As I entered the custody block in North Wales, a detention officer ushered us into a side corridor for our own safety. The PCC, Custody Inspector, ICVs, scheme managers and I could hear a man’s voice, shouting and interspersed with an occasional bang. We’d have a bit of a wait, I was told, as the booking in desk was cleared and this detainee would be safely booked in. We settled in for a wait and I looked around.
I put a lot of store in first impressions of custody. It’s hard to explain the different senses you feel when you first enter a custody suite: it can feel loud and crowded or calm and controlled. It can feel oppressive or light and open, old or new, more or less controlled. You get a good sense of how things work within the first few minutes.
My first impressions, whilst waiting in that corridor, were good. North Wales custody suite was clearly new. I’m told it was built of largely recycled materials, the grass grew high around it and the corridors of custody offices were decorated with photos of the wildlife outside. It felt modern, it felt calm and it felt like a suite with a bright future. ICVs spoke proudly of their work and experience and we were able to see the future offices for new services soon to be introduced for detainees.
Our time spent in the corridor was by design and reflected the priorities of the suite. The booking in desk were able to warn us to move out of the way in good time because the new suite has a holding area and CCTV that facilitate good planning. We were working with custody sergeants, an inspector, PCC and scheme who prioritised the wellbeing of the detainee, staff and ICVs above showing off the new facility. You can have all the facilities in the world, but a suite will only be a good one if staff prioritise safety and dignity of all. It was a good start.
The facilities continued to impress with their newness and thoughtfulness built in. The suite boasts natural light throughout, good-sized exercise areas to facilitate time out in the open and cells for more vulnerable detainees that are away from the noise of other detainees, but close to a corridor that’s well used by staff who can check on the wellbeing of detainees with ease and regularity. The booking in desk was designed for privacy and really felt that way when stood in it.
There was more to be impressed by once we scratched beneath the surface. I was lucky to see the PCC and his Chief Executive brief ICVs on their plans for new services being commissioned for custody. Some areas choose to use custody as an opportunity to understand detainee needs in order to seek to divert them into services that stop the cycle of reoffending. The OPCC and police were clearly committed to introducing a range of new services to complement those already in place. These services will work with low-level offenders and produce bespoke plans that support them to get their life back on track. These programmes aim to reduce crime and ultimately keep communities safer as well as reducing demand on policing. I’m excited to see how things move on.
As ever, there were also some areas that weren’t ideal. Like many areas, North Wales is seeking to improve access to Appropriate Adults. I had a chat with the Custody Inspector about use of anti-rip smocks in custody. Although they are often used, these smocks aren’t the most dignified clothing and it’s generally suggested that an alternative is put into place such as anti-rip t-shirts or shorts. That’s good, though, independent custody visiting should be about dialogue and working together to improve police custody. We left with me promising to share work and inspection reports from elsewhere.
Last, but not least, were the ICVs. I usually shadow a visit with one or two, in North Wales; I was accompanied by a roomful of lovely volunteers. All were keen to see the new suite (only one visited this one) and they shared their experiences, ideas and general enthusiasm for the work. It was delightful to see and be a part of and I left with some good ideas for change. The scheme managers, Meinir and Angharad clearly had the support and respect of their volunteers and had further ideas to share with ICVA too.
It’s so important to us to be in custody and to speak to scheme managers, ICVs and OPCCs. This week encapsulates why. It’s brilliant to see custody evolve, it’s great to gather ideas and it’s important to share learning. We cannot do that without visiting schemes and spending time in custody. Thank you to North Wales for being such excellent hosts.