Prison Communications Inquiry: majority of calls to MPs listened to in error

There is no evidence of a widespread, deliberate attempt to monitor communications between prisoners and MPs and the majority of calls were downloaded for listening in error, said Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons. Today he published a report of the second stage of an inquiry into prison communications.

On 11 November 2014, former Secretary of State for Justice Chris Grayling asked HM Chief Inspector of Prisons to investigate the circumstances surrounding the interception of telephone calls from prisoners in England and Wales to the offices of Members of Parliament and to make recommendations to ensure that there are sufficient safeguards in place to minimise the risk of such calls being recorded inappropriately in the future.

The first stage of the inquiry was to undertake a review of urgent, practical steps which NOMS took to minimise the risk of recording or listening to calls inappropriately in the future. This report of this inquiry was published on 16 December 2014. The second stage of the inquiry looks at the circumstances of how these telephone calls came to be recorded in the past.
Since 2006, in prisons using the BT system, prisoners have made around 5,600 calls to MPs, and around 3,150 (56%) of them were recorded. Of the recordings 280 (8.8%) were downloaded to a playback system and probably listened to on 358 occasions. Sixty-eight calls were listened to live or exported to disc. Most calls were short. Thirty-five prisoners, 37 MPs and 38 prisons were involved.

Nick Hardwick said:

“I have not found evidence of a widespread, deliberate attempt to monitor communications with MPs and I believe that the majority of calls were downloaded for listening in error. In a small number of calls, however, I have found evidence that suggests the rules were deliberately broken. I have asked the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) to conduct a formal investigation into these cases to establish whether any disciplinary offences have been committed.

“I have made a number of recommendations to address the shortcomings I have identified. They include improving levels of understanding confidential access privileges among prisoners and staff, and conducting formal investigations for the cases where we have identified significant concern. There is a need to ensure consistency in policy and practice across the prison estate both in terms of ensuring calls to MPs and other confidential access organisations are not recorded and for data retention. NOMS also needs to implement governance systems to ensure that any further problems with confidential access communications are identified much more quickly. Finally, NOMS must implement more robust systems for ensuring that prisoners’ privileged mail is not opened.”

Notes to editors:

1. Read the report.
2. HM Inspectorate of Prisons is an independent inspectorate, inspecting places of detention to report on conditions and treatment, and promote positive outcomes for those detained and the public.
3. The first inquiry was carried out from 11 November 2014 and completed and submitted on 28 November 2014. This second inquiry was carried out between January and May 2015.
4. Please contact Jane Parsons (HMI Prisons) on 020 3681 2775 or 07880 787452 if you would like more information.