X-ray scanning: Complaint upheld

This article previously featured in Inside Time’s April edition.

The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) was first established to investigate complaints made by prisoners. Now, we also investigate complaints made by young people in detention, offenders under probation supervision and individuals detained under immigration powers. You may have recently read that we also investigate all deaths in prisons, approved premises and immigration detention facilities. 

But how does investigating complaints work in practice? How does our work to ensure safety and fairness in prisons involve developing policy, and result in positive outcomes for all?

As you may know, X-ray body scanners were rolled out across the prison estate from 2020. X-ray body scanners are key in stopping illicit smuggling, including New Psychoactive Substances (NPS), and the PPO supports these measures which are designed to ensure that you remain safe.

However, X-ray body scanners are complicated and although they are used across a variety of settings, most notably at airports, their introduction in prisons presents a unique operational challenge. 

As with the introduction of any new policy or framework, we were consulted by HMPPS to contribute to the ‘Use of X-Ray Body Scanners (Adult Male Prisons) Policy Framework’. We set out our concerns to HMPPS that the use of X-ray body scanners needed to be correctly authorised and accurate records needed to be maintained by staff. 

However, the introduction of new practices can raise concerns which can result in legitimate complaints from you. 

With X-ray body scanners, it became apparent from our investigations that in some prisons, all prisoners were being scanned on entry to prison. However, the policy clearly states that body scanners should only be used to combat an identified threat. 

Body scanners emit radiation, and although in very small doses, prisoners are concerned about this, as some are transferred frequently. It is important staff are confident doing the right thing, supported by the correct operational guidance.

We received a complaint from a prisoner who had been scanned upon arrival at a prison. After reading the relevant PSI, they were concerned blanket scanning was not in line with the national framework and therefore was not reasonable. As part of the complaint investigation, we spoke to operational policy leads and discussed the area of the framework that suggests prisoners scanned must be part of an identified threat. We specifically asked how the threat could be reasonably justified, proportionate, and outweigh any potential health risks. 

HMPPS policy holders agreed that the blanket use of scanners wasn’t reasonable, and this was helpful in setting out what could be expected from prisons in defining ‘threats’ to determine the appropriate use of body scanners. We upheld the complaint and recommended actions the prison should adopt to bring their practice in line with the framework. The prisoner received an apology and the prison accepted and implemented these recommendations. 

We continue to monitor this, as we know this is still an issue at some prisons.

Carrying out complaint investigations and applying HMPPS policies in practice can put us in a state of ‘healthy tension’ with the services in remit. A system which positively engages with informed feedback and suggestions for improvement is something we continually strive for. 

If you have a complaint for the PPO, send us a short note and copies of all your complaints paperwork, including the prison’s response. Write to: 

Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, 3rd Floor, 10 South Colonnade, London, E14 4PU.