National Volunteers Week – Independent Custody Visitor Blog


June 1, 2021

Ferne Clarke - ICV in Scotland

  • blogging
  • custody
  • custody visits
  • detainee welfare
  • human rights
  • police custody
  • volunteers

I have been doing custody visiting for four years now. I saw the advert on a recruitment site, and after reading what it entailed, sent in my application and was asked to do two days training/induction along with about 30 or 40 others. After an interview, photo taken, I had to wait a few weeks for background checks to be done, and I was good to go!

I suppose I never really thought about it, but I have dipped into various voluntary activities throughout my adult life. My husband and I have spent time gathering the indigenous wild flowers to place in the museum in the Scilly Iles, setting up a reading recovery program in the Falklands and teaching pupils on the island of Tristan da Cunha, the most remote inhabited island in the world.

After returning to the UK, custody visiting came up, and I have absolutely loved it!

It is a statutory requirement that custody suites are visited on a regular basis by independent custody visitors. This originated from the Scarman Report after the Brixton Riots, and it ensures that there is independent scrutiny of the police. As custody visitors we are independent of the police and come from all sectors of society, so the scheme works very well.

In normal times, we are always paired with another visitor and arrive at the police station completely unannounced. Of course, we are only seeing a snapshot of what is happening inside the custody suite at that time, but after getting cell and custody numbers of any detainees, we agree to offer a visit; it is entirely up to detainee whether they accept it or not. We do not know the name or the nature of their offence; and as I live 40 miles away from the custody suite, the chances that I would recognise anybody are low anyway.

Custody visiting ensures that people in custody have their basic human rights observed: access to legal advice, medical intervention if required, food and drink and someone they know informed that they have been brought into custody. They also have the right to remain safe and not be harmed by others, or harm themselves while waiting to go to court.

I once said to a custody officer that if anything was going to act as a deterrent to me committing an offence, it would be the thought of having to spend a night in custody! He said that the likelihood of that happening to the likes of me was low! But who knows? It could happen to any one of us or our family for a variety of reasons.

As soon as lockdown started, we were informed that face to face visiting would have to stop for obvious reasons. Our brilliant coordinator then offered us the choice of virtual/telephone visiting, and it seemed a good way of continuing the process. The telephone visiting would entail a 3-way call from a landline with a recall facility. Once through to the custody suite when two visitors and a custody officer are on the line, the call can be transferred to a mobile phone and taken down to the cells, and the visit is conducted in the traditional way. The disadvantage of this method, of course, is that we cannot see the detainee; when he says he was brought in straight from work, does that mean from a building site or a smart office? When they appear in court the next day they should be dressed appropriately, and we ask them if they are wearing appropriate clothing.

Two custody suites in the West of Scotland have devices which enable custody visitors to conduct a visit via an app called Lifesize. This allows the visitor to talk to and view the detainee, which is obviously better, but we must be incredibly careful to protect our privacy and theirs. The visit must be carried out in a room with all windows and doors closed (and husbands told to KEEP OUT.) And we are only allowed to view the detainee after they have agreed to a visit. The forms are completed in the normal way and sent off to our coordinator, and eventually sent on to the custody suite.

I think virtual visiting has worked well for me. Instead of travelling 40 miles to carry out a visit, I can arrange it for any time day or night, from my own home. I have particularly enjoyed talking to, and working with, custody visitors from lots of other custody suites, and visiting suites in Glasgow, Saltcoats, Greenock, Kilmarnock and others. Not all visitors wanted to participate in the telephone visiting scheme so instead of just visiting our home patch, we have the opportunity of mixing and matching and visiting custody suites throughout the west of Scotland!

Volunteer work has been extremely rewarding for me, and I hope that it has been of some benefit to all the detainees I have spoken to. It certainly keeps my brain active. I have had to get to grips with technology; Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Lifesize and three-way telephone calls. And I am quite proud of that. I hope to continue for a long time yet.

I think we were all aware of the British public volunteering spirit last year. The day after lockdown was announced, one of the paramedics who lives in our village, came to ask if we would like any shopping done or medicines collected! It did not take him long to get into the volunteering spirit!