Sunday, January 11, 2015

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The Strange World of Apps and Comps

Alex Cavendish on an aspect of prison life unfamiliar to most in the world outside the walls. Alex Cavendish is an author and academic: a social anthropologist, former prisoner and an active participant in the debate surrounding crime, prisons and probation. He blogs at Prison UK: An Insider's View.

For anyone who hasn’t served a stretch inside the UK prison system, the terms ‘apps’ and ‘comps’ are unlikely to mean very much, particularly since for most people outside jails ‘apps’ are things you download to your smartphone or your tablet. However, for prisoners applications and complaint forms are an everyday part of life as they are the main ways in which they interact with the prison’s management.

One of the coalition government’s main arguments for severely restricting prisoners’ access to external legal remedies, such as judicial review, is the assertion that the internal prison complaints system – which operates at three different levels – backed up by the office of the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, as well as each establishment’s Independent Monitoring Board (IMB), is more than sufficient to address almost any grievance. The sub-text of this is that cons are inveterate whingers – the Daily Mail’s ‘moaning murders and muggers’ – who are always trying to wring taxpayers’ money of out the system as undeserved compensation for trivial issues.

IMB: really effective?

I have extensive experience of the application system across six establishments and a fair knowledge of the complaints system (although, funnily enough, I rarely made complaints on my own account). In my capacity as an Insider (peer mentor) who also worked in prison education departments and coordinated the Toe by Toe adult literacy scheme, I probably filled in more apps and comp forms on behalf of others than most prisoners ever get to do, even serial complainers.

General apps are pretty neutral forms. They can be requests for almost anything, from a prison transfer or a replacement mattress for a bed to an application for a prison job or education course. Once completed, in some establishment they are handed to wing staff at a set time of day – usually in the morning after unlock – or else they can be submitted at the wing office. Apps are supposed to be logged a ledger by the duty staff and then passed on via internal post to the correct person or department.

Although there is usually only one type of general app form, there are three types of complaint form supposed to be available on prison wings. I use the term ‘supposed’ because in some nicks trying get a comp form can require a visit to the wing office and an interrogation by a suspicious screw as why you want one. That’s not supposed to happen, but it definitely does. I’ve had the experience myself on a number of occasions.

Once completed by hand, the complaint forms are posted in designated metal post boxes (usually yellow) on each wing. The boxes are locked and the post is supposed to be collected and sorted daily, Monday to Friday.

Comp 1 form: the start of the complaints process in prisons
The Comp 1 is the usual starting point for most complaints, although prisoners are also sometimes advised by staff to use them for enquiries involving off-wing issues. Once a response has been received to a Comp 1, if the con isn’t happy with what has been written in reply, then he or she can fill in a Comp 1a. This takes the issue to the next management level for a review and a further response.

The pink Comp 2 form is something rather more weighty, at least in theory. It is supposed to come with its own official brown envelope addressed either to the governor or to the deputy director of custody (the regional boss), depending on the issue. This system is known as the ‘confidential complaint’ and is primarily intended to give any con direct access to the top levels of management when they wish to allege assault, bullying or victimisation by members of staff, uniformed or civilian, or they wish to raise a serious issue that they don’t feel able to with their own wing officers.

Again, in theory at least, these sealed envelopes are supposed to go directly to the governor’s complaints clerk in his or her office. This is aimed at preventing wing staff from intercepting them, reading them or even destroying them before they get up to the governor or the deputy director. Of course it doesn’t necessarily always work as intended. The critical issue is often which member of staff is designated to open the boxes on each wing daily.

Comp 2: confidential access to the Governor or Deputy Director
The IMB, which operates in every prison, also has its own post box – usually dark blue – and a yellow complaint form. However in general the IMB members will only initiate an investigation into a grievance once other channels, such as the Comp 1 and Comp 1a routes have been tried and exhausted.

