Great Britain’s prison system is experiencing a growth spurt that has pushed its population over 76,000 compared with 42,000 in 1991. Prisons there, 24 percent over capacity, are “in crisis,” Anne Owers, chief inspector of prisons for England and Wales, said yesterday at the Open Society Institute in Washington, D.C. Owers heads an agency that thoroughly inspects every British prison at least every five years, making recommendations for improved treatment of inmates under international human rights standards and recognized best practices. The British prison population is dwarfed by the 2 million-plus behind bars in the United States.
Owers advocates monitoring of prisons by outsiders because the facilities otherwise “become unaccountable” and “default to institutional convenience,” which may lead to prisons “being treated as if they are less than human.” Owers’s agency, created in 1981, can send investigators into institutions without warning. She lacks the power to implement her recommendations, but most are accepted and about 70 percent are put into practice. Health services to British inmates are “hugely improved” because they are now managed by the national health care system, Owers said. The United States does not maintain a prison inspection unit comparable to Britain’s.