As I was walking through a freezing Sheffield street, guiding scheme managers through the city centre, I was worried. In a departure from our normal scheme managers’ event in London, we had asked scheme managers to come to South Yorkshire. A number had travelled for over seven hours to get there and we were here for one reason: to see a play. We were going in blind, knowing that the actors had just a few days to pull together a production. Reader, if you ever organise events, you may well be familiar with the stomach drop nerves that come alongside asking people to part with time and money and travel to hear what you have to say. We left the theatre 90 minutes later, blown away, knowing that the performance we’d seen had conveyed some powerful messages.
The play was the brainchild of Dr. Layla Skinns and her team, who have spent the past five years studying what good police custody was, for both detainees and staff. The team have developed recommendations for change and were, in part, presenting them through this play. The play took us into a custody suite where two detainees (Leona and Jamal) were booked in and processed over a number of hours. We also meet two detention officers: Jacqui and Andy. If you have ever spent much time in police custody then you will have met something like these characters. Andy was a wiser detention officer, with a background as a prison guard. He made a point of stating that all humans have both good and bad in them and treated his detainees as he’d want a member of his own family treated. Jacqui, on the other hand, was a no-nonsense, harder character who felt that police custody should be nasty as a deterrent, which she herself didn’t think worked. She was coercive and directive, giving detainees the opportunity to comply the “easy way or the hard way”, dismissing requests and arguing that coercion helped a suite work as quickly as possible.
The play illustrated three elements of dignity that Dr. Skinns presents, namely:
- The equal worth of human beings – Jacqui undermined this by laughing at a Kenyan name of a detainee, Andy offered it by listening to detainees and responding to their needs. Ensuring that they had a tampon and a cup of tea; giving them space and talking to them as you’d wish to be spoken to.
- Autonomy – letting detainees have some space to make decisions. Again, we saw this undermined by Jacqui who threatened to break off the prized necklace of a detainee whereas Andy offered detainees a choice of cereals for their breakfast.
- Public decency – would you be happy if your family member or friend were treated as detainees were? Jacqui clearly didn’t see it as her job to behave this way, seeing custody as a place to deter people from returning and using force to get her jobs done. Andy, on the other hand, explained every custody process, gave updates and small kindnesses like blankets.
Why does this matter? These changes can seem small and, in the big picture, does it matter whether a detainee is able to get a blanket or a cup of tea? Well, according to our experience and to this massive and robust study – yes. Yes, it really matters.
We can all understand the benefits of being treated with kindness and humanity – the benefits to the detainee are obvious. Dr Skinns also highlights the benefits of prioritising dignity to the police too. He research shows that detainees are more likely to accept their situation and cooperate with necessary police procedures such as fingerprinting and waiting in cells. Staff benefit from better material conditions as well as detainees, with lower stress and higher job satisfaction. Moreover, more dignified treatment and better conditions lead to better relationships between detainees and staff.
These messages are both somehow obvious and revolutionary – as many of the best ideas are. We can all understand that if we are treated with kindness, we will be kind in return. That’s part of the human condition. Having spent time in custody suites where this dignity and kindness come to life, it’s also very clear that custody runs more smoothly and, to me, staff seemed happier and more purposeful.
The play made these points obvious and clear in a way that 100 presentations could not. Seeing clear comparisons and a very realistic portrayal of custody brought points to life. The research is complete, the recommendations as in and, as Layla and I strolled back to share lunch with scheme managers, we discussed how they will be rolled out. This may be the start of some big changes and ones that I, and our scheme managers, have high hopes for.