A new (12 October 2023) HMPPS study used a rapid cycle randomised control trial to test the process and impact of a complaints handling prototype to enhance the practical application of procedural justice (PJ) principles in responses to prisoner complaints at HMP Featherstone. The study was conducted by the acknowledged in-house experts in this area: Flora Fitzalan Howard & Helen Wakeling alongside their colleagues Nicola Cunningham & Jo Voisey.
As regular readers will know PJ is the technical jargon for people’s perceptions of how fairly authority is used – the focus is not on whether someone is happy with the result of a decision or complaint but whether they feel the verdict has been reached fairly, with respect and with their views taken honestly into account.
PJ comprises four principles: voice, neutrality, respect, and trustworthy motives. The authors explain these principles succinctly:
Voice refers to people being able to tell their side of the story and to feel that this is being sincerely considered in the decision-making process.
Neutrality relates to the need to experience authority figures as neutral, principled, transparent, and consistent in their decision-making processes, and to feel that rules are not based on opinion or bias and are understood by all.
People also need to feel they are respected and treated courteously by authority figures, that their issues are treated seriously, and considered equal to those of others.
Finally, people need to see authority figures as sincere and open, honest, doing what is best for everyone involved, and having trustworthy motives.
The research involved a randomised controlled trial which tested the process and impact (including a replication check) of a complaints handling prototype to enhance the practical application of PJ principles in HMP Featherstone. The prototype comprised an interactive and practical workshop, a template letter for complaint responses, a quality assurance check, and a coaching component to improve practice to be used as needed. However, the coaching component was never called upon in the current trial, as the local team did not see complaint responses that needed this additional level of intervention.
The trial lasted six months (October 2022 – April 2023), and primarily involved 50 staff participants and 120 of their complaint responses. Complaint responses were quantitatively assessed for their PJ content, sentiment, and readability. Perceptions of the value of the prototype and how it had been implemented were examined qualitatively, involving interviews or focus groups with six staff and five prisoners. The research also included review of complaint appeal figures.
The study is obviously small scale and therefore limited in the how much confidence we can place in its conclusions. Nevertheless, it is great to see HMPPS invest in PJ in prisons where many incarcerated people feel the system is inherently unfair.
The research team found that the complaints prototype brought about statistically significantly improved PJ practice overall, and the impact was maintained over the course of six months follow-up. The prototype resulted in no change in the assessed sentiment of words used in complaint responses. However, and concerningly, use of the template was seen to bring a statistically significant increase in the required reading age.
Appeals figures look to be lower in the trial period than the corresponding quarters of the previous year; this may indicate a positive impact of enhanced PJ in initial complaint responses on the subsequent likelihood of a person submitting an appeal, but such conclusions cannot yet be drawn with any confidence.
Staff perceptions of the prototype (the workshop, the template letter, and any support activity provided by the Complaints Clerk) were positive; their complaint response practice was deemed improved, the prototype considered feasible to implement, and staff were seen to be ‘bought in’ to using it. Positive effects were identified in the immediate-term and potentially for the longer-term also, including, for example, greater staff confidence and quality of work, and increased decision acceptance and faith in the process from prisoners.
Prisoners’ experiences were also positive, highlighting the importance of PJ practice for them in this part of prison life (as well as the importance placed on the outcome of decisions), and their enhanced feelings of fairness and legitimacy relating to the prototype/trial.
Both staff and prisoners recognised the need for further improvements to ensure an effective and efficient complaints system. Ideas included, for example, altering or digitalising parts of the process, and working to resolve issues earlier so that formal complaints were not required. This is a theme around prison complaints with the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman regularly complaining that many of the complaints submitted to them should have been routinely resolved by the establishment in question.
The authors conclude that this study, in conjunction with a previous trial at another prison, shows the prototype improves prison staff’s use of PJ principles when responding to prisoner complaints. The trialled approach is experienced as feasible and worthwhile, albeit acknowledged as only one part of achieving an efficient and effective complaints system.