International standards provide that detainees should have the possibility of making complaints to prison authorities and independent bodies. This is an important right which also helps to ensure that other rights are respected in detention.
In the coercive environment of a prison, almost all aspects of a detainees’ life are regulated and controlled by the prison authorities. Issues which may seem insignificant in the outside world can take on great significance for persons deprived of their liberty. There is also the risk of abuse, including torture and other ill-treatment.
It is in the interest of both detainees and staff that complaints are resolved within the prison system and as close to the source of the grievance, to prevent them from developing into major issues and sources of friction. The most effective way is for staff to develop positive relationships with detainees, who will feel able to approach them informally regarding concerns. However, there will always be some issues that cannot be resolved at this level.
It is therefore important that prisons have formal procedures to allow detainees to register complaints about any aspect of their treatment or conditions in detention. Such procedures can help to foster trust in the system, ensure that rules and rights are respected, and prevent issues becoming sources of major trouble in the prison. They can also act as a deterrent for abuse. When applied in a fair and transparent manner, complaints procedures can benefit detainees, staff and prison management.