The Sanctions Protocol – Working together

“It’s about assuring prisoners and

detainees that you (or someone close to you)

can talk or write to any of us about anything,

no matter how sensitive or potentially serious,

without fear of negative consequences.”


We hope that you will all have heard of HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMI Prisons), the Independent Monitoring Boards (IMB), Lay Observers and the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) and have some idea of the work we do as individual organisations. But did you know that we also sometimes work together? One of the most important ways that we do this is through what we call our joint Sanctions Protocol.

What is the Sanctions Protocol?

The purpose of the Protocol, or agreement, is to set out how we will work together to protect any prisoner or detainee from any sanctions, punishment or unfavourable treatment caused by their communication with HMI Prisons, IMBs, Lay Observers or the PPO. The Protocol covers people in prison, YOIs, secure training centres, immigration removal centres, in court custody and under PECS custody.

You might wonder what this really means. For us, it’s about assuring prisoners and detainees that you (or someone close to you) can talk or write to any of us about anything, no matter how sensitive or potentially serious, without fear of negative consequences. If you want to talk to or contact us, you should feel safe to do so. We are clear that no matter what you tell us, staff must not take any action to punish you, for example by transferring you, taking away your job, re-categorising you, restricting visits or phone calls or subjecting you to any physical or verbal abuse.

We know that the majority of staff across HMPPS, PECS, youth custody and immigration enforcement value and support the work that our organisations do – even when our roles involve identifying lessons to be learnt and improvements to be made. Many staff positively encourage you to speak to inspectors when they visit, turn to the IMB or Lay Observers to help solve problems, or escalate your complaints to the PPO. But we know that might not always be the case. So, what should you do if you think you have suffered negative consequences because you have contacted us?

Reporting a sanctions concern

The first, and most important, step is to tell any one of our organisations as soon as you think you have been treated negatively. At this point, our organisations work together to decide whether, on the information we have, we think your situation meets the criteria for a sanctions case. If we do, we will ask you if you are happy for us to share details of your claim with each of the other organisations and eventually with HMPPS (or the relevant authority). We understand that you might be worried that life will become even more difficult for you if we take this further, but if your allegation is very serious we might decide to do this even if you do not give your permission.

What happens next? The investigation process

In some cases, we will ask senior managers in the prison (or immigration removal centre, etc) to carry out a first investigation and report back to us within a set timeframe. In other cases, our organisations will agree that it is more appropriate for the PPO to carry out an independent investigation without further delay.

If the PPO investigates, they use the same approach as when they investigate any complaint. They will gather relevant evidence, interview staff (and they can interview anyone, no matter how senior) and speak to you. If the PPO finds that you have suffered negative consequences after speaking to one of our organisations, they will make recommendations to the service to try to fix the situation for you and ensure that the same thing doesn’t happen to someone else. You will receive a copy of their investigation, and so will senior leaders in the service – for example, the Director General for Prisons in HMPPS.

The PPO might conclude that you were not unfairly treated. Prisons, and the other services responsible for your care, make decisions about you all the time. Although you might feel that you have suffered after contacting one of our organisations, there might not be evidence to support that, or the decision or action might be justified for some other reason. Whether the PPO uphold your claim or not, you will receive a copy of the investigation so that you can see for yourself how they have reached their conclusions.

Our four organisations want to make sure that you can freely communicate with us without being worried about what might happen. If you have any issues you would like to raise with us, we hope that the information in this article will make you feel safer to do so.

Author: PPO – Susannah Eagle, Deputy Ombudsman, Complaints, HMI Prisons – Martin Lomas, Deputy Chief Inspector of Prisons, IMB & Lay Observers – Anne Owers, National Chair

This article previously featured in Inside Time’s September edition, written by the PPO for prisoners.