After eight and a half years as Chief Inspector of Prisons, Dame Anne Owers has released what will be her final report. Owers, due to step down later this year, took the opportunity to reflect on the progress made since her appointment in 2002, and on those areas demanding greater efforts.
Owers is quick to buck a trend of negative reporting in the media and reports that prisons have actually improved in the past eight years. Yet she acknowledges that alarmingly high rates of self-harm, especially among female prisoners, still prevail and raises concerns about the area of immigration detention.
Owers also criticises a benchmarking culture which encourages service providers to aim for mediocrity, rather than excellence, in a strategy that meets standards (just) and remains relatively cheap.
Of greatest concern to Owers, however, is the increasing prison population and the rapidly decreasing financial resources. She cites the population explosion as a massive 'destabilising' influence on prisons. As ever-increasing pressure is loaded on prisoners, staff and facilities, finely tuned environments are rocked as small but incremental changes provoke huge reactions. Furthermore, the devastating impact this has on a prisoner's chance of rehabilitation is of particular concern to Owers.
How will such an increasingly stretched system fare in light of Jack Straw's recent announcement that the prisoner early release scheme is to be halted?
On a positive note, Owers points to the work of the all-party Justice Committee and their whole-hearted support for the principle of 'justice reinvestment':
"But prison alone can't fix problems that were long in the making and will not disappear just because of a certificate, an offending behaviour programme or a space in a hostel. So investing in prisons is not enough; we need to invest in 'not prison'. I said it eight years ago when I became chief inspector, and it remains true. We need, as the all-party Justice Committee said recently, to 'shift resources away from incarceration towards rehabilitation and prevention'".
Owers is rightly proud of the work of the Prisons Inspectorate, a body she lauds as "separate, expert and fiercely independent".