The chief inspector of prisons has warned that Britain’s jails are “at a crossroads” and called for a public inquiry into the system.
Anne Owers (pictured) said the rising prison population had led to a “predicted and predictable crisis” and accused the government of “staving off disaster” with short-term and expensive emergency measures.
In her annual report today, Owers said the continued use of police cells to hold prisoners and proposals to use prison ships and convert “unsuitable” army camps were “not effective”.
Today, Gordon Brown confirmed that the government was going ahead with the plan despite Owers’ comments.
Owers also slammed plans to scale down activity at all prisons between Friday lunchtime and Monday morning, leaving inmates with “very limited association”. Such a move would meet a target of 3% Prison Service efficiency savings this year.
There was a 40% rise in self-inflicted deaths in custody in 2006-7 compared with the year before, with “worrying increases” among the most vulnerable prisoners, including women and foreign nationals during the first days of custody.
Owers also highlighted failures in many institutions to provide adequate healthcare, drug treatment, care for immigration detainees and protection against racism.
New investment for young adults had “not materialised” even though the government had been promising it since 2001, Owers said.
Performance in male juvenile prisons – the best-resourced male establishments – was lower than the previous year. Although the chief inspector praised the new prison units for girls, she warned that resources in the juvenile estate were stretched and called for an overall review of youth custody.
Owers also criticised ministers’ lack of “concrete action” on the Corston report on vulnerable women prisoners published last year. This recommended placing women in small, local facilities near home.
She said a prisons review by Lord Carter, which recommended the Titan prison-building programme last year, had a “narrow remit” and called for a major rethink on penal policy similar to the Woolf inquiry’s recommendations 15 years ago.
“Our prison system is at a crossroads,” Owers said.
“There are recent signs of a more effective and measured approach to policy and strategy, some new initiatives and plenty of good operational practice to build on. But, on the other hand, there is a real risk that we will move towards large-scale penal containment, spending more to accomplish less, losing hard-won gains and stifling innovation.”
There were 80,778 people in custody last Friday, according to the latest official figures, including 2,720 children.
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, supported Owers’ call for a public inquiry.
She said: “This is as clear and stark a message as is possible for ministers to hear. Despite the efforts of prison staff, our prisons are struggling to cope with overcrowding, the service is lurching from crisis to crisis and it is difficult to see how much longer this can go on.
“Ministers have a choice to make: do we carry on with record numbers in prison with sky-high re-offending rates, or do we recognise that our costly overuse of prisons isn’t making the public any safer.”
Deborah Coles, co-director of charity Inquest, called the report a “damning indictment” of a prison system.
She said: “No discussion of self-inflicted deaths in prison can ignore the regimes and conditions operating in prisons, criminal justice policies that imprison the mentally ill and vulnerable, or the institutional culture of violence and racism that exists there.
“Too many of the inquests we monitor expose systemic failures in the treatment and care of prisoners. Until urgent action is taken by the state to dramatically reduce the prison population the damaging and tragic consequences of imprisonment will continue.”