COVID19 has created great global changes. We’ve all adapted and much of normal life came to a pause in March 2020. However, police custody could not stop. Within this, independent custody visiting changed, but also could not stop. Monitoring continued, whether that was face-to-face, via remote visiting or oversight; ICVs and schemes kept monitoring and sharing feedback.
As the organisation that leads, supports and represents schemes, we’ve been working with scheme managers throughout and, after risk assessing and preparing, we made our first trip back into custody since the lockdown.
So, what has changed? How has custody adapted?
The words ‘zoom’ and ‘teams’ meant very different things to me in January. We have since all become familiar with different methods of communication and custody is no different. Key to this are video enabled justice where video remand hearings will see detainees effectively attend court whilst still in police custody, using video conferencing.
Schemes have reported a number of concerns. Police and police staff are almost always managing this process, which is demanding and time consuming. This has some knock-on impacts on detainee care. As staff are busy running the courts, they have been stretched. Custody suites have more occupied cells and custody is busy.
Moreover, detainees have spent longer stretches in cells as, where they’d normally leave for court in the morning and possibly go to prison from there, detainees may now wait until the afternoon to attend court and spend a further night in police custody before moving to prison. We have fed these concerns back to national partners working on these reforms and they are being managed, and problems ironed out. We have also worked with Lay Observers, who typically visit court custody, to design guidance for schemes informing them on what they should expect to see for detainees going through virtual courts.
It’s crucial that detainees can access legal advice and remote advice from solicitors (either by telephone or video conferencing) has been introduced via protocol between the CPS and NPCC. Whilst these changes have delivered safeguards during a pandemic, schemes have reported concerns that detainees are not giving informed consent to use remote advice. We have worked with the NPCC and other stakeholders to correct this and work to ensure that detainees understand the new processes and what the protocol means for them.
An important way to avoid problems with COVID19 is to manage risk. Custody sergeants may now start their initial risk assessment and booking in process in the van docks, asking detainees about any risk factors or vulnerabilities for COVID19. Detainees can then be redirected to medical support or assigned additional protections when in custody. Visitors will also be asked to wash or disinfect their hands and are offered face masks in communal areas.
Cleaning has been stepped up throughout custody suites. Whilst frequency and thoroughness has increased, suites may also have ‘shielding cells’ that are particularly deep cleaned and managed for detainees in higher risk groups.
We are now well used to the ubiquitous floor markings to illustrate appropriate social distancing and you will find these in custody. Furniture in interview rooms has been rearranged and floor markings indicate where detainees and visitors should stand. Staff also wear face masks and detainees are offered them out of cell. Some suites have introduced Perspex barriers and other methods to reduce risk of infection.
My first socially distanced visit to custody felt, in some ways, very much the ‘new normal’ as I am now used to floor markings, masks and handwashing. In other ways, it was quite shocking. After months of social distancing, the number of people coming in and out of a busy custody suite is unusual. However, suites across the UK are reporting that they have found a new way of working and have adapted.
ICVs continue to highlight challenges and work to address them. As more volunteers go to suites more frequently, we gather feedback on problems and solutions. Just as it is important that custody keeps going, it’s important that independent members of the community go in, observe and monitor and point out improvements to be made. Thank you to scheme managers and ICVs who are visiting custody suites, your work matters and makes a difference.