Complaints handling in prisons

“Focus group responses showed

there was a considerable

lack of trust in the whole complaints



The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) has set out to examine how prisoners experienced the complaints system (both the internal HMPPS and PPO stages of the process). As complaining to the PPO is the final stage of the complaints process for prisoners, we wanted to use this project to better understand the wider context of our work. An analysis of PPO complaints data also suggested that ethnic minority prisoners form a disproportionately large group of complainants to the PPO when compared with their prison population , and we wanted to explore why. We also wanted to understand prisoners’ perceptions of the legitimacy, efficacy, and fairness of the complaints system (including both HMPPS and PPO stages).

To research this, the PPO included a survey in Inside Time (the national newspaper for prisoners) to get prisoners’ views of the complaints process. The emerging findings from the survey were used to develop topics and questions for focus groups and interviews that we conducted in 2019. We randomly selected six prisons for the focus groups: two from the Long Term and High Security Estate and four from the adult male estate. Each focus group contained a mix of prisoners who had and had not submitted complaints to the PPO. Two focus groups were conducted at each prison and one group was made up exclusively of ethnic minority prisoners. At each prison, we also interviewed two members of staff with experience of handling complaints.

Experiences of the complaints process

Focus group participants were asked how well they understood the prison complaints process. A lot of participants knew about the process, but only a few of them said they had been told about it as part of their induction. Some of the participants who did not know about it were in prison for the first time and had recently arrived.

Many participants did not recall receiving information about the HMPPS or PPO complaints process at their induction. Some participants said they had not heard of the PPO before being invited to attend the focus group. Reasons for not complaining to the PPO included:

  • Participants suspecting that the PPO was not impartial and would side with HMPPS
  • Thinking that PPO investigations would take too long
  • Not understanding how to make a complaint to the PPO, or not having access to the right forms
  • Thinking that staff would read the complaint
  • Not having the right contact details for the PPO.

Few participants remembered having seen PPO posters, and when we asked staff, many of them did not know whether these posters were displayed in the prison. Some of the staff said they did not signpost to the PPO when responding to an appeal and did not know how to do this.

Despite all this, some prisoners thought that contacting the PPO was an effective way to get results.

Focus group responses showed there was a considerable lack of trust in the whole complaints process. For some, this was about transparency: participants thought information was being withheld from them or that complaints about members of staff were not investigated properly. For others, it was about assurances that were not kept. Additionally, when prison staff were asked about responding to complaints, some said that the response letters used were never changed, no matter what the complaint.

In all the focus groups, participants said they thought it was harder for prisoners for whom English was not their first language to make a complaint (in both HMPPS and PPO complaint processes, complainants are encouraged to submit their complaint in writing). None of the staff interviewed could recall any prisoners asking to submit a complaint in a different language.

The research found inappropriate use of interim responses, such as staff not using an interim response even though the deadline for the complaint to have been substantively dealt with had passed, or over-using interim responses and failing to provide final responses to complaints. Prisoners also said that use of informal interim responses made it harder for them to keep track of their complaints. Many participants said they had never had responses to their complaints. Staff also acknowledged that complaints were not always answered.

Staff said that it could be difficult to direct complaints to the right department for a response. When asked in their interviews, operational staff thought that there should be a designated complaints respondent in the prison.

Some staff who responded to complaints said they would aim to speak to the complainant prior to providing a written response to better understand and resolve the complaint. Some said that they held regular surgeries and councils where prisoners could bring questions and concerns, with the aim of resolving issues before they reached the complaints stage. Some prisoners agreed that this happened, however, some complainants were mistrustful of this process.

Participants knew that, according to the prison policy in place at the time, there was a time frame for when they should receive a response to their complaint, but few said that they had received one in time. Some staff found time to speak to complainants and submit responses. Others said there were too many demands on their time, and the wings were too short-staffed for them to set aside time to respond.

Some participants in the groups stated that they feared, or had experienced, repercussions because of making complaints (such as receiving IEP warnings, or that officers would make their lives more difficult). Sometimes this followed a more general expectation about how they would be treated in prison, or the experiences or perceptions of others that they had heard about. There was also the sense that the more complaints they made, the less seriously they would be taken. Staff were also aware of these views among the prisoners and stated they had done work to try to dispel the belief.

Experiences and perceptions of minority ethnic prisoners

In the focus groups made up exclusively of ethnic minority prisoners, some participants felt that staff did not understand the needs of ethnic minority prisoners and so would not handle their complaints appropriately.

When presented with a scenario in which racial discrimination was a potential issue, some participants stated it would be a waste of time submitting a complaint. A few then suggested that racism is too pervasive in the prison service to be able to act against it. Comments from staff indicated a lack of meaningful consideration of ethnicity.

One person described having made a complaint when a few black prisoners had been sacked from a certain job, and received a response saying that it did not concern him. It is unknown whether the prison would have taken any action about this. It is understandable, however, that the complainant may have felt affected and concerned by this as a black prisoner themselves and receiving a dismissive response.

The research from the minority ethnic focus groups did not identify big differences between complainants who were white and who were not. This shows that this research is but a starting point, and more should be done to further delve into this topic.


Despite negative views on the HMPPS and PPO complaints processes, our research showed that prisoners still complained, even if they did not expect a satisfactory outcome.

Overall, the focus groups showed there was a considerable lack of trust in the process. This is not surprising when there were issues with interim responses, and a lot of participants said they had never had responses to their complaints. Worryingly, this was also confirmed by staff. Improvements to sharing information about the internal complaints process must also happen, so prisoners can receive information about the internal complaints process, including dispelling worries and fears regarding repercussions from making complaints.

From this, HMPPS could establish some points that could be looked at: they should be unequivocal about the fact that prisoners should not suffer detriment because of complaining; interim responses should be used correctly; they should ensure complaint forms are available (including non-English ones) and be clear about the internal complaints process, including signposting to the PPO.

Since this research has taken place, the PPO has provided more information on how to complain to the Ombudsman and how to do so correctly. This has been through working with National Prison Radio and Inside Time to raise awareness of the PPO. The PPO also conduct a monthly complainant survey that allows those who complain to us to raise concerns and issues with the processes. Finally, the PPO are doing more to understand why some people in prison, notably women and young people, rarely complain to us and what we can do to give complainants more confidence in the PPO.