Monday, February 21, 2011

Ombudsman Misses the Point

The ultimate arbitrator in disputes between prisoners and the prison service is the Prisons Ombudsman. I recommend his regular publications for those wanting a greater insight into the petty, malign and just plain stupid carceral machine.
In a recent judgement, the Ombudsman had to consider the case of a dying man. The Lifer Governor, quite decently, began the paperwork to apply for compassionate release. Alas, another manager decided not to complete the process. The paperwork was finally completed the day before the prisoner died - still in prison.
The lesson the Ombudsman drew from this was a procedural one, regarding the time from prospective death within which such procedures should be began.
This follows an established pattern of thinking by the Ombudsman’s office. It focuses overwhelmingly upon procedures and processes. This is to overlook the human element - staff make up the procedures and processes, they are not some robotic bureaucracy that powers itself.
Where is the calling to account of staff in this - and other -complaints? Why is it that, no matter how wrong, stupid or illegal the matter at hand, I am unable to find a single recommendation by the Ombudsman that staff should face disciplinary action. Ever.


  1. Its rather a swindle, isn't it? You're lead to believe there is recourse, an action that can be taken in the event of a wrong doing, such as this instance of the dying man, but the overseers actions amounts to very little; in fact nothing at all.

    There is so much stacked against prisoners it makes me feel sad and angry.

  2. This is a perennial problem with bureaucracies. It does not matter how many procedures and processes you put in place, they can still be followed to the letter in the most perverse of ways.

    The lesson? Slim the bureaucracies and hold individuals to account.

  3. Winston Churchill said: that tyrants ride on the backs of tigers; they fear to get off, as they would be devoured.

    Bureaucrats also ride on the backs of tigers; but unlike the tyrants, the bureaucrats are not afraid to dismount when it suits them; as they ride side-saddle, on the backs of paper tigers.

  4. Yeah there should be accountability to the people, to human beings not to the stuffy behind the scenes ones who make all the rules in the first place, rules designed to suit costings, profit margins and the rest of the shitsheboodles.

  5. Well said Benedict White......

    As for me,I have spent ages trying to find the right words to express my feelings about this, I cant.......but I would like to know how they get away with overlooking the fact that someone died, someone, somewhere is responsable for him dying in a prison hospital and not at home with his loved ones.
    If that person has a conscience I hope he can live with himself.

  6. I can sort of see the Ombudsmans point. Whilst yes persons do matter, and maybe he should be more willing to clamp down on this, the fact is that an efficient organisation should have mechanisms to deal with bloody mindedness and incompetence, as these will always be present no matter what you do.

    In addition, he will always have the problem that he needs evidence of who to blame when calling for disciplinary action (or evidence that it was a personal error). If the prison service closes ranks, that evidence will be very hard to find.

  7. @tallguy and in this case "he" should have the power to introduce a supplmental ruling that on reciept of application for campassionate release said paperwork must be completed within 24 hrs. In such instants where paperwork is not completed the prisoner is granted pro forma compassionate release.

    It's not all about finding blame Tallboy it's also about taking away power that certain individuals are either too lazy or too nasty to be bothered completing paperwork in a timely fashion.

  8. I think you've missed the point of an ombudsman. They hear complaints not appeals. They are investigators not a parole board.

    The role of replacing decisions and making orders for release is a quasi-judicial one not an investigative one. I don't know the system well enough to know if there is such a mechanism in place. However, given the nature of the Ombudsman's office (and not just the prison one, any of them) they are not capable of carrying out that role.

    For what its worth, my reading of the above article is a complaint that the investigation failed to get the correct answer, not a complaint about the way the Ombudsman is supposed to work.

  9. This is very much off topic, so I am sorry. I read this blog frequently and never thought I'd be turning to it for advice! My best friend was sent to prison this week, a sentence of less than one year was handed down (obviously I know he will only actually serve half of his sentence in prison). He is miles away from his friends and family (he is in prison in a different UK jurisdiction from the one he is from).

    I knew nothing about what was happening until late the night before when he contacted me in a complete state ahead of his sentencing. I made the decision to travel the quite significant distance to the court he was being sentenced at to be there with him (thankfully I did as he hadn't even told his family...I got landed with the unenviable task for phoning them at his request if he did go to prison).

    Anyway, enough of the ancillary details. What I'm struggling with is what on earth do I put in letters to him? I've written to him already a fairly short letter just to let him know I'm still thinking about him and that I am here for him now and when he gets out to help him with the problems that has resulted in him going to prison. I'm really unsure about what I should write about though as I don't want to put teh wrong thing in a letter that causes anxiety/upset etc.

    Any advice?

  10. Hello Anon above. Your friend is very fortunate to have such a loyal and thoughtful friend.

    I have written to a friend of mine in prison during two short sentences, and I also co-ordinate a prisoner/volunteer letter writing scheme for a charity.

    My advice would be just to be your natural self in your letters. I'm sure your friend will want to hear about what you have been doing, for example. Try to stay upbeat and cheerful if possible, though I'm sure he would like to hear that you are missing him too. You could also talk about things you are looking forward to doing together when he comes out, to give him something to focus on and look forward to. Mostly of course you will be led by what he says in his letters to you. The main thing is to try and keep his spirits up.

    Believe me it is more important that you send letters than worrying too much about the content. It will make all the difference to know you are thinking of him. All the best to you both. Let me know how you get on via this blog if you can. x

  11. @ anon above, I second what Jules says. Your mate will appreciate any mail. If you can't think of anything to say, just a postcard with "Thinking of you" will be fine. (inc your phone no if he doesn't know it by heart) As i used to get tonnes of jail mail myself, Everything, from simple postcards, jokes printed off the internet, and long letters that metaphoricly speaking, transported my mind to somewhere else, while my body was stuck in a drab grey cell. EVERYTHING was appreciated. Don't forget to enc a S.A.E. In case canteen is a week away, as he may not have a stamp or envelope. (though you do get a free prison issue one) He will be able to issue you with a V.O. if you want to visit him. And if money is a problem, contact Assisted Prison Visits (google it) though, it is like pulling teeth to get your money back. Above all, don't worry, sure he will be fine. If you have a few quid you can send him the first week, that will help him too, though i dare say he won't expect it.

  12. Jules,

    Thank you very much for that. It has been very helpful. I’ll see where things go!

  13. Anon,

    Thanks for that. I included some envelopes and stamps with my first letter to him. I know that they are really practical things as it might not always be possible to get these things. I hope he will use his free letters to contact his mum and dad rather than me! I'd rather not see him in prison, but I did say to him that if he wanted to see me that I'd visit (and told him that again in my letter, obviously on both occasions leaving out the fact I don't want to so as not to discourage him if he wants me to visit).

    It’s been a tough start to the week as I’ve ended up fielding telephone calls from his mum and dad while they tried to get their head around the situation, I knew far more than they did about what was going on. I do work in Law, but have never seen the Criminal Justice system from this side’s far easier when there is a professional detachment involved!