Interview with chief inspector of prisons Anne Owers

Anne Owers

Chief inspector of prisons Anne Owers was interviewed by
Community Care senior reporter Clare Jerrom, who asked her
about conditions for 18 to 21 year olds in

Clare Jerrom:  When I last interviewed you in
January 2002, one of your main concerns at that early stage in your
job, was the estate for the 18-21 year olds. Would you say you
still had the same concerns today as you did then about this age

Anne Owers: It is still an age group where we
have major concerns. And it’s still an age group were the
contrast between what’s available for the 15-18s under the
juvenile regime and that available for the over 18s is very marked.
In many split establishments where they are holding 18s up to 21
year olds we find that what’s happening in practice is that
resources and sometimes staff are being pulled over from the young
adult part of the establishment in order to provide the contracted 
regime that the YJB quite rightly requires for 15-18s.

I’ll just qualify that a little bit. I think that on the
male side, prisons holding young men, I’ve come across a
number of establishments where governors have really tried to
bridge that divide as best they can, and they really are trying to
run what they would call a whole prison. In other words to let the
experience and the knowledge and what’s happening run across
the establishments. In some cases they are able to use some of the
sources of funding in order to help that, some of the custody to
work funding, for example, is providing resettlement opportunities
targeted at young adults – I would give Onley as an example
of an establishment where that was happening. So governors are
trying but it is very difficult to do that because the juvenile
money is quite rightly ring fenced and it is difficult to work
across the piece.

Where you really notice it, quite often, is in establishments
holding women and young women where usually there is a very small
number of under 18 girls held, but the attempt to make a decent
regime for them is very much at the expense of the young adult
women – the over 18s.

So it’s a picture where I would say that governors, and to
a large extent the Prison Service, are doing what they can within
the resources they have got to try to target this particular group.
In some establishments, Swinfen Hall is an example, where they
really are doing everything they can within what they have got, but
we are still saying in almost all of these places there just
isn’t enough. We have just been collecting material together
for our annual report where we publish reports from 7 YOIs and I
think in all of those we actually said that they needed more
resources and better coordination of the resources that there were
. So there still isn’t nearly enough available.

CJ: On a scale of one to five, how concerned would
you say you are if 1 is not very concerned and 5 is extremely

AO: I would say it would vary from
establishment to establishment. But I don’t think anywhere it
would be much lower than 4. It is of concern and it is of concern
to governors as well.

I think what is very noticeable is that a lot of young adults,
18-21 year olds, are in fact held not in designated, dedicated YOIs
at all, but they are held in adult prisons. There are a number of
adult male local prisons that can also hold convicted young adults
and remanded young adults. Young adult women will always be held in
adult prisons. The thing that really strikes you in those
establishments particularly is that what the young adults there get
is very much what the rest of the population gets. So if it is a
prison where there is a  lot of bang up, prisoners locked up for a
long time, so the young adults will be. If it is a prison that is
good or is trying to develop resettlement or has got significant
amounts of purposeful activity which few local prisons have, then
young adults will be able to buy into that.

What’s emerged very strongly for me in looking at all of
those establishments is that there is no Prison Service standard
for what should be expected for young adults in prison. And I think
there should be one.

We know that this age group is still developing. I would like to
see, as I said to you before, the concept of young adults being
18-25 – that’s the sensible age range within which we
know there’s a lot of re-offending, but we also know people
can be re-engaged, can be skilled and can be worked with. I would
like to see what was being talked about 2 years ago which is
developing a concept of how prison and probation services deal with
this age group and the development of very specific standards about
what’s required.

CJ: Are the discussions around raising the
cut-off point for young offenders at 25 being had at the minute.
Are people considering it?

AO: I think at the moment like a lot of things,
those kind of forward looking discussions have been a victim of the
rise in prison population. At present I think everybody’s
energy and time and resources are engaged on simply how you manage
the population. It’s very difficult to carve out the head
room in the time you need you need to think about looking
creatively at different parts of the prison population.

CJ: The lack of purposeful activity comes up
quite a lot in your inspection reports. I’ve been looking at
3 of the most recently inspected establishments and 18 per cent
were spending less than 2 hours out of their cell on a weekday and
this increased to 25.6 per cent at the weekend. Is this a
widespread problem across the young adult estate?

AO: It varies from establishment to
establishment, and with all these things you have to say what could
the establishment do better and also what in the system is meaning
that it will never be able to do as well as you want.

So I think we have been in establishments where there is very
little time out of cell if you are not employed, and others where
the arrangements are better. We’re still not looking at
establishments where there is sufficient education, training and
work that’s really purposeful. I don’t mean people
standing around in corridors leaning on brooms saying they are wing
cleaners. I’m looking at establishments really being able to
provide young people with the skills, accreditation and potentially
the employment opportunities that they need.

You can see in places like Reading, and the small, but very,
very good motor mechanics programme at Aylesbury, that you can do
work that actually gets young people into employment before they
leave prison, where they can leave on the promise of a job.
That’s what we should be aiming at – obviously you
can’t make that happen for everybody but it should be
something that’s much more common than at present we see

CJ: The three most recently inspected
establishments found that 89 per cent of prisoners said they
weren’t getting any help to address their offending
behaviour, and surely this should be one of the crucial things they
should be looking at while in prison? Do you know why this
isn’t happening?

