Hardline rhetoric blamed for rise in prison suicides|
By Marie Woolf, Chief Political Correspondent
22 August 2005
Politicians have been warned by the prisons watchdog that their hardline rhetoric on crime is leading to chronic overcrowding and more prison suicides.
Anne Owers, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, said demands for longer sentences had led to a prisons "crisis" which was boosting the suicide rate.
In a stark warning to ministers, the Tory opposition and the right-wing media, the prisons watchdog has urged them to "be responsible" and not to create climates where the courts feel pressured to recommend prison terms for non-violent offences.
"If you lock up this number of people this is the consequence. This is what is going to happen: more people are going to die in our prisons but also our prisons aren't going to be able to do the positive stuff nearly so well," she said. "This is what is happening. So everybody who is responsible - be responsible."
Her remarks, in an interview with The Independent, came as prison numbers last week reached a record level of more than 77,000, near capacity.
Ms Owers said the overcrowding "crisis" meant prisoners were "bussed" around the prison estate in search of space. "It is like some sort of horrific game of musical cells," she said.
In a damning assessment of the overcrowded penal system, she said prisons were so full that programmes to cut offending were compromised, leaving jails to "recycle people".
"All the research on patterns of sentencing shows that we are sentencing people to prison more often for things that would not have attracted a custodial sentence before and when we send them to prison we are sending them to prison for longer," she said.
Her remarks came as Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice, called for the courts to look more closely at restorative justice as an alternative to prison. Last week Andrew Sims, a 19-year-old on remand at the Glen Parva young offenders' institution, became the 50th prisoner to kill himself this year. Last year 96 people killed themselves in prison and 228 prisoners were resuscitated. There were also 17,678 cases of self-inflicted harm.
The prisons watchdog said the fall in the number of women in prison had coincided with a sharp drop in suicides. Last year women prisoners were twice as likely to kill themselves than men, and female suicides were increasing. This year only two women have killed themselves. "You can't but draw a conclusion from the fact that the suicide rate was lower in the first part of this year. There was a definite dip and a very welcome one," she said. "If you look at women's prisons, we have some space and not quite such a pressured environment."
The drop in female prisoners follows a call by politicians, including Tony Blair, to consider alternatives to jail for women. The Prime Minister's wife, Cherie Blair, has campaigned publicly to cut the number of women going to prison for non-violent crimes.
Ms Owers acknowledged that the rhetoric from Government had contributed to the cut in numbers. "I think it probably has helped to create a climate where sentencers will quite rightly consider all the other options before using prison as a last resort," she said.
By Kunal Dutta
* Over the past 10 years the number of prisoners in England and Wales has increased by 25,000.
* More than half of the 142 prisons in England and Wales are overcrowded, Home Office figures show.
* By the end of July, more than 10 per cent of these were full even beyond their "safe" limits.
* More than 17,000 prisoners are being held two to a cell designed for one.
* Since the start of June, more than 90 per cent of prison suicides have involved prisoners in overcrowded cells.
* In 2004 there were a total of 95 suicides in England and Wales, a record number.
* By the end of July, Liverpool's Altcourse prison was holding 933 offenders in cells designed to hold 614.
* Prison Service research shows that 10 out of 20 prisons with the highest rates of suicides are also in the top 20 for population turnover.
* Last year, the average pay for employed prisoners was £8 per week.
* In 2003 and 2004, the average amount of time spent on purposeful activity by prisoners in the 11 private prisons in England and Wales was 26.7 hours 3.5 hours longer than in public-sector prisons.
* There have been seven prisons ministers since Labour took power in 1997.
* In 2003-04 it cost an average of £37,305 to keep a person in prison.
Ann Owers: 'We are just recycling offenders, not keeping people safe'
By Marie Woolf, Chief Political Correspondent
22 August 2005
At the gates of a high-security prison, Anne Owers was handed a huge bunch of keys. They would give her access to every cell, every corridor and every landing in the jail. She asked the guard to throw back the locks on the prison gate, as she clipped the keys on to her belt. "Mind you don't break your nails on that," he warned. Entering another jail, the Chief Inspector of Prisons and a female colleague were greeted by warders with a cheery "hello girls!"
These are among the "interesting experiences" of the first female chief inspector in the masculine world of prisons.
Yet she is not intimidated by the clink of locks and says walking home from Stockwell Tube each night is "a much more frightening experience" than visiting a prison.
Some of her most grisly encounters have been in women's jails. During one inspection she discovered staff cutting down six women who had tried to hang themselves and this was a daily occurrence. "They were alive having ligatured themselves with blankets and bits of sheet," she says. "The trouble with ligatures is you don't get a lot of time. If a ligature is tied in the wrong place you have seconds."
In other prisons, hundreds of women are deliberately cutting themselves, in an epidemic of ritualistic self-harm.
