Making a complaint during a pandemic

 

Since March 2020, the whole of the UK has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and there have been many changes to how prisons, probation services and immigration removal centres function. In December 2020, the PPO published our first bulletin considering the impact of COVID-19 on our complaints work. This article sets out some of the main findings from the bulletin which you can read here: https://www.ppo.gov.uk/news/covid-19-ppo-complaints-ppo-publish-a-new-learning-lessons-bulletin/

How the PPO has adapted:

Since March 2020, all PPO staff have been largely working from home, with very limited access to the office in Canary Wharf. This meant that for a while, we were unable to access any of our post. It severely affected our ability to assess new complaints and communicate with you in prison. Since May 2020, we have redirected our post to a scanning company and have been able to process complaints. This means that we are no longer able to return original documents to you. However, HMPPS has agreed to photocopy complaint forms for free so that you can send them to us.

In June 2020, we also began using the ‘Email a Prisoner’ service. This way, we can send messages to you quickly, whether our staff can get into the office or not. However, not everything is suitable for ‘Email a Prisoner’ and so we only email you if we are sure that the contents are not confidential or sensitive.

What do we know about COVID-19 related complaints?

Between April 2020 and September 2020, we received just over 2,000 complaints. Many of these were ineligible and the most common reason for this was that the person complaining had not followed the correct complaints procedure.

A complaint is eligible if it is from someone who has been through the relevant internal complaints process and they bring it to us within three months of receiving the final stage reply. The complaint must also be about something which is within our remit.

At the point of analysing our data in September 2020, we had received 70 complaints which we assessed as being related to COVID-19. We had completed investigations into 14 COVID-19 related complaints. The small number of COVID-19 complaints we have investigated means that we can’t yet draw conclusions about the impact of the pandemic on prisoners but it has shown us areas that we need to monitor – for example, the impact of the pandemic on access to things like showers, work and education and progression.

The pandemic has made many different aspects of prison life more difficult or uncertain. For example, in June 2020, Mr A complained to the PPO that staff had not allowed him access to his property after he was transferred to the segregation unit in April 2020. He said that he did not receive his property until late May 2020.

Mr A first complained to the prison asking for items from his cell, including all his food items and toiletries. Staff apologised for the delay in sending the property to Mr A and said it would be with him “as soon as is practicable”. Staff said that the restrictions imposed due to the pandemic made it difficult for them to facilitate such tasks. Mr A submitted a second complaint a week later and stated that he needed his food items before Ramadan. This time, staff responded that his food items were not allowed in the segregation unit and that “normal timings are not applicable in this COVID-19 regime era.”

Mr A appealed two weeks later. A custodial manager replied a week later and acknowledged that the prison’s initial responses to Mr A’s complaint had not addressed his questions. The manager said that Mr A’s old cell had not yet been cleared of property but that this would happen the next day. The manager also said that they had told staff to give Mr A the items he was allowed. Mr A was not satisfied and complained to the PPO.

A review of Mr A’s paperwork revealed discrepancies and contradictions about the action staff had taken to clear Mr A’s old cell.

At the time of the complaint, the COVID-19 pandemic was at an early stage and the national lockdown had been recently introduced. We accepted that this was a particularly challenging time for the prison estate. However, according to HMPPS policy, Mr A’s cell should have been cleared as soon as possible after his transfer to the segregation unit. The staff response that “normal timings were not applicable” was wrong.

We upheld Mr A’s complaint and recommended that the Governor apologise to Mr A for the delays in returning his property to him, and for the incorrect information given in the original complaint responses. The Governor accepted our recommendation, and Mr A received an apology.

It is clear that the effects of the pandemic will be far-reaching and long-lasting. We will be publishing further reports to track the longer-term impact on our complaints work, as well as reports focusing on fatal incident investigations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

You can contact the PPO by calling 0845 010 7938 (voicemail only) or you can write to us at: Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, Third Floor, 10 South Colonnade, London E14 4PU.

This article was written in February for readers of Inside Time, the national newspaper for prisoners and detainees. You can read this here: https://insidetime.org/far-reaching-and-long-lasting/

Allena Reed, Research Officer