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In her annual report, published yesterday, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers, warns that the prison system, which has made significant improvements over the last few years, is at a crossroads - struggling to cope with current pressure, and facing serious challenges in the future.

The report recognises progress in healthcare, offender management and the quality of education and skills training in recent years. But it also records the effects of a ‘predicted and predictable’ prison population crisis.

‘During the reporting year, the prison population went from one all-time high to another, staving off disaster only by a series of short-term, often expensive, emergency measures, together with the crisis management skills of those working within the prison system.’

At the same time, there has been a dramatic rise in self inflicted deaths in custody, which rose by forty percent during the reporting year. Many were amongst some of the most vulnerable - foreign nationals, indeterminate-sentenced and unsentenced prisoners and women - and at the most vulnerable times, in the early days in an establishment.

The report chronicles concerns throughout the prison system:

“This year, training prisons, as well as local prisons, felt the strain, with more suicides, poorer resettlement outcomes and in many cases insufficient activity. The management and use of indeterminate sentences continued to strand those prisoners in inappropriate prisons, and drive up the population. Even male juvenile prisons – the best-resourced male establishments – performed less well as a whole than those we inspected the previous year.

“Nevertheless, it is a credit to those running and working in the prison system that prisons have remained as safe and decent as they have, in this period of unprecedented pressure – facing not only increased numbers, but also increased expectations. But at the same time there is evidence of slippage, and of a system and a workforce that are ill-placed to take further pressure.”

The report notes delays in replacing poor accommodation, building workshops, and fully rolling out the new drug treatment system. It records prisoners moved around between police cells and prisons, and the frustrations of staff.

The Chief Inspector points to further concerns in the future
• 3% ‘efficiency savings’ that will effectively close prisons down from Friday lunchtime to Monday morning as from April, with further savings required in each of the following 2 years;
• a rising prison population, with the possibility of prison ships, converted army camps, continuing overcrowding and use of police cells
• the prospect of large Titan prisons, when smaller prisons have been shown to work better.

She also points to the dangers of investing in prison building, at the expense of sufficient investment in regimes, full implementation of the Corston report on vulnerable women, and innovative proposals to reduce reoffending and deal with underlying problems – for example more investment in probation, mental healthcare and social and voluntary services.

Anne Owers continued:

“At a time of severely restricted public funding, there is now a real risk that we will get worse, as well as more, prisons.

“This is my sixth report as Chief Inspector of Prisons. Its message, to Ministers and Parliament, is clear. Our prison system is at a crossroads. There are 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, the risk is that we will move towards large-scale penal containment, spending more to accomplish less, losing hard-won gains and stifling innovation.”

Finally, the Chief Inspector calls for a Royal Commission or major public inquiry that draws on a wide range of expertise to develop a blueprint for a coherent and sustainable penal policy for the future.


1. This annual report describes the findings of inspectorate reports published between September 2006 and August 2007. It includes sections on
• immigration detention
• women prisoners
• indeterminate-sentenced prisoners
• juveniles
• foreign nationals
• race and diversity
• healthcare, including mental health

The full report can be found at: http://www.inspectorates.homeoffice.gov.uk/hmiprisons/docs/prisons_ann_rep_1_.pdf

2. Anne Owers has limited time available for media interviews. Please call 020 7210 0675 or 7210 8803 to arrange an interview.