I feel hugely fortunate to be in my role. I have a diverse and interesting job, which is in place to help protect detainee rights and wellbeing. My days can be varied –I may be representing custody visitors’ work to national partners or ministers, I may be working on projects to support schemes. However, one of my favourite, and most meaningful things to do is to spend time ‘walking the job’.
I first heard this phrase from a Superintendent in Scotland and it’s one that I embrace. It is crucial to spend time with ICVA’s members, custody visitors and to spend time in custody itself, even shadowing the odd shift. I get huge value from this time as it enables me to hear ideas, see policy implemented on the ground and experience a range of different custody settings. I have often been struck by the dedicated and caring attitude of staff and volunteers.
I was delighted to take up an invitation from Emma, scheme manager for Norfolk to visit her scheme and Police Investigation Centre (PIC). I went along to meet Emma, Norfolk OPCC’s Chief Executive and Director of Communications and Engagement, take part in a regional meeting, meet with their Assistant Chief Constable and visit the PIC itself.
OPCCs and, indeed, constabularies have a wide range of areas to focus on and understanding of custody can vary; Team Norfolk were all knowledgeable. Emma is an engaged scheme manager who contributes to national conversations. The whole team proudly discussed schemes that attempt to use custody as a kind of triage to divert detainees into services that will help to reduce reoffending and better meet their needs. This has included a recent ‘transforming justice’ bid to divert women from custody. They cared.
The entire team spoke of their commitment to a strong and healthy custody scheme. ACC Pepper clearly valued the external oversight and information from ICVs. She noted the importance of members of the public coming in to speak to detainees and to monitor and improve services. She also observed that detainees disclose needs or ask questions from ICVs that they don’t to a custody officer. The OPCC’s Chief Executive, Mark Stokes, also expressed commitment to the scheme and a desire to link ICVA’s work to that of Chief Executives across England and Wales. I love to see this quality of engagement and commitment. It was a joy speaking to them all.
We are often asked to show where ICVs have made a difference to custody. Going on a visit will demonstrate the impact on detainees who value the visit and discussion. ICVs may ensure that detainees get a drink, blanket or sanitary items. ICVs will report more serious concerns to their scheme manager and PCC. The trip to Norfolk revealed one such problem. Norfolk PICs have virtual courts – a live camera link to court – so that detainees can ‘attend’ court virtually from a special room in the suite. Detainees can be remanded to prison after their virtual court session and ICVs found that these detainees were being held for days whilst waiting for transport to prison. This delay places additional stress on custody suites and staff, but will also, effectively, put the detainee into solitary confinement whilst they wait for transfer. The evidence provided by ICVs has been used by the PCC to scrutinise the Chief Constable in a public meeting and will be used to seek partnership solutions to this issue, bringing together the Ministry of Justice, Serco and others. I will raise this issue at our national partnership boards too.
Norfolk, like many other areas (see the Mental Health Cop blog here) face pressure on custody when waiting for mental health services after somebody arrested and bought into custody is assessed under the Mental Health Act as needing hospital admission. Partners at both local and national level are looking for solutions for this issue, which has been raised at Ministerial Board on Deaths in Custody and the Home Office PACE Strategy Group (minutes here). I will continue to push on this topic. As with so many issues in custody, it requires a partnership response to solve the problem. All in Norfolk agreed that police custody is not the right place for a person in mental health crisis.
There are two unusual and interesting elements to custody and, as the day progressed with Emma, I was able to discuss them both.
The first is that Norfolk and Suffolk run custody together under a single Assistant Chief Constable. This collaboration means that staff from either constabulary may work in a custody suite in either county. ACC Pepper reported that this was working well. The custody visiting Code of Practice only allows ICVs to work for a scheme if they are living or working in the police area. In Norfolk and Suffolk this can mean that volunteers who live near the border may wish to visit a suite in the other county, but considerably closer to their home, cannot do so. ICVA needs to ensure that our Code can reflect the reality of collaboration and we will look at this area when reviewing the Code.
The second area of interest, and one of the reasons that I had driven such a long way, is their Police Investigation Centres. These PICs are often viewed as the future of custody. The PIC I visited was large and boasted many advantages. It had a number of ‘checking in’ areas for detainees to hold discussions with a Custody Sergeant in relative privacy. It was clean and, I am told, beautifully maintained by external companies. The PIC was light, spacious and calm. In short, it felt like a nice place to work. Everyone that I met was proud of the facility and I can see why PICs are attractive as a place of custody and they certainly had a good feel to them.
However, it is my experience and view that, although the environment matters, the attitude of the staff is most important. The Inspector who took me on a tour of the facilities certainly demonstrated care and concern as well as a willingness to work with the scheme manager. He explained the Liaison and Diversion service that is embedded in the PIC from 7am to 10pm (longer than many areas), enabling the service to signpost or move detainees to appropriate services. He described their autism champions, who are improving communication with detainees with the condition. He also promoted other innovations such as detainees being able to speak with Samaritans from their cell and have follow up conversations after release.
And so, on the long drive home, I reflected on the day. Custody isn’t an easy place to be. The PIC was a considerably nicer environment than many custody suites that I have visited, but it’s still a difficult place to spend time in. People in custody are often in crisis and in need. It’s so important to treat detainees with humanity. I am proud to work with partners who attempt to look at custody with intelligence and thoughtfulness. Who seek to ensure that custody has appropriate monitoring and improves all of the time. Ultimately, we are all better off when custody works effectively and achieves the right outcomes for detainees. I am deeply appreciative of the ICVs, scheme managers, staff and partners who work hard to improve custody. I will represent you and your work.