Police, Prisons and Civil Society

by Dame Anne Owers on 28 February 2018

Dame Anne OwersDame Anne Owers
Honorary Fellow 2006

For nearly twenty years, I’ve been involved with the police and prisons: organisations that legitimately exercise coercive powers to protect the state and its citizens. However, my involvement has always been from the outside – examining how those powers are used.  I’m clear that independent oversight and challenge, by statutory bodies and civil society, is an essential part of legitimacy.

There are three kinds of independent oversight, which complement each other. One is to inspect how those organisations function – what is actually happening on the ground, as opposed to what might be being assumed, or even reported, as happening. One is to investigate serious allegations against staff or officers, or when someone dies in the custody of the state.  The third is regular and routine monitoring of the conditions and treatment of those in police or prison custody. I have now done all three: as Chief Inspector of Prisons for nine years; as Chair of the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) for nearly six years, and now as National Chair of the Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs) for prisons and immigration detention, for just over three months. They are all are statutory bodies, with defined powers and authority, appointed by Ministers. The first two are carried out by paid staff in a national model; the third by over a thousand unpaid volunteers up and down the country.

Independent oversight bodies are usually set up or strengthened because something has gone seriously wrong. The IPCC (now renamed the Independent Office for Police Conduct) is a case in point. It came into existence following the Macpherson Inquiry into the botched police investigation into the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence, which found institutional racism within the police.   The IPCC’s predecessor, the Police Complaints Authority, itself sprang from the Scarman inquiry into the Brixton Riots of 1981, which concluded that it was essential for there to be an independent element in handling complaints against the police. There is a pattern here, not just in the UK, where the creation or strengthening of independent police oversight bodies has followed scandals or major incidents involving people of colour. Ontario set up such a system following the deaths of some young black men; in Australia, similar bodies responded to the treatment of Aboriginal people in police custody. The need for independent oversight of deaths following police contact is a key recommendation of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US.

Independent oversight of prisons followed a different, but similar, pattern. The Prisons Inspectorate was set up following major prison disturbances in the late 1970s. The complementary system for independent complaints investigation, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, was created following the Woolf report into the Strangeways riot of 1990, which stressed the connection between ‘procedural justice’ and legitimacy. The IMBs have an even longer history, growing out of the responsibility of local magistrates in relation to their local jail, which was then formalised and strengthened alongside the other oversight bodies. All three bodies later took on oversight of immigration detention, one of the most hidden aspects of custody, and acquired new powers following the Human Rights Act 2000, which requires independent investigation when someone dies while in the custody of the state.

My own route into this world was circuitous. It began with a history degree at Cambridge, which was meant to lead to a PhD, but didn’t. Having spent some time in Africa, I returned to the UK with a young family and got involved in voluntary work in South London, focusing on race and immigration issues. Quite late on – at the age of 34 – this led to paid work in a national immigration and asylum advice and campaigning organisation, and then to leading JUSTICE, a human rights and law reform body that was instrumental in setting up the Criminal Cases Review Commission and in the implementation of the Human Right Act. The research and policy work we did on human rights, criminal justice and asylum gave me the background, and the confidence, to apply for the Chief Inspector of Prisons role.

There are two threads that in retrospect have run through my rather unusual career path. One is an identification with the outsider: the person who is easily marginalised and may be unpopular.  I am sure that derives from my own background: First Generation University, coming from a mining village where people by and large had things done to them and in many cases were unable to fulfil their full potential. The other comes from the skills and techniques I learnt in my history degree: the ability to find, test and analyse evidence in order to draw conclusions that can withstand challenge. I often said that I had never used those skills to better effect than when inspecting prisons: drawing together and triangulating multiple sources of information into a definitive picture.

In my most recent roles, I’ve acquired the label of ‘first woman to…’  Prisons and the police have traditionally been very male environments, though that is changing. The three most senior roles in policing are now held by women; and I’ve now seen many more female governors in difficult and large male prisons. But it can be, and often is, a longer road than it is for male colleagues. I am still the only woman, as well as the first, to lead prisons inspection and police oversight - but hopefully not the last.

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