Defeating Complaints, Creating Rage by John Bowden (UK)

The liberal argument that internal prison justice and the equitable resolution of prisoners’ grievances is a critically important factor in maintaining the equilibrium and legitimacy of prison regimes, while also preventing the widespread embitterment of a group of people already significantly in conflict with the system, is obviously true in a particular sense. In the closed and hidden world of prison where the guards and system they enforce wield an omnipotent degree of power over prisoners the manner in which prisoners’ complaints and grievances are dealt with will inevitably determine whether that power is frequently abused or mediated with at least some semblance of fairness and lawfulness.
The reality is that when natural justice and some degree of accountability is absent in the negotiation and enforcement of authority in prison then those charged with enforcing that authority will invariably abuse their position of power, and those on the receiving end of that abuse will express their grievances and anger in the only way available to them through open rebellion. Despite the mindset of prison staff, treating prisoners’ grievances with fairness and propriety isn’t some fatal compromise with inherently subversive and anarchistic individuals, it is in fact a means by which the fundamental conflict of interest between jailer and jailed is delicately managed and ‘good order and discipline’ maintained.

Internal prison complaint procedures were overhauled following the Strangeways Prison uprising of 1990 and the subsequent inquiry of Lord Justice Woolf into causes of the disturbance; chief amongst them were identified a total lack of any effective mechanism for dealing fairly with prisoners’ grievances and the mood of anger and injustice generated by that. Even in the oppressive environment of prison where prisoners are rendered completely powerless Woolf advocated that the basic principles of natural justice must prevail if relative peace and control are to be maintained. Following Woolf’s inquiry the system of dealing with prisoners’ complaints was changed to reflect an apparently greater transparency and integrity, although the vital element of independence remained conspicuously absent and some prisoners continued to exercise their right to seek redress through the courts. The continued existence of a complaints system embedded in the fabric of the prison system and the power relationships that configure it means that it will remain forever susceptible to bias and abuse and be ultimately worthless as a means of mediating conflict between prisoners and those holding them under lock and key.

In the Scottish Prison System that emerged in the 1990s deeply scared by riots, brutality and abuse over many decades, prisoners are ostensibly now able to air their complaints through a complaints procedure both transparent and carefully documented. A ‘Complaints and Requests’ form (the C.P. form) is now made available to prisoners to record and monitor the progress of complaints from their initial and first point of contact with basic grade staff, who are required to answer in writing the complaint when it’s first lodged, up through a succession of more senior staff if necessary and sometimes beyond to the Scottish Prisons Complaint Commission, a prison service offshoot of nominal independence. At each stage of the process the various grades of staff that the complaint reaches are required within a specified time period to record in writing on the C.P. form their responses to the complaints and attempts to resolve it.

There are two specific ways to complain through the C.P. System and two forms that facilitate each one; C.P.1 form enters the complaint process through basic grade staff in the way earlier described, while the C.P.2 form allows one to complain directly to the prisons main governor under confidential access; the latter procedure is used for more serious complaints usually involving staff abusing their position of authority in some way. On the surface the C.P. system of complaint seems eminently fair and reasonable with little scope for abuse or the suppression of complaints once they’ve been made in writing. In reality any system of complaint not properly independent of the people and institution complained about is inherently susceptible to manipulation and an inclination to subvert and neutralize potential criticism and censure. Prison staff conditioned by an occupational imperative to stick together and show a united and impregnable front to ‘the enemy’ (prisoners) will inevitably close ranks to defeat complaints concerning staff impropriety and misconduct if made by prisoners. ‘Supporting colleagues’ and ‘maintaining staff morale’ in the face of manipulative and anti-authoritarian prisoners is the iron law holding the entire system together – allowing ‘the enemy’ a foot in the door by dealing openly and honestly with their complaints will result eventually and inevitably in a dangerous shift in the balance of power and a crisis of control and management. Within a system and institution so absolutely dependant on keeping prisoners in their place and largely voiceless it’s natural and understandable that those charged with maintaining control will feel inclined to suppress dissent however it is expressed.

