Owers’ five year plan

Whoever followed in David Ramsbotham’s
footsteps was always going to have a lot to live up to,
writes Clare Jerrom. During his five
years as chief inspector of prisons, Ramsbotham earned a reputation
for being “hard hitting,” and “straight talking,” and acquired the
nickname of “Rambo” for his damning reports of prisons and young
offenders institutions.

His successor is Anne Owers, the first female
chief inspector of prisons. But while she acknowledges Ramsbotham’s
formidable reputation, she feels it is a positive thing: “In some
ways he was an easy act to follow because actually you have a very
good platform for continuing the process of reforming the prison

Owers refuses to comment on his departure –
Ramsbotham claimed he was forced out in an “appallingly underhand
way” – but says she will carry out the role as her predecessors
have done, by telling it how it is.

“You have a responsibility to tell ministers
and the prison service and to communicate to the general public
what is actually going on, what is good, what needs to be improved
on and what needs to be promoted – and that’s my job,” she

Owers joined the Prison Inspectorate in August
from human rights organisation Justice where she had worked for
nine years. To date, she has kept a relatively low media profile
but has been busy inspecting and visiting 26 prisons, including
three young offender institutions.

“The short answer about young offender
institutions, and particularly those for 18- to 20-year-olds, is
that they are not yet in a state where the prison service is happy
with them and they are certainly not in a state where we are happy
with them,” Owers says.

The inspectorate has always aired its doubts
about whether children should be placed in prison, thoughts that
Owers echoes: “It seems fairly apparent, that in some cases,
people, including young offenders, are sent to prison for drug
treatment because the sentencing court can’t think where else to
send them where they will get it.”

Owers stresses that some substance abusers,
for various reasons, need prison sentences, but calls for more
intermediate places like hostels and semi-secure accommodation
where young people could be sent for “what is essentially a
substance abuse problem”.

A Department of Health strategy launched last
month found that 95 per cent of young offenders had substance abuse
problems, mental health problems or both. She believes people with
a severe mental illness should be in a therapeutic environment, and
adds that mental health provision across the prison service is “not
a good picture”.

Owers believes the prison health service is
the Cinderella of the health service. Many people who have been
sectioned or should be sectioned under Mental Health Act powers are
stuck in young offender institutions because of the shortage of
National Health Service beds, she argues.

People in the community often leapfrog waiting
lists for treatment because they pose an immediate problem,
possibly an immediate danger, she adds. Prisoners, by contrast, are
“out of sight, out of mind.”

Owers believes rehabilitation is inadequate,
particularly for the over 18’s, and not enough emphasis is placed
on resettlement. Issues that, if managed, would make people less
likely to reoffend such as housing, employment, debt management and
support are seen as add-ons and not core activity.

She says that on a recent inspection, half of
all young offenders expected to have no job, and a quarter expected
to have no accommodation on release. But nearly half claimed to
have no help to find housing and more than two-thirds said no one
had spoken to them about employment or education.

Owers blames a lack of resources and a lack of
co-ordination between prison and probation, and suggests that some
institutions are not using the resources they have. “We are always
very critical when we find an establishment where training places
are available but not used because actually prison staff aren’t
getting them out of their cells,” she says.

In the future, Owers intends to broaden the
inspectorate’s remit to include inspection of immigration detention
centres. Another priority is child protection in prisons as in the
future they will all be expected to have a child protection policy.
She also targets improving the resettlement agenda and seeing fewer
people in prisons.

Owers is undoubtedly ambitious for her time at
the helm, saying: “I would be very disappointed if I left in five
years time and there weren’t significant improvements for 18 to 20
year olds held in custody.” But she wisely acknowledges it is not
an easy task ahead: “There is no magic wand – otherwise we would
have discovered it long ago.”  

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