Independent Custody Visitor Blog
Hi, my name is Sarah Friend and I am the Independent Custody Visitor (ICV) Scheme Manager for Sussex. I’ve been in this role for a year now, having previously worked in law and order.
People often ask me what my role actually means…
Independent custody visiting is a well-established system where volunteers pay unannounced visits to police custody suites to check on the treatment of detainees and the conditions in which they’re held.
The scheme also checks that detainees’ rights & entitlements are being observed. It offers protection and confidentiality to detainees and Sussex Police, as well as reassurance to the community at large.
My role is to manage the scheme and make sure the police comply with relevant codes of practice in relation to detainees. I’m based in the Office of the Police & Crime Commissioner in Lewes but spend around 75% of my time out on the road.
Custody visiting originated as a result of recommendations from the Scarman Report into the 1981 Brixton riots. There’s now a statutory requirement for every Police & Crime Commissioner to have an ICV scheme within their Force area.
I love my job – the varied days, meeting so many different people and doing something which is useful to various members of the community. I’ve started this blog as not many people know about the ICV scheme and I’m proud enough of it to want to blow our trumpet!
September 2018 - A week of inspections
Last week I spent some time travelling round the beautiful Sussex countryside as our ICV scheme had been invited along to the Sussex Police unannounced custody suite inspections. Initially we weren’t involved but - after I mentioned it to the Head of Custody DCI Paul Phelps earlier this year - we were quickly invited to be part of the process.
So last week we visited Worthing, Brighton, Crawley and Eastbourne along with two Sussex Police representatives. It’s fair to say all the suites had a few minor issues (lights not working, showers out of use, full bins, flaky walls etc) - but nothing that couldn’t be fixed almost immediately.
I was surprised at the lack of Fire Evacuation knowledge or training, as Crawley was the only Suite with a plan and designated roles. But this weakness had been identified by Sussex Police and now all Custody Sergeants and Inspectors have training booked for Fire Safety and Fire Evacuation.
The common problem at the suites was fire doors being left open. I know for convenience we all leave doors open if we’re using them constantly but I was shocked to learn that a properly shut fire door can give a person an extra 30 minutes - enough for the Fire Brigade to arrive, and enough time to save a life. When you hear that, there’s no excuse for those doors to be left open.
At Brighton there were no magazines for detained persons – only long books - but in the debrief it was agreed all suites should have a stock of magazines. Within 24 hours the DI had got hold of 200 National Geographics and I had a box put in the office for people to bring some in. If you’re a Sussex local and have a stock of magazines, please contact me and I’ll take them off your hands!
One of the things I was looking for in the inspections was provision for women needing hygiene products while in custody. In January, two suites had NO products at all, but would send someone out to the shop if they were needed. This time I was so pleased to see the scene pictured.
The products were plentiful, individually wrapped and stored in a box - such an improvement. Ideally I’d still like to see female hygiene packs in the suites, but Rome wasn’t built in a day…
I thought all the suites were in the main good, and the co-ordinators who came with me felt their views were listened to and documented. Involving our scheme in the inspections is well worth the time and already we’re invited to the next unannounced visits sometime in the near future.
October 2018 - A stay in the cells (part one)
It’s 5pm on a sunny Friday in Crawley and I’ve walked into the cell block to be booked in for the next 17 hours. I’m asked to stand in front of the desk and the Sergeant goes through my personal details, questions me about any medical issues, then takes my phone and keys for safe keeping. He gives me a leaflet which I save to read later.
Next to me is a male shouting and swearing, with four officers trying to calm him down. He isn’t happy, as he says he was only released yesterday morning and now he’s back. It’s an unsettling start to my time here, but one of the officers is a screen between us so I feel safe.
The Sergeant tells me as I’m low risk I will have a welfare check once an hour, then leads me down to my cell. For now I seem to be the only one in detention. There are tissues by the toilet, a blue mattress and a pillow. I think the Sergeant tries to shut the door gently but it still makes that noise you hear on TV; a cell door closing followed by the handle being turned to lock it.
I decide to read the leaflet about an initiative to support women in the early stages of the Criminal Justice system. All females are offered a referral to the scheme. On the leaflet there’s a picture of a butterfly with the words “Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over….she became a butterfly”. Love that!
So this is it - my cell for the next 17 hours. I go to look at my watch but I had to leave it at the desk. I sit on the thin blue mattress which is about 2 inches deep including the blue plastic cover. Sitting on it, the mattress goes much thinner so I can feel the hard bench underneath. Within 10 minutes my bottom has gone numb and I find myself walking around the cell to get the circulation going again.
There is silence, no neighbours; the only sound a dull buzzing noise in the cell which I presume is from the heating unit in the ceiling. I’ve just had my first welfare check and when I ask the time I’m told it‘s 6:30pm. Asking the time is to become a feature of my welfare checks.
I also ask for some water which is brought to me. I start sipping it like it’s rationed. I drink a lot of water and am already finding it frustrating that I can’t just go and get some. I suppose I could use the buzzer - but I don’t want them to think I’m going to be a pain!
Time goes by slowly and it starts getting busier. The cells either side now have people in and thankfully they’re quiet like me. I’m guessing the others are thinking about why they’re here, when they’ll be interviewed, what will happen. I find myself talking out loud and - when it echoes around the cell - my thoughts turn to my children as they love an echo.
