July 14, 2020

The Prisons & Probation Ombudsman (PPO) in Lockdown

Sue McAllister
Prisons & Probation Ombudsman

Locking Down.

Four months ago, this week, I went, with my husband, on a long-planned holiday to Vietnam. The country was as beautiful, as busy and as full of history as we expected and, for nearly three weeks, we saw the sights and drank in the culture, first amidst the noise and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City and, then, in the peaceful, idyllic coastal resort of Nha Trang. The only clouds on our picture-perfect horizon were the messages from home, talking of the gradual restriction of normal life and the fear of a still largely unknown virus that was sweeping the country. Our hotel was, without doubt, quieter than we’d expected and some staff were wearing masks but the stories from home were in complete contrast to what we were seeing, hearing and experiencing half way across the world. As our holiday drew to its end, the pandemic started to feel more real. Two days before we were meant to fly home, our flights were summarily cancelled and we had to return to the UK with a different airline, an unplanned stop in Dubai and a sense that the holiday was, well and truly, over.  

Back to Work.

The day after we returned home, the lockdown across England was announced. Instead of getting up at 0430 on Wednesday 25 March to go back to work in Canary Wharf, I spent the next few days with PPO colleagues planning how we would transition to a new way of working, with everyone at home and no access to our offices. The challenges of doing that were, possibly, different to those faced by other parts of the system. Many of you will know that we investigate complaints from people in prison and deaths in custody. Fortunately, most of our staff worked from home some of the time already and so our IT was up to the job, with both hardware and software in place to support home working. We already carried out some interviews in prisons via video link or on the phone so we knew how that worked, which allowed our investigations to continue. And HMPPS agreed straight away that the documents and other material we needed could be scanned and emailed, sent by courier or retained until we could access prisons again. So far so good. The problem, though, lay in our not being able to get to the letters that people in prison use to complain to us and, consequently, not being able to investigate complaints at a time when that part of our role was more important than ever.  

Finding Solutions.

There seems to be agreement that, despite the many negative aspects of lockdown and the restrictions we have all faced, a positive has been the appetite to find creative, innovative solutions quickly, where they might have taken much longer to broker and deliver in more normal times. At the PPO, we certainly took advantage of this changed mindset and we quickly found ways to carry on our work, at first with a reduced service but, as I write, back to what feels like normal. Finding a scanning company to securely scan our incoming post and email letters to our investigators at home meant we could start investigating complaints again. Some limited use of Email a Prisoner followed, supported via adverts on prison radio and in cell TV to explain our new processes to complainants. The final stage, possible from this week, sees a small number of colleagues back in our offices to print off complaints investigation reports and send them to complainants, suitably franked as confidential access mail. 

The Future.

Like many organisations, we have a Business Recovery Group focused on when and how we can return to normal working. There is, though, no sense that the new normal will simply replicate what went before and we are determined to fan the flames of creativity and innovation that have served us so well since March. More home working, more, and better, use of technology and a determination not to lose the fantastic ways we have seen staff supporting one another, and caring for their own, and one another’s wellbeing; these must figure in our Business Recovery Plans.

These strange times will pass and we will emerge from lockdown not only as a more flexible and responsive organisation but, we believe, one which has improved the service it delivers to those in custody and the services in our remit.          

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