How to get prison data using Freedom of Information requests

Follow our reporter on her quest for information

Justice should not only be done, but should be seen to be done, Lord Chief Justice Hewart, 1923

Open jusitce: one of the principles upon which our legal system is based. (Source: Prison Watch UK, via Chisel)

I am hunting for some data to do with prisoners for an investigation I am working on. The data is not available publicly, so I have to make some Freedom of Information requests.
The Ministry of Justice is notoriously secretive about its data, and some of the encounters so far have been quite hilarious, so I thought I had better document them here. Follow my diary to see what happens…

FOI lessons learned so far

  • Prisons do not have FOI officers
  • Try to speak to an FOI officer before sending the request, to help you formulate it
  • All FOI requests/queries go through data.access@justice.gsi.gov.uk or Data Access and Complaince Unit, 10th Floor, 102 Petty France, London, W1H 9AJ
  • The Ministry of Justice might sometimes advise on some parts of the request – 020 333 4 3536
  • Number your points for ease of identification.
  • In the request remind the officer of the section 16 duty to provide advice and assistance, and that they should contact you as soon as possible if the request is unanswerable in any way.
  • If a request is rejected on grounds of cost, and they neglect to give guidance on what would be within the cost limit, it pays to dispute this. Remind them it is their duty under section 16 to provide guidance. If you receive guidance about how to refine your request, ask them to treat it as a part of the original request, to save the new 20 day period being applied and having to wait even longer.

P.S. I’m redacting any mentions of the exact data I’m after – I don’t wan’t to reveal all my secrets now, do I?


Finally some kind of contact

Day 41: 17 June

An email arrived today to inform me that an internal review into how the request was handled is being launched, because I have expressed concerns that the obligations around Section 16 of the Act have not been met. It ended:

Within this response, your refined request will also be answered. I trust this is satisfactory and apologise for any inconvenience caused.

This is entirely unsatisfactory, given that I don’t want a review and my request has still not been answered. Had they advised and answered efficiently sooner, there would be no need to waste time and resource on a review. How grossly inefficient.

I ought to write to them with words to that effect, but with my own deadline looming and the chances of a sufficient response by then all but ruled out, I’d best focus my time on getting everything else sorted for the deadline.

 


I should have known better

Day 40: 16 June

I ought to have known not to expect a useful response by today – or at least that’s what my disillusioned self is telling me.

I’ve emailed them with a reminder, repeating the same spiel about their failed duties under section 16 of the Act.

With three day until the deadline for the story, it’s not looking promising.


They can’t be serious

Day 36: 12 June

They’ve finally replied to my email from June 9 – but they’ve ignored all I said about it being a part of the original request and treated it as a brand new one. To say the process has been frustrating and inefficient would not do it justice.

In case the wording is useful, here’s my response:

Under section 16 of the Freedom of Information Act you are obliged in law to provide me with advice and assistance in the formulation of my request. The prisons, the MoJ and the Data Access and Compliance Unit failed to do this when I was formulating my request despite my numerous attempts. You only delivered on your statutory obligation after I had submitted my original request.

I also asked in my original request for you to contact me as soon as possible should any clarification or negotiation be necessary to make the request manageable. You contacted me just two days before the response due date. You then took three days to acknowledge my reply.

Had the advice been forthcoming to start with, any amendments would not have been necessary. This would have saved all of us time.

Therefore, my amendments should be treated as part of the original request, not as a new one. The deadline for a successful response was 11 June, which has now past. I look forward to hearing from you by Tuesday 16 June.

I need to finish the story by June 19 so hopefully a response by 16 June will give me enough time to incorporate the data into my writing. Surely they can’t miss this deadline too?


More and more frustrating

Day 35: 11 June

It’s deadline day for a response to the FOI and I’ve not received a response from the email I sent two days ago. I’ve sent an email asking for a reply ASAP:

The response to my freedom of information request FOI97616 is now past due. It ought to have been replied to properly by 11 June 2015.

As you will know this is a violation of the Freedom of Information Act. As such I look forward to your prompt reply.

Under your section 16 duty to provide advice and assistance, you did contact me for clarification of my request – having failed to advise me to start with. I swiftly clarified my request – see three emails below.

What a joy that these state institutions run on taxpayer money are so willing to give the taxpayer information about what goes on inside our institutions…

In better news, thanks to FOI man for his shout out on Twitter:

Check out his website Foiman.com – an excellent FOI resource.


A small victory

Day 35: 09 June

The email sent yesterday worked – sort of. The officer provided guidance on how much information I could request within the cost limit:

“Question 5 pushes the FOI over the cost limit. In relation to questions 2 – 4, we have data available from March 2013 – March 2014. If you would like this data could you please submit a further FOI which omits question 5.”

But I don’t want to have to submit a new FOI. This would reset the whole process off again and they would be obliged to respond only within 20 days, rather than by 11 June, which was the original 20 day deadline.

I’ve submitted a refined version of the request, but asked that it be treated as the original, as opposed to a new request altogether. Had they provided the correct advice on formulating the request to begin with, I would have been able to submit this better version first. I’ve reminded them they ought to reply by the original deadline – 11 June.

FOI lessons learned:

  • If a request is rejected on grounds of cost, and they neglect to give guidance on what would be within the cost limit, it pays to dispute this. Remind them it is their duty under section 16 to provide guidance.
  • If you receive guidance about how to refine your request, ask them to treat it as a part of the original request, to save the new 20 day period being applied and having to wait even longer.

Things take a misfortunate turn…

Day 34: 08 June

I received a response today, at 16:53 – conveniently just before the end of the working day. My request was refused. The officer said the time period I had requested – five years – exceeded that which is achievable under the cost limit.

