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Rights behind bars: the conditions and treatment of those in detention

International Human Rights Day Lecture

Speaker: Anne Owers, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons
Chair: Professor Peter Townsend, Centre for the Study of Human Rights
December 2004

Click here to download a transcript of the lecture (PDF)


'I strongly believe that the way societies treat those who have been deprived of their liberty is a litmus test of commitment to human rights' (Rt Hon Jack Straw). Yet our prisons are overcrowded and over-used, with a rising suicide rate, particularly among the most vulnerable. Independent inspection of prisons and other places of detention is a key part of the international human rights framework; shining a light into closed institutions. And recent events in Iraq have shown what can happen without independent scrutiny. On the eve of International Human Rights Day, Anne Owers reflects on three years of inspecting the conditions and treatment of prisoners and detainees in England and Wales, and the messages this has for places of detention, the criminal justice system and society.

Anne Owers was educated at Washington Grammar School, County Durham, and Girton College, Cambridge. On leaving college she went to Zambia to teach and to carry out research into African history.

While taking time out to bring up her three children, Anne continued to undertake research and voluntary advice and race relations work. In 1981 she joined the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants as Research & Development Officer, becoming General Secretary four years later. During this time she was also a member of the Race and Community Relations Committee of the Church of England and the Board of the Centre for Research into Ethnic Relations at Warwick University.

Anne's most recent post was as Director of JUSTICE, a post she held for nine years. During that time she was a member of various Government committees including the Home Office Task Force on the implementation of the Human Rights Act and the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee on Legal Education and Conduct. She carried out work on human rights, asylum and the provision of legal services, becoming a member of both the Public Interest Advisory Panel of the Legal Services Commission and the Bowman Review of the Administrative Courts.

On 1 August 2001 she was appointed HM Chief Inspector of Prisons.