COVID19 has changed the way the world works, police custody is no different to this. A detainee who is arrested today will go into a custody suite with the same social distancing rules as any other area. They are likely to be booked in and risk assessed through Perspex screens and two metre distancing marked on the floor. Human contact will be reduced and, rather than a face-to-face meeting. Whilst Appropriate Adults will generally still be in custody, legal advice may be provided through telephone conversations or Skype interactions. Detainees may find that they go to ‘court’ without even leaving the custody suite through virtual remand hearings. We have seen large-scale and rapid change occur; the independent oversight of independent custody visitors has been crucial throughout this time.
Whilst much of life has shut down and paused during the lockdown; policing cannot. As long as people are being arrested, custody will continue. With custody continuing, knowing that police would be under unprecedented demands and knowing that vulnerable detainees were likely to be held there, monitoring became increasingly important. Human rights, dignity and wellbeing come under pressure in a crisis. Independent custody visiting would keep going to monitor and report on problems, providing an independent voice locally and nationally. It was essential that this continue.
Independent custody visiting was subject to the same challenges as all other organisations. Offices closed and our scheme managers moved to new home working. Some without laptops, some with children and vulnerable adults in the same household. Some staff and ICVs found that they, or those they live with, needed to be shielded and physical visits to custody became impossible in some areas. Independent custody visiting as we knew it had changed.
Schemes and volunteers rose to the challenge. We work with 46 member schemes, all of whom were in different positions with varying infrastructure, volunteer base and additional responsibilities. ICVA rapidly set to work issuing guidance for new ways of working and schemes quickly responded. Schemes set up new working arrangements, ensuring that they were an active and independent voice in local governance arrangements. Some schemes set up dip checking for custody records and got access to performance data. A number of schemes have continued physical visits to custody and continue to speak to detainees this way. Others have set up remote visiting and will speak to staff and detainees via the phone or via video call, enabling them to see the suite. Some ICVs have conducted remote visits after midnight, ensuring that the unannounced element of independent custody visiting continues.
We must pay testament to our colleagues here. Scheme managers and volunteers are subject to the same stresses and challenges as everyone else. Life has changed massively and rapidly and, in some cases, very sadly. However, schemes came together. Our members’ forum became a way to chat and to share ideas, resources and questions. The National Expert Forum pulled together to share experiences and good practice. Scheme managers shared resources, created new ones and even made crossword puzzles and other small activities to thank ICVs for their work. They called us, emailed us, shared ideas and stayed in touch. ICVs, too, adapted to huge changes in the way that they worked, using new technologies and communicating in new ways. We often felt overwhelmed after hearing feedback, successes or shared sad news. There was a team effort and we were proud.
So – why does this matter?
It matters because we need an independent voice in custody. Our volunteers were able to provide this. As the pandemic started, they were able to check whether new hygiene standards were being rolled out in custody. They could point to problems accessing soap and water that may otherwise have been missed. They could raise their voice when solicitors and Appropriate Adults became harder to find and engage with. As an independent voice, they can discuss what was happening on the ground and the impact this had on detainees. As the lockdown has progressed, schemes are able to flag new issues where changes have been rolled out. They’ve fed back on detainee welfare concerns and challenges with virtual courts in police custody.
ICVA represents ICV scheme feedback to many national stakeholders. We provide weekly summaries of feedback and raise important issues at twice weekly Home Office operational partners meetings. This means that, where ICVs raise concerns on important issues such as the impact of virtual remand hearings on detainees, this can quickly be fed into the relevant bodies driving the changes. They deliver an early warning sign so that guidance and processes can be amended and can help to resolve problems. This isn’t always comfortable listening. Everyone is trying their hardest to ensure the criminal justice system works in trying situations. When you’re working incredibly hard, it’s not always easy to have others point out problems that need to be resolved. But it matters. ICVs often voice challenges that staff face and that won’t disappear without being confronted. Whether that’s highlighting problems accessing PPE or outlining problems with virtual courts, ICVs provide an important reality check.
National bodies have recognised the importance of ICV feedback. The Home Office were quick to state that ICVs are key workers (or volunteers) and the NPCC have been clear that ICV feedback is more important now than ever.
Human rights matter and they matter even more in a crisis. Thank you to everyone involved in independent custody visiting – from those visiting to scheme managers to our Board and to those organisations that hear and respond to our feedback. Together, we’re making a difference.