Tackling the persistent problem of prisoners’ property: a view from the complaints investigator’s desk

You can be sure one of the things that impresses a new Ombudsman is the quantity of property complaints we get in the office.  It’s no secret that about a third of the complaints we investigate relate to property and we uphold about half of the property complaints we investigate.  Years pass, and, from this side of the desk, the situation remains largely unchanged. Sue McAllister, the Ombudsman, has turned the tables and has decided to empower us – the investigators – to “get a grip on prisoners’ property”.

I know what you’re thinking: what on earth does a prison investigator know about the realities of a prisoners’ property?  Actually, I can say with some confidence that prison investigators do “get it”.  Whenever I visit a prison and get the invitation to have a look around, number one on the hit list… Reception.  I do appreciate that the local prisons are non-stop, moving prisoners and their property in and out.  I’ve been there with the prison vans queuing down the street waiting to come in to “discharge and collect”, staff desperately trying to find someone’s glasses, while an orderly is quietly helping a new prisoner get their arrival pack.  I’ve also been through more stored property rooms than I care to remember, finding lost trainers and all sorts of things, before making sure staff box the found property up and finally send it on to their owner/s.  I’ve also seen the flip side in the high security prison.  Most memorable was getting stuck in reception when a long-term prisoner was being moved.  There were so many bags of property we got stuck in Reception until other staff could come and help move bags around!  It’s also not that long ago I was dealing with a property complaint and was left speechless when the property cards arrived…. Over 150 pages of it!

In response to Sue’s challenge, a small number of complaint investigators have got together and created the (not so imaginatively titled) Property Working Group and of course we have our go to Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 02/12, Prisoner Complaints and PSI 12/2011 Prisoners’ Property.

We’re working out how we change the handling of some property complaints.  Top of that list is going to be property complaints that in official speak “haven’t been investigated to an appropriate standard” – yes there are replies from prison staff that effectively say “the Ombudsman will sort it out”.  We are proposing to start sending those back to the appropriate prison/s and asking them to investigate in adherence with PSI expectations.  It’s also quite likely that if a prison or prisons can’t produce the property cards or cell clearance cards, by a certain deadline we will consider automatically upholding the prisoners’ complaint.  Also on our hit list is if a prisoner loses or has property damaged for example in the laundry process, it doesn’t matter about any disclaimer, the prison needs to pay appropriate compensation if they are clearly at fault. 

Prisoners aren’t getting off the hook either, I am always surprised at the high value items that prisoners take in with them, chiefly watches… If compensation is being sought for a high value item, we’ll be expecting evidence of the actual cost of the item.

So if a property complaint, comes back to you from the Ombudsman’s office, don’t be surprised because now you know it’s the start of us, the investigators, taking a different stance on the property complaints.  Hopefully our preliminary proposals will be accepted by Sue and once they’ve been established, we’ll have the opportunity to develop further ideas to “get a grip on property complaints”.  Watch this desk space…