The Prisoner Complaints Policy Framework (2023) published by the Ministry of Justice and HM Prison & Probation Service sets out the requirements and information on providing a system for dealing with prisoner complaints.
Prisoners are statutorily entitled to make complaints under the prison rules. Deciding that something is proven on a ‘balance of probabilities’ means that it is more likely than not to have occurred. This requires that a dispute be resolved in favour of the party whose claims are more likely to be true, based on the evidence provided.
In the first instance, prison staff must discuss the issue with the prisoner and seek to find a simple solution. Discussing the issue may also improve relationships, which may reduce the number of complaints.
A prisoner’s right to make a complaint must not be completely withdrawn under any circumstance. Prisoners must be provided with confirmation that their complaint has been received and is being processed.
Healthcare staff in prison may also receive complaints from prisoners about their conduct or treatment of a prisoner’s healthcare condition or of how they treat the prisoner in general and respond to their needs.
Complaints against Healthcare staff in Prisons
Complaints may be made against prison officers as well as healthcare staff who work in the healthcare or segregation units in a prison. A complaint may be made to the Head of Healthcare to consider and resolve with the Prison Governor.
Complaints against healthcare staff who work in prisons may for example be regarding a dispute about being prescribed medication. It is well known that some prisoners may exhibit drug seeking behaviours, due to an underlying addiction, or are seeking to trade medication within the prison as a form of currency. This may lead to requests for being prescribed medication by healthcare staff. If refused, this can also lead to a complaint being made by a prisoner against the member of staff.
Other issues such as not attending prisoners quickly enough when they request to be reviewed by healthcare staff may lead to complaints, particularly when a prisoner needs to be reviewed regularly and requires observations or medication.
Complaints handling in prison settings
The Governor/Head of Healthcare will consider a complaint as soon as possible. Prisoners must receive a response to their complaint within 5 working days of the complaint being logged.
Arrangements must be in place to deal more quickly with complaints where the prisoner might be suffering immediate and significant detriment or be considered to be at risk of suicide or self-harm e.g., prisoners on an open Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork plan (‘ACCT’).
Complaints must be answered by someone who is capable of providing an adequate and meaningful reply and who is not the focus of the complaint, with others being consulted.
A problem-solving approach must be adopted when responding to complaints. Complaint responses must address the issues raised specifically. Responses must also use language which is easy to understand and takes account of any individual needs.
Where necessary, responses must be given orally to meet the needs of individual prisoners. Mediation must also be considered as an option to resolve a complaint.
The response to the complaint could also be reviewed by a prison law solicitor to ensure it is robust and accurate before sending it to the prisoner.
Should the prisoner not accept the response to their complaint and decide to appeal the decision, an appeal must be made within 7 calendar days of having received the initial response, unless there are exceptional reasons for the delay. Appeals must be answered by someone at a higher level in the management structure than the person who provided the response to the original complaint.
The response to an appeal must not simply repeat the response already given. The person responding to an appeal must make sure that they are aware of all the facts of the complaint, and check the relevance of any rules or regulations quoted in the original complaint.
Standard of proof
The civil standard of proof for assessing prisoner complaints is the balance of probabilities. It means that it is probable i.e. the probability that some event happens is more than 50%.
Other factors to consider
When a member of staff responds to a complaint they need to ensure that the following points are addressed:-
- Voice: Giving people a chance to present their side of the story and sincerely consider and account for this in decision-making.
- Neutrality: Being transparent and open about how the rules are applied, explaining decisions and showing decision-making to be principled and unbiased
- Respect: Treating people with respect, taking their issues seriously, being polite and respecting their rights.
- Trustworthy motives: Being sincere, caring and honest about motives; listening and trying to do what is best for everyone.
Prison and Probation Ombudsman (PPO)
The PPO may not investigate complaints about the clinical judgement of healthcare professionals in prisons. Prisoners must be informed about the complaint’s procedures during the ‘early days’ stages of their time in prison, including the role of the PPO. A prisoner who is dissatisfied with the response they receive may pursue their complaint with the PPO.
Healthcare staff should be supported when preparing a response to a prisoner complaint. Guidance should be given in line with the Prisoner Complaints Policy Framework, prison law and local policies in order that an appropriate and comprehensive response is provided, taking into account the needs of the prisoner. This may also lessen the chances of an appeal of the decision.
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