Dame Anne Owers: If I had to start again ..

I would love to have been a musician, but I just do not have the skills. I do play the piano, but that's strictly for my ears only. I hugely admire anyone who can play well.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I didn't sit at school saying: 'When I grow up I want to be chief inspector of prisons.' I did a research degree in African history, and I've always followed my nose. I meandered, and built up a portfolio of experience that led me down unexpected paths.

Most of my work has been with marginalised people, turning that exclusion into inclusion. I was, for example, director of Justice, the human rights organisation. When I became chief inspector of prisons in 2001, it felt like I was jumping in at the deep end: it's a huge area, a very public role and one with a steep learning curve. But it has been incredibly absorbing and has taught me a lot about society.

I was brought up in a colliery village, a very tight-knit working-class community. In a way, going to university was my first experience of a different culture. Talking to prisoners isn't a challenge at all: you just have to talk to people as people, listen to what they have to say, and ask questions. It's simply a case of 'I'm me, and they're them'.

You do take some encounters home. There are individuals who stick in my mind, and sometimes the places you have been stay with you. It's such an all-absorbing job when you're doing it, so you have to learn to switch off when you're not there.

One of my most striking experiences was an unannounced visit to Dartmoor, a pretty forbidding place behind big granite walls, right in the middle of the moor. I went with three colleagues - two female and one male - and the guy on the gate said: 'Hello, girls. Hello, sir.' I realised then there was a lot of work to do.

My contract ends in just over a year. As usual, I'll be looking at doing something that interests me and that I feel capable of.

- Dame Anne Owers is chief inspector of prisons.

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