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The Prison Ombudsman around the world

23rd May 2016

Ahead of ‘The Ombudsman Behind Bars’ conference held by the Office of the Ombudsman on the 12th May last, IPRT looked at the role of the Prison Ombudsman around the world.

England and Wales

Looking to our neighbours in England and Wales, the office of the Prisons Ombudsman was initially established in 1994 to investigate prisoner complaints. The remit of the office was further extended over the years to include: complaints of prisoners under probation supervision; to investigate all deaths in prison, probation premises, secured training and immigration detention facilities; and to investigate complaints from those held in immigration detention centres. England and Wales also have an Inspectorate of Prisons, which solely investigates the conditions of places of detentions.

Complaints for 2014-2015 saw 4,964 complaints received. This was up by 2% on the previous year, and eligibility of cases increased by 13%. 39% found in favour of the complainant, up from 34% previous year. 99% of recommendations were accepted. The 2014-2015 report highlighted that with ‘prisoner litigation curtailed by reductions in legal aid, the importance of being able to complain to the Ombudsman, is perhaps more important than ever. The result has been an increase in caseload’. For the first time last year, the office ‘held a series of learning lessons seminars for managers from some 50 prisons to discuss learning from their investigations into self-inflicted deaths, natural cause deaths and complaints. These events were well received and will be repeated’. The office regularly, and usefully, publishes reports on 'lessons learned'.

Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland Prisoner Ombudsman was first established in 2005 to investigate complaints from prisoners who remain unhappy with the way the Prison Service investigated their complaint. Since 2010, visitors can also complain to the Prison Ombudsman after their complaint has been dealt with by the Prison Service, and the Prison Ombudsman also investigates all deaths occurring in Northern Ireland prisons. In certain circumstances, prisoners who have been released can also submit a complaint.

1,429 eligible complaints were received in 2014-2015 (the bulk came from separated Republican prisoners), an increase of 318% on those received 2013-2014 although the prison population dropped by 198 and there were 800 fewer committals. 44% of the complaints were upheld, 21% not upheld, 16% partially upheld, 14% local resolution and 5% complaints withdrawn for the period of April 2013 – March 2015. 83% of the recommendations were accepted at the time of publishing their annual report.

Tom McGonigle, Prisoner Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, stated in the annual report for 2014-2015 that the office “continues to encourage the prison reform process in Northern Ireland but is concerned about the impact of budget cuts. Any reduction in services or opportunities for prisoners to use their time productively will only increase the negative consequences of detention for them, their families and for the community. Budget cuts will also impact on the Office in 2015-16. I will continue to prioritise the investigative function, but delays in meeting investigative timeframes will be inevitable if the Office’s resources reduce further”. 

Scotland

The Scottish Public Services Ombudsman accepts complaints from prisoners in relation to the Scottish Prison Service and organisations providing services in prisons and young offender institutions. Scotland also has a separate Inspectorate of Prisons, who inspects the conditions of prisons.

The SPSO received 287 complaints in 2014-2015 in relation to prisons. Prison complaints are grouped in with Scottish Government and developed administration, which saw 40% of the complaints upheld*, up by 5% from the previous year. (*The report does not provide a detailed breakdown of how many prison complaints were upheld.) They received an increase of 113% in enquiries and an increase of 10% for complaints from the previous year.

The SPSO also hold conferences and give individual advice on how to handle complaints. Its training unit delivered 32 courses last year. The SPSO website provides access to new and current good complaints handling and investigations skills training courses by direct delivery or e-learning. They hold regular meetings with the Scottish Prison Service (SPS), including a workshop for prison complaint managers to discuss key findings arising from SPSO’s observations of SPS’s internal audit of prison complaints. The annual report explains how ‘in 2013/14, they introduced as a pilot project a triage system for speeding up our handling of complaints and providing earlier answers to people. The knock-on effect of this has been that a higher proportion of cases are handled sooner in their process and without the need for intensive review’.

Casting our net wider, we looked further afield to countries around the world who also have Prisoner Ombudsman offices.

New Zealand

Prisoners can avail of the General Ombudsman’s services to investigate complaints. The Ombudsman is also responsible for visiting prisons, immigration detention facilities, health and disability places of detention, child care and protection residences, and youth justice residences. The Ombudsman monitors and makes recommendations to improve the conditions of detention and the treatment of detainees. New Zealand also has an Inspector of Corrections which deals with both individual prisoner complaints and investigates deaths in custody. The Ombudsman in turn reviews the investigation and is capable of carrying out its own independent review.

Investigating officers of the Ombudsman Office visit each prison every six weeks. The prisons receive prior notice and prisoners are able to seek interviews to raise concerns. Prisoners also have access to free telephone to contact the Ombudsman office. The Ombudsman is also contacted when serious incidents occur (death of a prisoner, assaults on staff officers by prisoners and incidents of self-harm by prisoners). A member of the Ombudsman Office may visit when a serious incident occurs and investigate. The Correctional Department’s investigations of deaths in custody are always monitored by an Ombudsman, and the Department’s investigations of other “serious incidents” may be monitored. The office also conducts various workshops, training seminars and publishes policy reports and recommendations. Since 2005, the Ombudsman's office has employed two dedicated Enquiries Officers to receive telephone calls from prisoners and to deal immediately with many inquiries and minor matters.

