My time in police cells – An ICV perspective

ICVA News

June 6, 2018

  • custody visits
  • volunteers

As part of Volunteers’ Week 2018, we have invited schemes to take part in guest blogs.  Our first blog below comes from the scheme in Cambridgeshire and talks about an ICV’s experience in police cells.  You can find out more about the local scheme at the Cambridge PCC website http://www.cambridgeshire-pcc.gov.uk/volunteer-schemes/independent-custody-visitors-scheme/.

“Last week I spent 2 hours in the cells in Parkside police station. Some weeks I have been in the cells in both Parkside and St Neots. I have even been in the cells in Thorpe Wood in Peterborough, in Bedford, and I’ve been to detention facilities in Norfolk.

I’m not a repeat offender, I’m an Independent Custody Visitor. (ICV)

“What? I’ve never heard of that” is the normal response I get to this statement, which is a shame. Even in the harshest of economic climates Independent Custody Visiting continues to be supported by the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner, and is a legal requirement for every police station where someone may be held in custody. So why, and what do we do?

We are the eyes and ears of the community, and what we do is observe, comment and report on how people in detention (detainees) are being looked after. We ensure that they are aware of their rights, check health and welfare needs are being met as they should be, and check on the conditions and facilities of the detention area. We are ordinary members of the public, from a variety of backgrounds. We always visit in pairs, and arrive unannounced at police stations to do a “surprise” visit. And we have to be allowed in, it is the law!

Obviously we need to be discreet about anyone we see in custody, have security checks before being accepted for the role, and receive training before we set foot in a custody suite.

The Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) is a major reference for ICVs as well as equality, diversity and human rights as we carry out inspections of police custody centres.

So why do I do this? Are police cells fun places to go to? No, not really, but they are (sadly) an essential part of the community. Custody Visiting gives an insight into the workings of custody suites, I meet interesting and sometimes strange people, some very sad people, but custody visitors genuinely get to see how it all works behind the scenes, warts and all. As an ICV I have the chance to offer protection to both detainees and to the police, reassurance to the community at large and to see the working of the criminal justice system you don’t normally get to see. Is it perfect in custody? No of course not, Parkside is an old police station, and standards to be met now are far higher than when it was built. But the reassuring thing is that we talk to people in detention, and get honest feedback from them about how they’re being treated by detention staff. The food wouldn’t be my choice, but no-one goes hungry. We check food preparation area (it’s mostly microwave meals), make sure everywhere is as clean and safe as it can be, and talk to staff and detainees about their concerns. We can’t make promises to detainees that we can fix things for them, but we can ask staff “why?” if it seems that something could or should be done, and it isn’t happening. We have good communications with the Police and Crime Commissioner’s Office to report, and make suggestions to help both staff and detainees, and experience shows that yes, he does listen.

  • JT, an Independent Custody Visitor for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.