AO: One of the things that is absent is
offending behaviour programmes that are specifically geared at
young people and adolescents. And that’s true around
offending behaviour programmes and it’s also true around some
of the drug programmes. We’ve found for example in one YOI
the 12 step drug programme being used for young adults. It’s
not appropriate for them. It’s developed for adults and
it’s not appropriate for young adults. We need much more
focused offending behaviour programme work and, of course, more of

CJ: I will come back to the prison, probation
link and we’ve touched on statistics before,  but has the
general population started to stabilise?

AO: Bits of the prison population are
stabilising. The women’s prison population seems to have
stabilised – it had over a period of months but these things
have a habit of then suddenly changing. The juvenile prison
population, the under 18 prison population, has actually started to
decrease and I think that’s a very encouraging sign. I
wouldn’t want to say any more than that but I think again, it
is, I would say, a result of that joined up approach to under 18s
and their offending, where you’re looking at prevention, at
post release and also some very targeted and it seems to be
incredibly effective community sentences –  the intensive
supervision and support programmes that really do seem to be
working, not just so that sentencers will use them, but actually to
reduce re-offending among those who are supervised in the community
rather than being supervised in prison.

The other bits of the population seem to be continuing to rise
they are not rising as fast as some of the predictions, but they
are still continuing to rise.

CJ: Do you think new pieces of legislation, such
as the Antisocial Behaviour Bill, that has been criticised as being
punitive will increase the prison population at a time that we are
trying to decrease it and do better work within prisons?

AO: It’s difficult to know as there are
bits of legislation that pull both ways. There are bits that are
custody minus stuff, bits that are custody plus, there are bits
that carry the possibility certainly of rises. But one of the
things that seems to be critical in all of this is not so much the
prison system, but the probation system, because a lot of this
depends upon some intensive and greater supervision by probation. A
lot of it depends on effective community sentences and more use of
them and the thing that troubles me about is the fact that the
probation service is just as overcrowded as the prison service
except you don’t notice it so much.

Probation services, particularly in the big metropolitan areas
is under huge pressure. And if probation service can’t engage
young offenders as well as older ones then of course what will
happen is that there will be breaches and defaults and people will
end up in prison.

CJ: What we looked at in the last interview was
why there are these problems for 18-20. You identified two
problems:- the lack of resources and the lack of co-ordination
between prison and probation. So if we take the resources first,
have you seen significant funding introduced over the last two
years that has made a difference?

AO: I have seen bits of funding. Sometimes they
have been obtained on an area basis, sometimes they have been
obtained through one of the projects, like prison service plus, and
there’s a very creative use of funding. Before I did this
job,  I spent 20 years in the voluntary sector where every year you
were writing applications and trying to get bits of funding in for
the work you wanted to do. In a way the prison service is doing
that at the moment with a lot of its resettlement activity and
managers are having to become fundraisers and some are doing better
than others. But it’s almost always time limited, it’s
always time limited, and it’s often geared at the objectives
of the people providing the funding, rather than the needs of the
prisoners and it’s not across the piece.

CJ: If you could identify one thing that would
change the lot for 18-20 year olds, what would it be?

AO: I think as I’ve said we already have
a model of what initially looks as if it does make a difference
both to decreasing those in prison, which is the first step to
doing anything let’s be honest, and also to tackling
offending behaviour, and that model is in the under 18 estate. That
model is first of all you put money into prevention, you try to
prevent people from committing offences in the first place, never
mind going to prison for committing offences.

Secondly you put resources into targeted, focused,  really
effective community sentences that really engage young people and
allow them to develop the skills and treatment they need within the
community –  which is after all where it will be tested out in the
end. Thirdly, as a result of that, you use prison and custody as
little as you need to and when you do, you focus that experience on
education and training and turn round. And fourthly, you buttress
that by support for young people once they leave a custodial
setting. That package, you can’t say one thing, but that
package is what’s needed.

What I haven’t said before and probably ought to emphasise
is when you are looking at 18 to 21 year olds, when I’m
talking about education and training, it’s very clear to me
going round YOI’s what doesn’t work when you’re
over 18 is telling people they’ve got to sit down in a
classroom and learn. A lot of them have spent a lot of their lives
avoiding doing exactly that and they now think they are over 18 so
why the heck should they do something that kids do.

CJ: You said when I asked you what you wanted
to achieve during your time as chief inspector that you’d be
very disappointed if you left and you hadn’t seen significant
improvements for 18-21 year olds. Do you think that the conditions
for 18 to 21 year olds will be at the standard you would like them
to be at by the time you leave the post. Are you confident of that
now you’ve been in the job for two years?

AO: I wouldn’t say I’m confident,
because it depends on a whole lot of factors that I can’t
control. I’m confident that by continuing to place them at
the forefront of what needs to happen, that we will have to push
things forward. But given what’s happened to all of the plans
for prison reform and change because of over population, it would
be very optimistic indeed to assume that everything that people
want to happen will do so.

CJ: So first and foremost they have to get the
numbers within a controllable situation?

AO: That’s right and they have to be in a
position to devote the resources and focus the work that’s
done both inside and outside prisons on this group of people. 

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