Sometimes the suppression of complaints is obvious and ill-disguised. Often prisoners are informed that their complaints have been “lost” and “mislaid”, and frequently answers to complaints are so disingenuous and evasive that prisoners describe them as ‘Fuck off replies’. Even when prisoners manage to pursue a complaint through to the Jail’s Internal Complaints Committee (a body composed wholly of prison staff) they’re usually called before the committee simply to be informed of decisions already made in their absence. The ‘Fuck off’ approach permeates every stage of the C.P. process and is obviously designed to demoralise and chip away at the prisoners resolve and drive to complain.

In most cases, providing the prisoner remains sufficiently motivated to continue with his/her complaint, the complaint will wind its way through the various stages of the C.P. process giving at least the surface impression of a procedure fit for purpose or at least a safety value for prisoners frustrations, no matter how intrinsically worthless it actually is as a means of redressing grievances.

The barefaced and obvious suppression of a prisoner’s complaint is relatively rare, basically because such a response undermines and seriously questions the artificial legitimacy of the official complaints system and lays bare the true reality of how power is frequently abused in the ‘management’ of prisoners. However, when a prisoner’s complaint is seriously loaded with bad implications and potential consequences for prison staff and the system they defend and enforce, then the outright suppression of that complaint, no matter how clumsily and obviously done, is done none the less.

On the 19th January this year I made a complaint directly to the most senior governor here at Glenochil Prison in Stirlingshire, Mr Dan Gunn, through the ‘confidential access’ C.P.2 procedure. I stated that Glenochil, a jail that had doubled its population in four years from about 450 prisoners to almost 800, was now badly failing in a number of important areas relating to proper sentence planning and management procedures for prisoners; especially badly effected by the massive overcrowding of the prison was the availability of offending behaviour programmes, educational opportunities, employment opportunities, including vocational qualifications, and the operation of the personal officer scheme. All of these critically important resources had been largely replaced by a system of obviously warehousing increasingly greater numbers of prisoners under a regime based almost exclusively on control and containment with virtually no opportunities for prisoners to develop and grow beyond earlier patterns of self-destructive and anti-social behaviour. Life sentence prisoners, especially, at Glenochil, individuals required to demonstrate qualitative improvements in behaviour and insight into their offences before parole is possible, are simply left to vegetate and sink into institutionalisation. This is clearly contrary to the Scottish Prison Services declared policy on the management of life sentence prisoners; the SPS operations Directorate document ‘Lifers’ produced in February 2004 is clear and specific about the prison systems role in the management of lifers: “The SPS will help lifers to understand why they committed their offences, will provide them with appropriate opportunities to address offending behaviour and offer them opportunities to gain new skills which will help them when they’re released”. None of this is reflected in the regime under which lifers exist at Glenochil.

I presented the evidence supporting my complaint in the C.P.2 form that was forwarded directly to governor Dan Gunn, who was required to answer it within a specified period of time. He completely ignored my complaint, and following a second written complaint that I submitted to him a month later he finally responded by claiming that the first written complaint had been “lost” and in any case he had no direct responsibility and role in managing sentence planning procedures for prisoners at Glenochil, though assured me that he would raise the matter with the appropriate manager concerned. I’ve heard nothing from him since.

My attempts to raise the same complaint with the jail’s Internal Complaints Committee were also stymied by the committees flat refusal to hear the complaint because, they claimed, it was not within their remit to do so. My attempts to get them to process a specific complaint concerning the behaviour of a designated personal officer who had clearly neglected his duty by refusing to provide information to prisoners on sentence planning matters, were also frustrated by their refusal to hear it. Contrary to official procedures both the governor and Internal Complaints Committee had refused to properly hear or consider my complaint, effectively subverting that procedure and exhibiting contempt for it.

Of course the true dilemma of the governor in all of this is that my complaint was unanswerable. What is happening at Glenochil is mirrored in jails throughout the country: chronic overcrowding, the steady deterioration of any positive features of prison regimes, and an administrative strategy more influenced and guided by right wing political pressures than a focus on rehabilitative regimes. The prison system is in crisis and increasingly serves no other purpose and function than straight forward containment of more and more socially disadvantaged and criminalised people under regimes that increasingly breach human rights. Denying those prisoners the opportunity and right to complain about the conditions under which they’re imprisoned is to forget the lessons of Strangeways and tempt a repeat of it.

John Bowden

Februrary 2009

John Bowden
HM Prison Glenochil,
King O’Muir Road,
FK10 3AD

This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 26th, 2009 at 11:00 pm and is filed under Prison Struggle.