Inmates’ private letters regularly tampered with by prison staff – report

© Peter Macdiarmid / Pool
Prisoners’ private and privileged correspondence with lawyers and courts has been opened by prison staff in 50 percent of all cases investigated by the state’s prisons ombudsman in 2014-15, a report has revealed.

Prisons and Probation Ombudsman Nigel Newcomen presided over 32 investigations into complaints regarding the handling of prisoners’ confidential letters across England and Wales.

He found that private legal letters to and from inmates had been opened by prison staff on multiple occasions. In a special bulletin detailing his findings, Newcomen said that the majority of letters that were tampered with involved human error.

However, he acknowledged this was not the case for all correspondence. Newcomen said he was particularly troubled by one case, where letters had been sealed by a prisoner but were being repeatedly opened prior to leaving the prison.

In a separate case, correspondence from the Royal Courts of Justice, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, Medway court and the Prisoners Advice Service was also regularly tampered with by prison staff.

Following a string of complaints, the offending prison apologized to the inmate concerned and told him the errors resulted from new employees starting in its censorship department.

Prison rule 39 

Prisoners are entitled to private correspondence with lawyers, courts and other bodies under prison rule 39. These letters can only be opened by prison staff if they contain illicit items or are suspected to be from an organization or person not recognized under prison regulations. Prison rule 39 requires strict compliance with procedures on private and privileged mail.

Newcomen had received the findings of 32 official investigations into complaints about rule 39 letters between 2014 and 2015, and ruled in favor of the prisoner in 16 of the cases.

“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,” he said.

“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 (MoJ) insisted these cases were “isolated.”

“The recommendations made by the prison and probation ombudsman have been accepted and the necessary action has been taken at the prisons concerned,” an MoJ spokesperson told the Guardian.

“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.”