In my experience there is a serious disconnect between the mechanics of the present app and comp system as operated in our prisons and the literacy levels among a majority of cons since around half of all of inmates have literacy skills at or below Level 1 (what would normally be expected of an 11-year old child), with as many of 75 percent having some problems with writing ranging from poor spelling right through to functional illiteracy. For these reasons a written app and comp system is always going to seriously disadvantage the average prisoner who lacks either the ability to write cogently or the confidence to put pen to paper when it comes to approaching officialdom.

Many prisoners can't write

In many respects, I’d attribute this to a failure of imagination within the prison bureaucracy, which is top-heavy with internal memos and reports of every kind. Most of our modern communications systems are completely dependent on users being literate. Illiteracy, by its very nature, tends to exclude those who are already marginalised socially and economically. In prison this experience of exclusion often continues.

It is also important not to overlook the exclusion of those for whom English is not a first language, or who perhaps don’t even speak English at all. I once shared a cell with a Polish prisoner who had recently been sentenced. He spoke no more than a dozen words of English and wasn’t particularly literate in Polish either as he had been working as an unskilled labourer. It so happened that we did share a mutual language: basic Russian, his learned in school during the Communist era, mine during my time in Army, so we could communicate at a reasonable level.

However, how could we really expect someone who has never written (or perhaps spoken) a word of English to cope with the prison apps and comps system? This becomes even more acute when it is almost impossible to communicate verbally with staff or fellow inmates. In this case, my Polish pad-mate spoke in basic Russian, aided by a dictionary from the library, and I translated into English and then wrote up his apps or comps for him. Clearly, this would not be the situation in the average prison cell. In effect, this lad would have been excluded from participation in the entire administrative system had he not had my assistance. Wing staff also relied on me interpreting for them.

Writing for others: a profitable skill for some prisoners

Although English-speakers (whether mother tongue or as a second language) have an obvious advantage over those who speak little or no English, they can still be effectively excluded by functional illiteracy. In fact, they can also be exploited by other prisoners who charge for their ‘services’ in writing apps and comp forms for other cons. In some establishments this can be a profitable cottage – or cell – industry for more literate inmates seeking to get canteen goods such as tobacco or chocolate as payment for their assistance. Of course, most of this passes under the staff radar.

In some respects, the old system of Governor’s rounds when he (no female governors back then) was accompanied by the Chief going cell to cell was probably more effective and fairer. The application was made verbally, recorded in the ledger by the Chief and often the answer – even if it was “application denied” – was quick and clear. Cons at least knew that the Governor had heard their request. Paperwork didn’t get lost. The verbal system also didn’t disadvantage the illiterate.


Apps: filed in the bin
Even for prisoners who have a reasonable level of literacy, there are other factors to consider. There is a widespread perception that many apps or comps never get further than wing offices. I’ve actually seen wing staff screw up apps from cons against whom they have a personal grudge. These never get logged in the system and just end up in the office waste bin. Some screws think this is funny as they know the frustration this can cause, especially when the app is for something significant.

I’m sure that governors would like to believe that all their uniformed staff would be above such petty and vindictive behaviour. However, most also know that this sort of practice does take place on occasion. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, and I suspect most of them have had to try to sort out complaints and conflicts that have had their root causes in these unprofessional practices.

Another key problem is that more than a few uniformed staff, at least in the lower operational grades, aren’t all that good with writing themselves. I’ve even known a custodial manager (senior officer) who really couldn’t write a sentence to save his life. He was a nice bloke, but a functional liability in a system that relies so heavily on the written word. He eventually ended up in the Offender Management Unit (OMU) where his inability to write reports or update online records led to dozens of complaints by prisoners.

Again and again, prisoners receive apps back covered with unintelligible scrawl and an anonymous squiggle as a signature. A response that can’t be read from someone who can’t be identified is yet another potentially fatal flaw in the whole architecture of the app system.


Where cons suspect their comps go
The comp system is another story. As readers will no doubt be aware, prisons are institutions largely built on mutual mistrust, both between staff and inmates, as well as between cons. I’m not sure that it hasn’t been ever thus.

