Over the past year I have read apology after apology from the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, both in personal letters and in letters sent by them to Inside Time, for the delays that have been seen in them investigating prisoners’ complaints. They do nothing but make excuses about how short-staffed they have been and how many complaints they have had to deal with whilst promising that it will get better. Yet this doesn’t seem to be the case at all.
Over the past few months a number of prisoners here have asked me to help them write out their complaints for the Ombudsman and they have nearly all been sent back with the same response: “We cannot investigate your complaint because it is more than three months since the original incident”. This ignores two very important facts. Firstly, it is the prison service’s fault that this time period is so often exceeded, because it is them who request time to investigate and resolve the complaint and then do nothing of the sort. Secondly, the Ombudsman themselves take far longer than three months to investigate a complaint. By their own admission, in the November issue of Inside Time, they take “an average of 16 weeks to investigate”, and this is the time period they use to claim that they are now “investigating complaints much more quickly” than they had been previously.
The question I have to ask is this: If a prisoner complains and the prison promises to investigate and resolve the problem but then does not do so, and the ombudsman takes longer than three months to investigate a complaint anyway, then why can they not make such investigations beyond the supposed time limit of three months from the date of the incident?
Chris Grayling et al will frequently claim that prisoners do not need legal aid funding to take court action because there is an established complaints procedure available. But this is a complaints system which, just a few days ago, was cut from being a three stage system, to being just a two stage system, and which may as well not include the Ombudsman at all, since they seem unwilling to actually investigate any complaints. This isn’t a matter of reducing the cost to the public purse. It is a matter of reducing the accountability of prison and probation staff.