Advocacy for prisoners
Everyone in the UK has the right to advocacy – and this includes prisoners.
But what is advocacy? Put simply, it’s support to help people understand their rights and choices, to access information, and to have their voice heard.
Anyone who is not happy with the healthcare or treatment they’ve received, and who wants to make a complaint, is entitled to free, confidential support, and this is called Independent Health Complaints Advocacy – or IHCA.
Other sorts of advocacy are also available for those receiving care while in prison, or people detained under the Mental Health Act.
If you feel unhappy with any aspect of your healthcare, you have the right to support, says Sharon Dewis, who works for The Advocacy People in Sussex.
“Advocates can help you have your say and will talk to you about what you need.
“We’re completely independent of the prison service and the NHS, and we can: help you to find the information you need; help you to write a letter of complaint; and speak on your behalf with professionals, if you wish.
“Above all, we’ll take the time to listen and find out what the issue is and what you’d like to happen next. We’re here to represent you and your opinions, to help you get the outcome you’d like.”
By working alongside prisoners, advocates can help reduce the day-to-day burden on staff too, as advocate Susie Turton explains:
“We know that officers probably hear a lot of complaints from prisoners frustrated about their healthcare, but don’t always have the time or the resources to help resolve the issue at hand.
“That’s where advocacy comes in."
"Officers can signpost prisoners to their local advocacy service. This helps moves things relating to NHS healthcare away from the pressures on the prison service.”
The majority of prisoner healthcare complaints are about important yet relatively straightforward issues, such as access to a GP or dentist and changes in medication.
And even in situations where a person doesn’t get the result they really want, the sheer fact of having an advocate by their side, listening to their concerns and taking them forward, can be hugely positive.
One prisoner wrote:
“After seeing you, the healthcare here chased up my hospital appointment and it has now been booked and confirmed, so I will have my tests done soon.”
Having an advocate alongside you can help you to move things forward, reducing the frustration of waiting and uncertainty, as another person describes:
“My advocate does an excellent job. She is always there to help me draft letters and keeps in contact with me with a fast response. Without her I would be stuck going round and round in circles.”
Every county in the UK has advocacy services: The Advocacy People is one provider working in the South of England, but each establishment will be able to give prisoners information on the provider in their location.
Self-help packs on ‘making an NHS complaint’ are also available.
The Advocacy People is now working to regain the same access to prisons it had before the pandemic. Although advocacy is a statutory service, face-to-face visits had to cease during the first lockdown, and advocates have struggled to gain permission to meet their clients in person. This is now hopefully starting to change, says supervising advocate Eleanor Wallis.
In the meantime, prisoners still have the right to access advocacy by phone or by written referral.
In-person advocacy has more of a human touch and can often prevent health-related concerns needing to be escalated to a formal complaint.
“When we are in the prison itself, we find that it is easier to contact healthcare directly on a resident’s behalf, and we can often help quickly,” says Sharon Dewis.
“We want to return to our work within prisons as soon as possible.”