NS Interview - Anne Owers

The chief inspector of prisons fears that squalid conditions and overcrowding breach the human right

Prisons are full. Last week's record was 72,000, with the overspill housed in police cells, at the Dorchester bed-and-breakfast rate of £300 a night. Crisis or catastrophe? Anne Owers likes neither word, partly because doom-mongering is not her style but also, perhaps, because such sanitised adjectives fail to encompass what she has seen.

Teenage suicides-in-waiting; a 17-year-old girl incarcerated alone for 60 days; unsentenced children in aimless captivity: all these are familiar to Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons, accustomed to conditions that conjure up visions of human forcemeat, vacuum-packed. "When there are so many people coming into prison, you can't risk-assess whether they are dangerous to themselves or others. I saw one cell recently shared by a man with a permanent catheter and a young prisoner who was self-harming. That is degrading."

Exactly 12 months have passed since Owers was appointed, and it is clear that she, once so hopeful, did not expect her anniversary interview to be like this. "The year feels like a game of two halves. In the first, there was some positive thinking. We produced a report on resettlement, and the point was made that public protection isn't just about locking people up. It's about using prison as a space where you could deal with the problems that had got them there."

By Christmas, such liberal long-termism was shelved. "After that, it felt like fire-fighting," she says. The new mantra, beyond "surviving the day", is "simply building more prison places that will get filled". The Home Secretary wants an extra 10,800 places. Will they solve anything? "It will solve the immediate problem of too many people in too small a space, but it won't solve the problem that prison on its own cannot deal with all the problems of social exclusion."

Does Owers see a huge failure on the part of government? "I think there is a willingness to engage in what needs to be done," she says finally, but the pause before she replies is very long. The Girton-educated daughter of a colliery joiner from County Durham, she was the first woman to oversee the inspection of the 137 prisons in England and Wales. Her predecessors, Stephen Tumim and David Ramsbotham, pillars of establishment bufferdom with impeccable social consciences, had enraged the Home Secretaries to whom they reported.

Ramsbotham's run-ins with Jack Straw, including a forced public apology after the chief inspector told the NS that James Bulger's killers should be freed, ended in icy stand-off. Ramsbotham, army martinet turned folk hero of the left, departed, calling the Home Office a "terrible place" and saying he had been pushed out of his job in an "appallingly underhand fashion".

The appointment of Owers, aged 54 and with a liberal track record as director of Justice, the human rights group, seemed a Straw masterstroke. Perhaps, observers worried, she would prove too tractable, but her low-key debut had less to do with any spirit of obeisance than with the 30 unpublished reports left on her desk. Someone (she offers no clue as to who or why) had wished for Ramsbotham's last efforts to be "blocked". Owers's own first broadside, a coruscating denunciation of Dartmoor, "the prison time forgot", established her fearlessness. Since then, and though she cites good work at Leeds, Preston, Shrewsbury, Maidstone, Bristol and Usk, she has torn into other jails, including Eastwood Park, an "establishment in crisis". Three young women had killed themselves in the 20 months since the inspectors last called.

In her first annual review in October, she will promise more speedy reports; a glimmer of good news in a year of dashed promise. "We lock up 23,000 more people than if we were any other European country; yet 50 per cent of men are reconvicted in two years and 70 per cent of young adults. Can we please see what we need to put in its place? There is this sense that overcrowding is driving the agenda. [Progress] feels now like a more difficult task.

"There is a real danger, in legislation and in practice, that there is this virtual prison system; the one that ministers and the director general of the prison service [Martin Narey] want to deliver. What we find is that the actual prison system isn't that at all; it's a coping and reactive agenda that isn't tackling those key issues."

Although Owers is always tactful, there is no sense of much dialogue with David Blunkett, her boss, whom she sees "occasionally". Her shopping-list, condensed, includes community prisons and fewer custodial sentences, proper education, training and drugs programmes and help with work and housing for freed inmates. The constant hint, unspoken but clear, is that the government's priorities are skewed.

"We have to create a continuum; not load it all on to prisons. If prisons are only laying bronze eggs at the moment, we will be stopping them from even doing that." In legislating the recent criminal justice white paper, the government must, she says, create better resources for young offenders and drop its fixation (not her word) with prison-building. "You have to ask yourself not can we do it today or tomorrow, but is it right? People want a quick fix. Government tends to want to dig things up to see if they're growing."

Underpinning the nerviness of ministers is the fact that no one know why overcrowding has become endemic. "There are a lot of people scratching their heads. The prison population rise has been exponential since Christmas." The upshot, for Owers, is a scenario more grim than even her predecessor might have feared. If Owers has taken her tone from Ramsbotham, whom she admires, she has also watched his political brinkmanship and selected a more Trappist route.

I ask her about this week's adjourned High Court challenge to the Home Secretary, alleging that the 3,000 children in prison face brutal and illegal regimes. The court will be asked to rule that their exemption from the Children Act is unlawful. Does she agree? "I cannot see any reason why children in prison should not be protected under the Children Act in the same way as they would be if they were held in local authority units or children's homes.

"It would give protection to the prison service as well as to the children. At present, it has no protection against having to treat children badly. If prisons were covered by the act and a child faced significant harm, then some action would have to be taken. A prison could refuse to take a child."

On political interference in sentencing, she is surprisingly bullish. When I ask about who should rule on the fate of "life means life" prisoners, she says: "That is a matter for the judiciary." So judges should decide Myra Hindley's future? "I never comment on individual cases," she says. We leave it there, but at the end of the interview, she says again: "I'm very careful not to talk about Myra Hindley and the Bulgers."

A Home Office press officer jumps in. "I think there was some confusion in the interview about full-life tariffs and you saying it was a matter for the judiciary," she says to Owers, who replies: "I meant it was a matter for the courts to have the final say on all those things." "But the debate about full-life tariffs is whether it's for the courts or the Home Secretary," the press officer says, slightly desperately.

I wait for Owers to climb down from this precipice of conflict between Blunkett and the Lord Chief Justice, but she does not budge. "There's no reason why the courts can't set full-life tariffs. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, they decided in advance of the Human Rights Act to take tariffs away from the Secretary of State and give it to the judges. As a result, tariffs were longer. There is no reason to think judges will be soft."

In a separate human rights decision, the European Court has just ordered the release of 900 prisoners whose sentences had been illegally extended by governors. The Home Office now faces paying out millions in compensation. Owers, as a member of the government's human-rights task force, had forecast this nemesis long ago.

In Scotland, the prison service heeded the warning. In England and Wales, it did not. Now, as Owers warns, the Human Rights Act may be invoked against dire prisons. She stresses that she is not a "scaremonger" predicting a flood of actions. None the less, some conditions - squalid shared cells included - may meet the high threshold needed to satisfy a court of "inhuman and degrading treatment".

"My feeling, and that of many governors, is that we are much nearer to breaches of the Human Rights Act than a year ago. It is something the government should alert the prison service to. We're getting closer to a situation where human rights becomes a critical issue. Because of overcrowding, there could now be cases which cause serious human rights concerns." Observing human rights, she says, would also protect the prison service from breaching its own standards.

Even so, the message sounds stark. When a steely chief inspector sketches a regime of prison regulation more fierce, and potentially far more costly than her own brand, it is time for Mr Blunkett to get worried.

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