With the prison population nearing crisis point with a record 77,000 inmates behind bars, the job of chief inspector has never been more stressful.
On Friday a 19-year-old boy on remand became the 50th prisoner to kill himself this year. Thousands of others have been rescued just in time and resuscitated by prison staff.
Ms Owers, a veteran human rights campaigner, is in little doubt that overcrowding is having an effect on the suicide rate. "If you look at what has happened to the male prison population, which has grown exponentially since April, we have had 35 suicides, most of them in local prisons at the front end of that pressure," she says.
In contrast, the number of women in prison has dropped in the past nine months. There has been a "dramatic" reduction in suicides because there is "space" and a "less pressured" environment. "The women's prison population has flattened out to the extent that there are now surplus places in women's prisons. Over the last six to nine months we have had very few deaths of women in custody. Only two."
Tony Blair and his wife, Cherie, have spoken publicly about the need to cut the number of women sent to jail for non-violent offences. They have highlighted the effect of female incarceration on children and their families. Ms Owers says their message "probably has helped to create a climate where sentencers will quite rightly consider all the other options before using prison as a last resort".
Male prison numbers had also been going down. But in recent months they have dramatically shot up again to the point that men's jails are now close to full capacity. Is hardline rhetoric from politicians both Labour and Tory about the need to crack down on antisocial behaviour and violent crime contributing to swelling prison numbers? Ms Owers seems reluctant to become embroiled in the debate about sentencing. But she says "rhetoric" has certainly helped create "climates" where criminals are locked up.
"My job is to say 'that is what you are doing; this is what the result is. Think about it,'" she says. "All I can do is signal to ministers what is happening."
Ms Owers says there have been "some unintended consequences of sentencing policy", including overcrowding and suicides. The messages from ministers have been "mixed" about jail terms, she says. She warns the media and politicians who bray for criminals to be locked up, to "be responsible".
"It is actually saying to everybody out there, 'if you lock up this number of people this is the consequence. This is what is going to happen. More people are going to die in our prisons but also our prisons aren't going to be able to do the positive stuff nearly so well,'" she says.
Ms Owers, a calm, no-nonsense figure who projects competence and compassion, says the cell shortage in male prisons is now so acute that the authorities have to shop around for empty prison beds, NHS-style.
One of the trends has been for the courts to order longer sentences, which is creating "the equivalent of bed blocking" because long-term prisoners are not being released. Inmates are now sleeping in police cells or in prisons hundreds of miles away from their families. "It is like some sort of horrific game of musical cells," she says.
The constant shunting around is increasing stress on prisoners, which is contributing to the suicide rate. The suicide risk is highest during the first days inside, or after transfer to a new prison. In many overcrowded jails prisoners are now spending 23 hours a day locked up "with only an hour out for statutory exercise".
Two or three prisoners are occupying cells built for a single person with conditions so cramped some have to eat three meals a day locked up.
"Prisoners will be eating their meals together with their lavatory in a cell. One of them will be sitting on the bed and one of them will probably be sitting on the loo," she says.
Surely eating on the loo poses questions about hygiene? Ms Owers raises an eyebrow, diplomatically. "You would think so wouldn't you?" she replies.
Ms Owers is surprisingly cheerful, given her job entails dealing with serial villains. She admits she sees things that are "difficult and dreadful" but maintains that prison can have a positive effect on prisoners including those "seriously damaged" by years of abuse.
As if to reinforce her optimism, her Whitehall office is packed with artwork by inmates, including a sculpted model of a prison cell, with bars and bunk.
Prison, she insists, serves a crucial purpose in protecting society from "extremely troubled and troublesome people". Is the old adage true, that an offender sent to jail emerges a hardened criminal? "It is something that you really have to watch out for, particularly for young people," she says. For some young men, prison is becoming "part of a lifestyle", she warns, and carries a perverse form of "street cred".
She concludes that a prison system under such pressure is not making society safer in the long term. "The public is protected for a very short time while the person is in prison," she says.
"Real public protection" entails equipping prisoners for a life beyond crime. At the moment we are just recycling them," she says.
With 70 per cent of prisoners functionally illiterate, rehabilitation is not a perfunctory task. Ms Owers says great strides have been made in educating prisoners, although progress is hampered by overcrowding.
Part of the problem is that so many inmates are drug addicts who take up the habit, and the criminal life to fuel it, once they are released. Others are mentally ill and have ended up behind bars because "nobody knows what else to do with them".
Ms Owers praises the work of prison officers in giving hope to young people whose lives have been "very damaged". She is clearly touched by the stories of prisoners whose lives, shattered by abuse, are turning around. "I am astonished by the resilience of some of people in prison who have survived some of the most appalling experiences and are still alive," she says. She recalls one young man who spent Christmas behind bars. Far from being resentful, he smiled. "This is the best Christmas I have ever had," he said.