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Prisons complaints keep Ombudsman busy

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The Ombudsman has logged an increased number of complaints about the island's prison system.

The office dealt with 263 complaints last year, with 55 of them to do with the Department of Corrections — almost five times more than any other body.

The Bermuda Hospitals Board was the subject of 12 complaints — the second highest — and the Bermuda Police Service and the financial assistance department had 11 complaints each made against them.

The news came in the 2019 report by Victoria Pearman, the Ombudsman, on the work of her office.

She said prison complaints made up almost 21 per cent of cases handled by the Ombudsman last year, compared with 16.3 per cent in 2018.

Ms Pearman said it was common around the world for prisons to make up a large share of complaints received by Ombudsman's offices.

Ms Pearman said inmates often did not want to put complaints to prison officers or the jail authorities, so they looked for help elsewhere.

She added: “There are sometimes concerns about reprisals for making complaints.”

But she said: “Inmates can contact an Ombudsman office discreetly and directly.

“In Bermuda, we have worked to ensure calls can be made through the PIN phone, without charge to the inmate.

“Another reason is that Ombudsman offices tend to be well-informed about corrections departmental processes and policies.

“Inmates may feel more comfortable raising their concerns with us before speaking with the prison administration.”

Ms Pearman added that the number of complaints was not evidence of maladministration and highlighted that two thirds of complaints about the prisons last year were closed at the earliest stage of the process.

In one complaint that did progress, an inmate said a change in the policy for visits had prevented him seeing his family.

The inmate said visitors had to schedule their visits a month in advance under the new policy, but his family could not do so because of their work schedules.

Ms Pearman said: “The inmate's mother, fiancée and sister worked as caregivers and were usually given only a few days' notice of their work schedules.”

The Department of Corrections said the policy was intended to better manage prison security after several visitors rescheduled for “frivolous” reasons such as having overslept.

After discussions, the department agreed after discussions to allow the inmate's visits and said they would record requests to schedule visits.

Ms Pearman said: “Requests to reschedule visits to inmates take considerably more administrative work than responding to a single phone call.

“Corrections, like any authority, is responsible for ensuring it maximises its efficiency. This is good administration.

“However, such measures, when implemented, may require the exercise of discretion.”

The Ombudsman's Report also highlighted several other cases investigated by the office last year.

A woman complained that the health insurance department several times contacted her about claims made by someone else with the same name.

The report said the two women were also born in the same year and, although they were born in different months, they were both born on the 24th.

The HID said they were reliant on the information given by the service provider, including the Bermuda Hospitals Board.

Ms Pearman said: “In a standard record-keeping system, they could only be distinguished by middle name and birth month.

“In this case, their middle initials had not been entered into BHB's system for claims.

“BHB informed us their claims administrators were retrained on the importance of being alert when processing claims.

“They were made aware of the complainant and the other individual who shares her name and birth year so that extra care can be taken when processing their claims.”

A guest worker, who left the island after 47 years working in Bermuda, complained that he had not received any response to his request for social insurance payments.

He made an application in 2017 through an organisation and another himself in 2018.

The Department of Social Insurance said the 2018 application was received, but it did not have all the necessary information.

Ms Pearman said: “DoSI explained that contacting every would-be claimant is too onerous of an administrative burden to place on DoSI given the large volume of applicants.

“This, it stated, is why its policy places the responsibility on the applicants to submit their applications in full and on time.”

The 2017 application was found to have been lost because of an e-mail problem after an investigation.

The retiree was given advice about what he needed to submit and his application was approved, backdated to the 2017 application.

Ms Pearman added the social insurance department needed to be clearer with its clients.

She said: “Public bodies should be customer focused and should aim to ensure customers are clear about their entitlements, about what they can and cannot expect from the public body and about their own responsibilities.

“In this case, the retiree mistakenly believed the submission of the form meant DoSI would begin to process his pension payments.

“It was reasonable for the complainant to think this as DoSI did not clarify the submission of the form was insufficient.”

Victoria Pearman, the Bermuda Ombudsman, (Photograph submitted)
Westgate Correctional Facility (File photograph)

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Published July 27, 2020 at 9:00 am (Updated July 27, 2020 at 8:27 am)

Prisons complaints keep Ombudsman busy

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