Stop playing politics with prison, inspector demands

By staff writers
January 30, 2008

For the third year running Her Majesty's Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers, a former human rights campaigner, has hit the headlines with a hard-hitting report on Britain's dire prison situation, calling for action not political posturing.

In 2006 the government tried and failed to abolish her post and roll it into a wider remit. Ms Owers and her role was defended vociferously by civil rights groups and by the then Church of England parliamentary spokesperson on penal policy, the Rt Rev Dr Peter Selby, recently retired as Bishop of Worcester.

Ms Owers said on BBC Radio 4 today that prison had a role to play within a broader penal policy, but she opposed the building of more and more gaols, 'titan prisons' and lack of attention to alternative sentencing prcatices, restorative justice and experiments in fresh approaches in womens' prisons and elsewhere.

The prison system in the UK was on the brink of collapse, she warned, and all political parties were challenged to turn rhetoric into action.

Campaigners have also highlighted the damaging role of sensationalist media reporting in misrepresenting the reality of crime and punsihment in Britain today.

Emergency plans to build three 'super-prisons' to hold soaring numbers of inmates could backfire by deepening the crisis facing jails, Ms Owers fears.

Her report says the penal system, which already holds more than 80,700 people, is struggling to cope with the pressures it faces and she even raises the prospect of financial cutbacks leading to riots.

In 1976, then Home Secretary Ry Jenkins announced that the prison service wuld be in crisis if it crossed the threshold of 42,000.

Ms Owers paints a grim portrait of conditions behind bars, pointing to a 40 per cent increase in suicides last year, continuing overcrowding and the plight of inmates living with severe mental distress and dsorder.

The cief inspector blames government policies for 2007's record prison population, which forced ministers to order the use of police cells to hold detainees and to approve the early release of non-dangerous inmates.

Ms Owers declares: "That crisis was predicted and predictable, fuelled by legislation and policies which ignored consequences, cost or effectiveness, together with an absence of coherent strategic direction."

She also warns that government proposals for a vast expansion in jail places, principally by building so-called 'titan jails', would be counterproductive.

"On the horizon loom the Titans – 2,500-strong prison complexes, flying in the face of our, and others' evidence, that smaller prisons work better than larger ones," she says. "They may be more efficient, but at the cost of being less effective."

Ms Owers expresses concern over suggestions by Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, that prison ships and "unsuitable" converted army barracks could be used to hold inmates.

She protests over the 3 per cent "efficiency savings" which mean that from April 2008 many inmates will be locked in their cells, with no opportunity for exercise or meeting other prisoners, between Friday nights and Monday mornings.

Ms Owers says that this strategy is "fraught with risk in relation to order and control". Further funding cuts are expected in each of the next two years.

The new report, which will put the government under pressure on penal policy once more, says the penal system is now "at a crossroads", adding: "At a time of severely restricted public funding, there is now a real risk that we will get worse, as well as more, prisons."

In February last year, Ms Owers' report coincided with a public lecture by Archbishop of canterbury Dr Rowan Williams pressing for a fundamental re-think of penal policy and a re-commitment to the principles of restorative justice, which aims to get to the roots of offending and rebuild social relationships.

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