According to the 2014-2015 annual report, the Ombudsman received 12,151 complaints and other work, the second highest amount ever received, and 10% higher than the work received in the 2013/14 reporting year (15% from prisoners) and ‘was unable to meet current timeliness targets for completed complaints, given the volume of work on hand’. They received 3,615 other contact complaints from prisoners – ‘the high proportion of other contacts received from prisoners reflects the fact that many matters of concern to prisoners are raised with us and resolved immediately by telephone or prison visits. The Department of Corrections alone accounted for 52% of other contacts. Dealing with prisoner matters is a large part of the work we do in responding to and resolving matters by telephone’.

New South Wales, Australia 

The general Ombudsman office was established 41 years ago, and deals with prisoners’ complaints. It was recommended that an independent Ombudsman be established for prisoners. However, this was rejected by the government because the Ombudsman office could already accept complaints under privilege from prisoners. In response to the recommendation, an Assistant Ombudsman was given responsibility for investigating those complaints. There is now a custodial services unit with five staff dealing with contacts, complaints and investigations about the adult and juvenile system. Their office also publishes submissions on prison conditions e.g. use of force in prisons and juvenile detention centres. There is also an Inspector of Custodial Services in New South Wales who inspects adult correctional facilities and juvenile justice centres, and reports to Parliament on the findings of these inspections. The Inspector also oversees the Official Visitor programs conducted in correctional facilities and juvenile justice centres.

Victoria, Australia 

Victoria also has a general Ombudsman that deals with prisoner complaints. The office also publishes reports on prison conditions, access to healthcare, etc. Unfortunately there is currently no independent inspector of prisons in Victoria, putting the office of the Ombudsman under enormous strain to deal with all the prisoner complaints with limited resources to investigate. As the prison population continues to increase, so does the number of complaints.

Canada

The Office of the Correctional Investigator investigates individual prisoner complaints. The Office of the Correctional Investigator reviews all Correctional Service of Canada investigations involving incidents of inmate serious bodily injury or death and publishes National Level Investigations of prisons.

In 2014-2015, the investigative team handled one of the highest caseloads in recent years responding to more than 6,200 offender complaints. Investigators conducted 2,110 interviews with offenders and staff and spent a cumulative total of 381 days visiting federal penitentiaries across the country. The intake staff fielded more than 22,000 phone contacts. The Office’s use of force and serious incident review teams conducted 1,510 uses of force compliance reviews and 167 mandated reviews involving assaults, deaths, attempted suicides and self-harm incidents. The 2014-2015 report highlights the increase of complaints which in turn leads to backlogs. They have recommended that ‘Correctional Service of Canada re-allocate further resources be allocated to Alternative Dispute Resolution to ensure the program is funded and made available in all federal penitentiaries’. They further recommend ‘that the Department of Public Safety conduct a compliance audit of the CSC’s legal obligation to provide accessible, fair and expeditious resolution of offender complaints and grievances’ to deal with the delays of complaints made internally.

Sweden

The Parliamentary Ombudsman handles individual prisoner complaints and also inspects prisons. The findings of their inspections on prisons are published. There is also a separate OPCAT unit that conducts inspections of prisons.

They received 1548 complaints in 2014-2015, an increase of 2% - 838 (8%) received were prisoners complaints.

Finland

The Parliamentary Ombudsman deals with individual prisoner complaints and also inspects prisons. The Parliamentary Ombudsman of Finland is unique in that the office has prosecution powers.

Bringing the maximum processing time of complaints down to one year has been a long-term target of the Parliamentary Ombudsman. This was accomplished in 2013 despite the increase of complaints. According to their 2014 annual report, ‘some complaints are dealt with using a so called accelerated procedure. In 2014, 864 (18%) of all complaints were dealt with in this way. The average time taken to deal with complaints in 2003–2014 purpose of the accelerated procedure is to separate the complaints that do not need further investigation already at the reception stage’.

From the above information we can see that jurisdictions differ in relation to the existence of an Inspector of Prisons. Interestingly, some Inspector of Prisons' offices solely inspect prisons, leaving the review of deaths in custody to the Ombudsman. In countries that do not have an Inspector of Prisons, the task of inspecting prisons is mostly with the Ombudsman.

The majority of the Ombudsman offices publish findings, criticism and investigations of the penal system. In annual reports, they also include case studies which is helpful to see what type of complaints they are receiving. In the United Kingdom and New Zealand, the highest proportion of prisoner complaints is in relation to property.

The ideal model would be the New Zealand model where both Prison Inspector and the Ombudsman deals with individual complaints. The Ombudsman is also entitled to carry out its own review of deaths in custody. New Zealand has only recently fallen behind in the top three spots to the Nordic States in transparency ratings in the public sectors. An important observation is that the Nordic States and New Zealand have the longest established Ombudsman offices, which implies most experience and perhaps the best models.

It is also important to highlight the difficulties that the Ombudsman offices complain of. The most cited difficulty is the backlog of complaints and the need for adequate funding. However it should be kept in mind that some of these offices are General Ombudsman offices, rather than specific Prison Ombudsman, so their remit is much wider and in turn a greater workload.

Of equal importance is to learn from our counterparts' successes. Some offices have established a procedure by which ‘minor’ complaints are dealt with swiftly through telephone and does not need to be fully investigated; this method has seen processing time cut by a positive amount. In New Zealand, this method handles the majority of their enquiries relating to prisons. Many offices also hold conferences and events for public bodies as a learning tool on how to handle complaints, and would appear to have a positive effect for members of the public. We also believe that the publishing of case notes and statistics is hugely beneficial and provide an important insight into Ombudsman work and the prisons themselves.

Ciara Redmond

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