Many prisoners genuinely believe that their comps will be intercepted and read (and often destroyed) by wing staff, particularly when the complaint is about staff misconduct or bullying. As it happens, I don’t really share this suspicion, but this widespread perception is enough to severely impact on the functioning of the entire system.

This lack of trust extends to Comp 2 forms, despite the provision of dedicated envelopes. Many prisoners are wary or even fearful of making complaints because they fear retribution or victimisation as a result.

I will give just one example that might be illustrative of these concerns. I once wrote a Comp 2 concerning what I believed to be a very serious dereliction of duty in relation to a safer custody issue. It was particularly significant because the prisoner it concerned subsequently committed suicide in custody. Imagine my own surprise when my confidential Comp 2 form was returned from the governor’s office to be replied to by – yes, you’ve guessed it – the very safer custody manager whose misconduct it concerned! Not a great result or one that was calculated to inspire confidence in any prisoner.

I was lucky that I just received a scowl every time she saw me on the landings. It could have been much worse.


Curtailing governors' powers

Another critical issue in the present climate is that governors’ discretion has been significantly curtailed by NOMS. All sorts of matters that might have been dealt with locally are now effectively out of governors’ hands. I’ve discussed this problem rather candidly with governor grades who have explained that they now have to justify specific decisions to regional managers. Yet among prisoners generally, there is still a perception that every Number 1 is ‘a pope in his own parish’, even if the reality is very different.

This can raise unrealistic expectations among prisoners as to what any individual governor grade can actually achieve or action. My own experience of prison is that almost everything comes down to managing expectations. A failure to manage expectations – and consequent disappointments in prisons – can lead to tensions and even violence or disorder.

I hope that events at HMP High Down, as described in the recent trial by Governor Ian Bickers, will offer the Prison Service what I believe is now known as a ‘learning opportunity’. Ignoring apps and comps – which is what I gather was happening owing to staff shortages – as well as a general failure to manage expectations about regimes through effective communication – ended badly with protests.



Usually due to 'operational reasons'
Based on my own experiences, most prisoners are fairly reasonable if they understand the reason for operational decisions. If activities have to be suspended or cancelled because of staff shortages or some specific emergency situation, then as long as that is explained clearly, tensions and resentments can usually be managed. It’s when cons feel that they are being kept in the dark and not treated like reasonable adults that they start to feel justified in behaving unreasonably, if only to get their message across.

In relation to apps and comps, the above observation really suggests that clear, timely and fair responses can defuse potential conflicts. However, telling a prisoner that he can’t attend his father’s funeral a day after it has actually taken place (a real case in which I was involved as an Insider) really doesn’t do anyone any favours. In that case, the app was passed from desk to desk for a week before a response was forthcoming. If the answer had to be negative on security grounds, then it would have been better to have dealt with that in good time.


Tornado Team: the riot squad
Personally speaking, had I been the Number 1 Governor, I’d have asked to see the lad in question myself, sat him down and explained face-to-face that his request to attend the funeral couldn’t be approved and why. That might have prevented a cell being smashed to bits, a cell-extraction and some time spent by the con in question mourning his dad down the Block (segregation unit). I suppose that 20/20 hindsight is a wonderful thing, but to be honest, I think most people could have seen that one coming like a freight train.

My own view is that the current written apps and comps system really isn’t fit for purpose, particularly in view of the large proportion of prisoners who have problems with literacy, language or, indeed, with mental health conditions that impact on their ability to communicate in writing. These inmates are effectively silenced and their voices often go unheard, leading to frustration, anger and even self-harm and, in extreme cases, suicide.

If our prisons had sufficient frontline staff and the personal officer system actually functioned, then prisoners who are currently marginalised or excluded from the written bureaucracy might stand a fair chance as they could make requests verbally or with the assistance of staff who have time to spend listening and assisting them. Sadly, given current staff shortages and the toxic policies of the Ministry of Justice, I don’t think this will happen anytime soon.

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