What actually happens when you make a complaint?

This article first featured in the April edition of Inside Time, written by the PPO for prisoners and detainees.

Photo of a complaints box

The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) independently investigates complaints from people in prison, Young Offender Institutions, Secure Training Centres, immigration detention and on probation.

In this article, a complaints investigator explains what happens to your correspondence and complaint paperwork once it reaches the PPO.

Assessment Team

The first letter you receive from us will come from an assessor.  They are at the frontline of the PPO, responsible for the initial review of your letters, and for deciding which complaints we can investigate.  The assessor needs to see the paperwork to show that you have followed the HMPPS complaints procedure. As we can’t return original documents to you, HMPPS will photocopy your complaint paperwork free of charge. The assessor will also make sure that your complaint is about something we are able to investigate. If your complaint is eligible for investigation, an assessor will write and tell you that your complaint will soon be allocated to an investigator.  If your complaint is not eligible, they will write and tell you why.

Occasionally, we decide not to accept your complaint for investigation, even if it is eligible. For example, if you have received an apology, or staff have resolved your complaint and we are satisfied that an investigation will achieve nothing further, an assessor will write and tell you.

If you have sent new us information about your complaint, or you want a progress check – our assessors pass all your correspondence and telephone enquiries on to the relevant investigator.

Complaint Investigation

Once the assessor has decided that your complaint is eligible, complaints are allocated to teams of complaint investigators.  There are just over 30 complaint investigators at the PPO and in 2019/20 we completed around 2,500 complaint investigations, so we’re a very busy team. Each team is responsible for all of the complaints about certain prisons – this makes it easier for us to identify if there is a particular problem at a prison and hopefully resolve it quickly.  For example, my team started receiving quite a few complaints about visits at one particular prison, which we were able to sort out.

As an investigator, I know some staff and prisoners think that we don’t really understand the realities of living and working in prison.  I have (like many of my colleagues) visited a lot of prisons, spent time shadowing the duty governor, been in more property rooms (usually looking for trainers) than I care to admit, sat in adjudications, visited segregation units, and drunk an awful lot of tea while chatting to prisoners about their complaint, the prison or even what the PPO does.

Against this background, the first thing I do with your letter and complaint is read it thoroughly and I then decide what further information I need.  If you have complained about something where the circumstances may change quickly, like a Home Detention Curfew decision, I will look at your records to see if you have now been released.  In this case, I would write saying that I am satisfied that the situation has been resolved, and I am not investigating your complaint.

More usually, I email staff, and possibly you as well (or write to you), asking for information.  What I ask for depends on the complaint you have made.  Almost a third of the complaints we received in 2019/20 related to property, so I am always keeping my fingers crossed that the property card is legible, and that staff can find the cell clearance card.  Over the years, I have only had one adjudication where I could not read the adjudicator’s handwriting.  If the complaint is about staff behaviour, usually relating to use of force, I will be asking for all the use of force paperwork, CCTV, witness statements and the local investigation.  As part of every investigation, I’ll also look at relevant local, and national policy. If I have any more questions for you, I will normally ask to speak to you either by visiting you in prison (we’re not going into prisons at the moment because of COVID-19, but hope to again soon) or by telephone.

Eventually, I have the information I need (or that I am realistically going to get), then I have to make a decision.  In the broadest terms, if I am satisfied that staff have followed the relevant local and national policy, and have acted reasonably and proportionately, you will receive a letter explaining why we have not upheld your complaint.

Sometimes staff at the prison will suggest how they can resolve your complaint.  The best example of this is where a prison decides to offer compensation for your lost property.  If this is the case, we will write explaining why your complaint has been resolved by mediation.

If I agree with your complaint and uphold it, and it can’t be resolved through mediation, I can make recommendations to the governor, or even to the Director General of Prisons, asking them to take action to put the situation right. In these cases, you and HMPPS will receive a copy of the draft report and have a chance to correct any inaccuracies. Once this has happened, I send a final report to you and HMPPS.  In due course, I will also check that recommendations made in the report are implemented.

Now you have had an insight into what a complaint investigator does, if you want to contact us, you can write to: Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, Third Floor, 10 South Colonnade, London, E14 4PU.

Author: Complaints Investigator

© Crown copyright, 2021

This information is licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0. To view this licence,

visit http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/3/

When you use this information under the Open Government Licence, you should include the following attribution: Prisons and Probation Ombudsman for Inside Time, May 2021, licensed under the Open Government Licence.