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As Dame Anne Owers’ tenure comes to an end she shares her reflections on the past five years as National Chair of the IMB, and the challenges for the future of monitoring across both the immigration and prison estate.

I have been National Chair of the Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs) for over five years. IMBs provide unique independent oversight of prisons and places of immigration detention: unpaid people from the local community, with the right to go anywhere unannounced, talk to anyone, see documents. They are the eyes and ears of the public in places that are otherwise hidden from them.

Those five years have been extremely challenging for people in the places we monitor: the severe lockdowns during Covid; the damaging impact of population pressure and staff shortages in prisons; the continuing impact of immigration detention without time limit.  Our members have responded to those challenges. We set up a freephone line for prisoners and detained people to contact us within two months of the Covid lockdowns that trapped them in their cells and barred us from visiting, to ensure that we could still hear and respond to their concerns. We spotted straight away that the new prison and probation structures in 2021 took away resettlement support from some of those who most need it: remanded and short-sentenced, ‘revolving door’ prisoners. We wrote to ministers and parliamentarians about the extremely poor and unsafe conditions at Manston immigration holding facility.  We continued to focus on the plight of prisoners still serving imprisonment for public protection (IPP) sentence, despite its abolition 11 years ago – producing a report on the hopelessness of those prisoners when the government rejected the parliamentary Justice Committee’s recommendation that they be resentenced. We’ve recently produced a chilling report on the number of women imprisoned just because they are mentally ill, and who often self-harm and experience the most extreme form of imprisonment: solitary confinement.

The prison system is running hot. At the turn of the century, there were 66,500 people in prison; this year, there are 85.400; by 2027 it could be as high as 106,300 – a 60% increase in less than 30 years.  This is largely because sentences, for the same offences, have got measurably longer. At the same time, the prison service has been leaking staff, particularly experienced staff, ever since the austerity cuts of 2012 onwards.  Together, those two factors are accentuating the negative impact of prisons – making them less safe and more stressful – while diminishing positive rehabilitative work – as prisoners can’t get access to the courses, programmes and interventions that are likely to reduce their chance of reoffending and protect the public in the longer term.

There are particular challenges in immigration detention.  The revelations of abuse at Brook House immigration removal centre, and the fact that this had not been picked up by us or any of the other external or internal oversight systems, led to a review of our monitoring training and guidance, on issues such as detecting and reporting abuse, particularly among a population that may be reluctant to complain for fear of prejudicing an immigration claim.  Over the last five years, we have been publicly critical of many aspects of immigration detention.  As well as the criticisms of Manston, we highlighted the consequences for self-harm and safety of those subject to expedited removal process before the UK left the EU; the continuing inadequate processes for assessing and then releasing those who are at particular risk of harm due to their detention; and we accompanied and reported on the aborted charter flight to Rwanda. 

We can and do raise these underlying issues at national level. But, more than that, Boards’ regular presence means that they can chart the actual impact in every prison and place of immigration detention in the country every week: talking to prisoners and those in detention as well as to staff, receiving complaints, seeing what is and isn’t happening, and reporting any concerns straight away to those running the establishment. That can make a real difference, in real time, to the lives of those in that prison or immigration removal centre.

The legacy for my successor is challenging.  Prisons have come out of Covid less resilient and less able to ensure safe and rehabilitative regimes. The Illegal Migration Bill, currently before Parliament, is likely to add to the number of those detained, and at the same time removes some important safeguards against the misuse of detention powers. Independent oversight has never been more important.  

There is a lot to build on – but there is also an opportunity to create an even better structure for the IMBs to meet those challenges. During the last five years, we’ve established a new national governance structure. With the staff in the national secretariat, we’ve greatly increased the training, information and guidance for members who perform this very demanding role, changed our approach to recruitment of members, and are developing ways of ensuring that our reporting is as current and impactful as possible.   However, this national structure still lacks a statutory basis – as I said to the Justice Committee, it currently ‘sits on fresh air’.  So my last request to the Lord Chancellor as I leave is to make good on the long-promised legislation to create a single arm’s length body, supporting the 1100 members who carry out this difficult and invaluable role, reinforcing their independence and maximising their impact.