Types of complaints we investigate and potential outcomes

This article featured in Inside Time’s January newspaper.

In December’s article, we told you how to complain to the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO), and this month we want to tell you about some of the more common complaints we investigate and how we might resolve them.


It probably won’t surprise you that the most common complaint we receive relates to lost, missing or damaged property – these complaints make up about 30% of our workload each year.

We know that property issues can affect anyone in prison, and that they can be upsetting and frustrating. Sometimes, property complaints are really complicated for us to investigate, particularly those involving multiple prisons and difficult to read or poorly completed property cards. But, often, our role is to remind prison staff that there is a comprehensive HMPPS property policy, which gives plenty of guidance on how to correctly manage and record prisoners’ property. For example, we investigate cases where prison staff haven’t completed a cell clearance certificate when a prisoner has moved cell and hasn’t packed their own property. Cases where staff simply haven’t followed procedures are relatively easy for us to investigate, but it’s frustrating to find the same issues arising time after time.

If we uphold a property complaint – which means we agree with the person who made the complaint – we can make recommendations to the prison to set things right. Most importantly for the person who complained, we often ask the prison to pay compensation so that they can buy replacements.  If the property in question is of personal or sentimental rather than monetary value, we can recommend that staff apologise to you. If our investigation identifies more widespread problems, we might recommend that the prison governor checks staff are complying with the HMPPS policy, or that they introduce new processes to ensure property doesn’t get lost or damaged.

Staff behaviour

A small, but important, number of our complaint investigations are about staff behaviour. Sometimes these complaints are about the quality of day to day relationships, but some relate to use of force incidents.

These complaints can be among the most difficult to investigate because it is often one person’s word against another and so we rely heavily on CCTV or body worn video camera footage of the incident.  We have been working with HMPPS to make sure that staff understand the importance of turning on their body worn video cameras at the beginning of an incident, and making sure that the footage is kept safe in case we, or the police, need to investigate.

As you might expect, there’s a detailed HMPPS policy on use of force (PSO 1600) which sets out when and how staff can use force against a prisoner and what must happen after a use of force incident. Part of our investigation might involve:

  • looking for evidence that staff tried to calm the situation before using force based on the evidence available,
  • considering whether the force used was reasonable and proportionate,
  • looking at whether the prisoner was examined by healthcare staff soon afterwards,
  • looking for evidence that staff completed a witness statement shortly after the incident.

If we find that staff did not comply with the policy, we make recommendations to ensure mistakes aren’t repeated. If we have serious concerns about how staff have behaved, we can recommend that the governor carries out an investigation.

Work and pay

Sometimes we receive complaints from prisoners who think that they were unfairly dismissed from work, or weren’t paid properly. To investigate, we look at national policies, but also local policies that the prison has created. This means that policies can differ from prison to prison and we know that can be frustrating. However, we will check that local policies comply with national policies. If we find that mistakes have been made, we recommend actions to put things right, for example ensuring the complainant is paid the correct amount, or that the local policy be changed.

We hope that this article has given you more information about some of the types of complaints we investigate and highlighted how our recommendations can help you – and even lead to improvements in the prison.

If you want to make a complaint to the PPO, please remember that you must complete the full internal HMPPS complaints process first. Once you’ve done that, send us copies of your complaint forms and the prison’s response – and remember, you can get your forms photocopied for free by prison staff – with a brief letter explaining why you are unhappy to: Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, 3rd Floor, 10 South Colonnade, London, E14 4PU. For more information, please look out for our ‘How to complain to the PPO’ leaflets and posters.

Susannah Eagle, Complaints Deputy Ombudsman