From COMP1 to Canary Wharf

This article first appeared on Inside Time in November:

The public watchdog that investigates prisoners’ complaints has begun hiring former prisoners to work in its office. First recruits speak exclusively to Inside Time

When prisoner Andy Morris was wrongly accused of misusing the Rule 39 legal letters system, he was unhappy to receive a behaviour warning. His complaints to his jail were brushed off, so he wrote to the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, whose investigation found in his favour. The negative entry was removed from Andy’s records.

He was not alone. Last year the Ombudsman investigated 2,500 complaints from prisoners, upholding 800 of them.

But what’s unusual about Andy, 43, is that he has now left jail and found a new job – with the watchdog which once helped him. He and his colleague Frankie Grant, 60, are the first ex-prisoners to be employed in the Ombudsman’s office. When they joined in January they were based at headquarters in London’s Canary Wharf – although since COVID struck they, like the rest of the staff, have been doing their jobs from home.

The Ombudsman is an individual – currently Sue McAllister – with an office which processes and investigates complaints. Andy and Frankie are part of a nine-strong assessment team, on the same pay and conditions as their colleagues. Their role is to read letters from prisoners and decide whether they have valid complaints. For a complaint to be valid, the prisoner must have gone through their jail’s internal complaints system of COMP1 and COMP1A forms, and there must be some worthwhile outcome that can be achieved. Valid complaints are passed on to an investigator – the whole process takes two to three months. Those that fail the test get a reply from the assessor explaining why the matter cannot be pursued.

When the pair spoke to Inside Time, I asked them whether their experience of serving time meant they did the job differently from their colleagues.

Frankie said: “Personally, I want to help more than maybe I should. I want to see that they can complete their criteria and be helped, rather than say: ‘Oh they haven’t done it, we’re sending it back.’ … You have to have some empathy, really.” Andy adds that where a prisoner claims to have filled in the COMP forms, but has no evidence, he tends to phone the prison to check – which assessors are not required to do.

However, the extra understanding can only go so far and sometimes the pair still have to say ‘No’. Andy rejected a complaint from a prisoner who wanted a transfer to a prison nearer his home, but only had two weeks left before his release date – “It would have taken that time just to get him a letter of acknowledgement, let alone get it investigated.” Frankie turned down a vegan who had been given the wrong meal, had received an apology, but now wanted the chef sacked.

Some prisoners don’t like to be told ‘No’. There is a phone line where prisoners can leave recorded messages, and Frankie says: “We do get a lot of abuse and swearing, threats like … ‘I know where Canary Wharf is and when I’m out, I’m coming there.’ I don’t take it personally. They’re just venting, aren’t they?” Prison staff, too, can be unhelpful – Andy says: “I find some prisons sometimes a little bit hostile, I’ve got to be honest.” Like any neutral referee, the Ombudsman and her staff are used to taking flak from both sides.

The biggest single source of complaints is prisons losing residents’ property. Andy says: “There are going to be issues that seem really insignificant to most people outside, but they can be life changing in a way. If you’ve got no canteen, or money that’s gone missing, or a parcel that’s going to make your life a bit better because its winter and you’ve had warm clothes sent in, then it’s a big deal.”

The Ombudsman decided last year to recruit ex-offenders. A spokesman told Inside Time: “It was clear to our senior team that having people with lived experience of prison would make us more effective and more credible, and would strengthen our collective skills and experience.” To find the right candidates, officials used a scheme called ‘Going Forward into Employment’ which was launched in 2017 to employ ex-offenders in the Civil Service.

Recruitment was done at open prisons. Andy, from Brixton in south London, who worked as a community development officer before serving 12 years in jail, was hired whilst still at Standford Hill. Frankie, from Bromley in south London, a former legal executive, served two-and-a-half years and learned she had an interview for the job on the day of her release from East Sutton Park.

Even though the Ombudsman was deliberately hiring ex-offenders, the pair still had to undergo criminal record checks – and when these came back revealing the crimes they had served time for, the Civil Service personnel department tried to block their appointments. Whilst the issue was eventually sorted out, the experience demonstrates how many barriers exist for ex-offenders seeking work.

When they started, others in the team were aware of their backgrounds and there was some curiosity at first, but Frankie says: “We’ve been made to feel very welcome.” According to their employer, Frankie and Andy … “Are now well established in our team and bring their unique and invaluable perspective to our work”.

Whilst in prison, Andy took four complaints to the Ombudsman. Two were upheld and two were rejected. Frankie says she had never heard of the Ombudsman – which illustrates the organisation’s need to promote its service to prisoners.

Whilst it may seem likely that any organisation which scrutinises jails would benefit from having staff with first-hand experience of life inside, in fact other watchdogs do not hire ex-prisoners. HM Inspectorate of Prisons has none on its staff. Independent Monitoring Boards reportedly have no ex-prisoners as members – although their National Chair, Dame Anne Owers, told Inside Time this year that she would like to see some recruited.

Frankie’s message to organisations considering employing ex-offenders is: “Just do it – what have you got to lose?” And her final advice to prisoners: “If there’s anyone in their cell, worried about something – don’t be frightened to complain. While it takes a long time, we generally do get there in the end.”

Credit: Ben Leapman, Inside Time