; seen staff running at just sub-Olympic speed to cut down a prisoner who was already blue; and one of my inspectors, in a prison healthcare centre, was present while a prisoner gouged out one of his eyes and was just prevented by staff from doing the same to the other.

Those are the extremes. But we do well to remember that prisons can be extreme places; imprisonment is an extreme sanction. And some of those in our prisons present great risks to themselves, other prisoners and staff. It is particularly the marginalised who need the protection of human rights.

By definition prisons are closed environments. They operate outside the normal controls and processes of society; and it is often the case that society as a whole is less than interested about what happens behind their walls. We do not talk of "our prisons" as we talk of "our" schools and hospitals; politicians rarely feel the need to promise more prison officers, as they do more police or more doctors and teachers.

Because they are out of sight and out of mind, prisons need to have a light shone on them, so that society as a whole can know what is being done in its name.