October 27, 2023

Building procedural justice practice into prison complaints handling

Flora Fitzalan Howard
Evidence Lead, Registered Forensic Psychologist, Co-editor of the Prison Service Journal
Evidence-Based Practice Team, HMPPS
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By Flora Fitzalan Howard, Nicola Cunningham, & Dr Helen Wakeling (Evidence-Based Practice Team, Insights Group, HMPPS) and Jo Voisey (Evaluation & Prototyping Hub, Ministry of Justice)


Changing habitual practices is hard. Even when we want to change, it doesn’t mean that it will happen. If the habit is strong enough, it can override a person’s conscious motivation so that the behaviour occurs without the individual being aware they are doing it.

Layer on top of this, how busy our front-line staff are and how little mental bandwidth they have for anything new you can see why it is so hard to embed new practices. In healthcare, it takes on average 17 years for evidence-based practices to be incorporated into routine practice and only about 50% ever reach widespread clinical use. This evidence to practice gap is common in all public services.

Richard Thaler, renowned behavioural economist and Nobel prize winner says, “If you want people to do something, make it easy.” This is certainly the approach that HMP Buckley Hall took to embed more procedural justice (PJ) into their complaint responses.

When people see the use of authority as being more procedurally just, they are more likely to view authority figures and their decisions as legitimate, leading to greater decision acceptance and compliance with instructions, decisions, and the law. PJ comprises four principles: voice, neutrality, respect and trustworthy motives. There is a body of evidence that PJ improves psychological well-being and reduces prisoner misconduct, violence, self-harm, attempted suicide, and reoffending after release.

Buckley Hall developed a prototype process which involved a reflection workshop on good and bad complaint responses, a template and checklist, a quality assurance process and coaching sessions if required. But did it actually change practice?

Click here to view a PDF copy of the Procedural Justice Practice in Complaints Handling graphic below, and click 'save' in the top right corner to download.

The Evidence Based Practice Team, HMPPS and Evaluation and Prototyping Hub, MoJ joined forces to investigate. Using a novel approach, which enabled the team to quantify the amount of PJ language present, they were able to show that it increased the amount of all four principles in complaint responses over 12 months.  You can access that research report here. But the key question was ‘Could this produce the same results elsewhere?’

Best practice can be difficult to scale as the ‘active ingredient’ that makes a process work can be the drive and enthusiasm of the individuals involved. Especially when they have developed the idea as they are more motivated to make it work.

The team ran a ‘Randomised Control Trial’ with the staff at HMP Featherstone as they wanted to improve their complaints handling following a recent HMIP report. A RCT is the most robust form of evidence that gives researchers confidence that change X caused Y outcomes.

At a lock down day, one group of staff were trained in the new process and then the amount of PJ in their complaint responses were compared to a group of staff who hadn’t been trained. To strengthen the confidence in the results, this process was repeated: half of the group of staff who hadn’t been trained received training at the next lock down day and were compared with the remaining untrained staff.

In both time periods, there were positive changes in the amount of PJ content in the complaint responses for all four principles. The biggest change was the amount of prisoner voice in the responses. Staff were asked to speak to all prisoners prior to the reply, refer to that meeting and reflect back what they had head from the prisoner.  You can access the full research report here.

The team also randomly sampled complaint responses from the group trained to see if any changes in practice had continued. In three of the four principles the change had been maintained. But to the surprise of the researchers, the amount of voice present had continued to improve.

Clues to why this happened were found when we spoke to those involved. Seeing the complainant in person before responding and providing quality explanations were most commonly reported as developed through its use, as illustrated by the quotes below from responders:

“…it almost forced the process [seeing the complainant in person] and now it’s just become practice for me and its obviously the right thing to do, but traditionally before when time had been tight…that was the part I missed out.”

And “…not only will I go and see them, but I will follow up my response to see the guy and they seem to accept it much better and so I don’t seem to get a lot of ‘I don’t understand that’ or ‘this is a terrible decision’.”

If you would like to learn more, please contact proceduraljusticeenquiries@justice.gov.uk

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