But the officer also wrote: “I am not able to confirm whether the MoJ holds all the information you have asked for.” It’s startling that they don’t even seem to know what data they hold and it indicates their disregard for the issue.

It’s also frustrating that before submitting my request I tried several avenues to find out if and how they record the data, so I knew best how to formulate the request. I tried phoning prisons, speaking to the Ministry of Justice press office and asking the Data Access and Compliance Unit, which handles FOIs for the MoJ. I wonder if the irony of the unit was intentional, given that they don’t seem to have data, proivde access nor comply.

The officer advised they might be able to answer my request if I specified a shorter timeframe. But note the accompanying caveat:

Please be aware that we cannot guarantee at this stage that a refined request will fall within the FOIA cost limit or that an exemption will not apply.

How is one supposed to have a request answered successfully if no one at can advise how to formulate it? It’s certainly a failure of the government’s statutory duty under section 16 of the FOI Act to provide advice and assistance.

I referred to this duty under section 16 in my original request. I have replied to today’s response reminding them of this obligation and requesting guidance on how much of my request could be answered within the cost limit.

Here’s hoping they’ll comply.


All quiet

Day 17: 22 May

No peep from the MoJ. I sent a friendly email explaining the deadline and how grateful I would be if they could respond by then, etc. Fingers crossed…


Confirmation of receipt

Day 09: 14 May

Recevied confirmation of receipt of FOI request. They have a statutory obligation to respond within 20 working days – which will take us to about Thursday 11 June. Ideally I’d like the data by 5 June, so I’ll keep an eye on them and give them a nudge soon.


Remember the section 16 duty

Day 08: 13 May

Reply from Heather Brooke about writing FOIs:

  • Number your points for ease of identification.
  • State nearer the top that you have tried to speak to an FOI officer to gather information on how they record the relevant data to make the request as manageable as possible but this assistance was not forthcoming. So you have written the request as best you can and under their section 16 duty to provide advice and assistance they should contact you as soon as possible if the request is unanswerable in any way.

Duly noted and FOI request sent.


More speed less haste

Day two: 07 May

15:08 Received a reply from Data Access and Compliance Unit:

 Please note that it may take us some time secure the answers to these questions.

 Can I suggest that you simply put this forward as an FOI request now, using your email below to ensure that we answer the main parts of your request. In practice, I think this is more likely to result in you receiving the information you’re looking for more quickly, and we will of course be obliged to provide reasonable advice and assistance with any FOI response.     

It seems illogical that they suggest I write an FOI straight away, rather than receive advice about how to formulate it first. If the FOI is better formulated, it would be more likely to be answered the first time, preventing my and their time from being wasted. All the FOI officer needs to do is ring a prison and find out if they record the data.

Like most journalists I am under time pressure to get the response in time for a deadline. I’m going to write it up, and send it to FOI queen and partner in crime Heather Brooke for approval and pointers before I send it.

FOI lessons learned:

  • If under time pressure, sent FOI request as quickly as possible rather than wait to hear back about guidance. Ensure it is written as clearly as possible to improve chances of it being answered adequately.

“What’s an FOI officer?”

Day one: 06 May
I think the information I want is recorded when a person enters prison. I believe each prison has an FOI officer who should advise me, so I’ll ring a few and find out.

10:43 First attempt: Askham Grange prison, York

Prison Watch: Hello, can I speak to your Freedom of Information officer, please?
Switchboard: The what?
Prison Watch: [repeats.]
Swithcboard: What’s that?
Prison Watch: [explains]

This turned out to be the motif of the day.

I was put through to Rebecca Longster, who was as helpful as she could be. She said I had to post my request to the Data Access and Compliance Unit. I asked her how I was supposed to formulate it, if I couldn’t have some guidance first. She gave me the following statement:

“We cannot confirm over the phone whether or not we hold something as this would be basically answering the FOI request.”

No, it’s not.

12:02 Up next: Downview prison

The conversation began in much the same way to above, then Downview told me they can’t give that information over the phone. I explained I didn’t want the data itself, purely to find out if they collect that data, so I know whether or not to FOI it. That comment yielded these two gems:

“We don’t give out any information over the phone because we don’t know who you are. You could be anyone.”

“I’m actually being polite by answering you. Actually what I should be doing is saying “goodbye!”. You need to write to NOMS headquarters. We can’t answer anything over the telephone.”

12:45 Phoned Drake Hall prison

Swtichboard had no idea what Freedom of Information was and struggled to remember what it was or its name. I explained repeatedly. She tried someone, came back to me and said the woman she asked had no idea what it was.

I explained again, asked to speak to her boss, governor, anyone who might know what it was. She gave me this phone number: 0808 808 2003 – it’s the helpline for families of offenders. Fantastic.

I explained I’m not a relative of an offender. She replied: “I don’t know what it’s for – I need more information.” Hung up.

I phoned back immediately, man answered phone. Tries HR but no one “willing to speak” to me. Explained they are just an outsourced call centre.

Advised I contact Ministry of Justice Press Office – 020 333 4 3536.

12:55  Phoned MoJ

They explained I need to ask Data Access and compliance unit, can email on data.access@justice.gsi.gov.uk. Emailed the address asking for guidance on how to formulate address and confirmation of receipt.

FOI lessons learned:

  • Prisons do not have FOI officers
  • All FOI requests/queries go through data.access@justice.gsi.gov.uk or Data Access and Complaince Unit, 10th Floor, 102 Petty France, London, W1H 9AJ
  • None the wiser about whether this information is even recorded. Awaiting response from data.access@justice.gsi.gov.uk



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