Prisoners’ legal letters opened by prison staff, admits ombudsman

Prisoners’ confidential legal letters to and from their lawyers and the courts have been wrongly opened by prison staff in half of cases investigated by the prisons ombudsman in the past year.

The prisons and probation ombudsman, Nigel Newcomen, carried out 32 official investigations into complaints about the handling of confidential correspondence with prisoners in England and Wales, and found in half of them private legal letters to and from prisoners had been in opened by mistake by prison staff.

The ombudsman said in a special bulletin that most of the cases involved human error but he was “extremely troubled” to find in one case legal letters that had been handed in properly sealed by the prisoner in line with the rules were being repeatedly opened before they were sent out of the prison.

In another case, letters from the Royal Courts of Justice, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, Medway court and the Prisoners Advice Service were being routinely opened by prison staff. Following complaints, the prison apologised to the inmate and told him the mistakes were due to new staff starting in the censorship department.

Prisoners have a right to confidential correspondence with their lawyers and the courts and a range of other bodies, including the ombudsman, under prison rule 39. They can only be opened by prison staff on a case-by-case basis if there are suspicions that the letter contains illicit items or are from an organisation or person not recognised under rule 39. The prison service rule stresses that there must be strict compliance with procedures on confidential and privileged mail.

Newcomen said he had received 32 official investigations into complaints about rule 39 letters between April 2014 and June 2015 and had ruled in favour of the prisoner in 16 of them.

Newcomen said: “There are detailed rules for handling confidential mail, designed to ensure that prisoners are able to communicate with their legal advisers without fear of disclosure or interference, and that they are able confidentially to communicate with independent scrutiny bodies without fear of reprisals from staff.

“While I am in no way complacent, it is perhaps reassuring that, of the complaints I have upheld, most appear to be isolated incidents of human error where letters had been incorrectly opened.

“I found little evidence of deliberate or sinister tampering or of repeated failures at a prison. Prisoners need to be able to have confidence that their confidential communications will be respected. Even infrequent errors will undermine this.”

The Ministry of Justice said: “These were isolated cases. The recommendations made by the prison and probation ombudsman have been accepted and the necessary action has been taken at the prisons concerned. This bulletin is being shared with all prison staff to reinforce the correct process that needs to be followed when handling prisoners’ legal and confidential mail.”

Source: theguardian