The hatch opens and I’m asked if I’d like anything to eat. I ask for pasta and some more water. A short while later the hatch opens again and I’m handed a microwaved pasta bolognaise and two cups of water. The food’s hot and tasty, with lots of veg, and I find it perfectly acceptable. I hear my neighbour ask for more rice and very soon they come back and say “here you go, some more rice”.
One issue making me anxious is the toilet: it’s a stainless steel plain loo, above it is a small inverted sink that cold water comes out of (not drinking water). The toilet area is pixelated on the CCTV but I’m concerned that someone could look through the peephole or open the hatch. So I come up with a plan to wait until my next welfare check, then use the loo as soon as they close the hatch.
I start guessing the time as it seems ages since my last check at 7:30pm. When the hatch opens and I ask the time, it’s 9:45pm. I ask for a hot chocolate and then my lights out. I lie down and pull the safety blanket over me, I also have a normal white blanket and I wrap this around the blue plastic pillow to make it slightly softer.
It starts to get noisy - exactly what I’d expect for a Friday night in Crawley. Now It’s 00.30am and I haven’t been able to sleep so ask for another hot drink. The temperature has dropped slightly and it’s not as warm as it was.
October 2018 - A stay in the cells (part two)
It’s 2am - and I just dozed off, but only for minutes as I’m woken by a welfare check at the hatch. I don’t reply, so the words “Sarah, are you ok?” echo around the cell and I sit up slightly disorientated and mumble a reply. But that’s that - no more dozing, I sit up.
I have a visit from the Custody Sergeant around 2.30am. He opens the door and we speak about the ICV Scheme; he compliments the Crawley Panel which is good to hear even in the middle of the night! He gets me another hot chocolate and says he has to go as there’s a drunk female coming in from Horsham.
The drunk female arrives a short time later and for the next three hours kicks her cell door constantly, shouting at anyone who tells her to be quiet.
Welfare checks continue through the night. I get used to hearing the footsteps approach and, rather than talk each time the hatch opens, I raise my hand in an “I’m ok” kind of way.
I lie on the bench and listen to the hustle of the suite, people coming in, searches in cells, the uncooperative, the cooperative, staff checking on people answering buzzers, phone calls from solicitors. It’s a constant hive of activity.
At 6.15am my cell door opens. They’ve come to clean the cell, take my empty cups and the leaflet I’d managed to turn into a fan and then a finger puzzle. I have to pass on breakfast as I can’t eat beans, so just a cup of tea it is.
I leave slightly earlier than planned as I have an hour to travel home - so in the end I had 15 hours in Custody.
People ask me why I did this. It’s purely to try and get a small understanding of the isolation someone may feel being locked in a cell, and to see if there’s anything I can suggest to improve the experience. Without doubt it was worthwhile.
I’m keen to look into the possibility of having drinking water in the cells, as this would not only help the detainee but save on staff time going to and from the kitchen.
I plan to investigate if there’s a national standard for mattresses in cells. The length of the bench was fine - I’m 6 foot tall and could lie straight. I was happy with the temperature and cleanliness of the cells; when I asked for a toothbrush I got one, and my neighbours got the extra food they asked for.
More than ever I stand by the change I would like to see to female hygiene in custody; it’s not a pleasant experience using the toilet in a cell anyway, but to make a female who is menstruating have to buzz every time she needs certain products just isn’t right in my opinion. Sussex now offer a good variety of products but I still feel there’s work to be done in this area.
Would I do it again? Yes, without a doubt, if it was to improve the welfare and conditions for the detainees.
Update to October's blog
I wanted to update you on some positive news following my overnight stay in the Crawley custody suite. Drinking water is now being introduced into the cells in Crawley and will also be brought in at Hastings, where the custody suite is being refurbished. This is a great step forward and means detainees can access water whenever they want.
November 2018 - Meals for one
So, here’s my latest blog. I’m definitely the type of person who likes to try what I’m expecting others to do - so it seemed right for me to sample all the meals available in Custody.
Tuesday - Natalie from Comms has chosen Chicken Tikka with rice for me to try. A standard curry aroma wafts out of the office microwave and smells rather inviting. The meal is very tasty, the sauce plentiful and the chicken tender: my rice is lumpy and stodgy but mixing it with the sauce makes it palatable. I’d eat this meal again, definitely. It contained 55% sauce, 30% rice and 15% chicken, with a variety of spices and vegetables. 345 calories. My score 7/10
Wednesday - I’m working from home and have chosen the Cottage Pie. I mix the meat with the mash (always have): there appears to be a good amount of meat under the potato – the box says 15% minced beef against 52% mashed potato, but it seems enough. Again it was tasty, with carrots, onion, leek and garlic. I would eat it again. 266 calories. 7/10
Thursday - I’ve chosen the Mildly Aromatic Vegetable Curry with rice. The rice is one large lump again so I’ve mixed it in with the curry, which helps. Lots of peas, runner beans, carrots, cauliflower and potato: it’s really tasty. Definitely would eat this again. 306 calories. 8/10
Friday - 10.45am and I’m really hungry so am having lunch early; today I’ve chosen Penne Bolognaise. The pasta is so soft it’s like mush, while the sauce is ok - apparently with 13% minced beef, but that’s debatable. Definitely wouldn’t have this one again. I ate this on my overnight stay in Crawley and thought it was good: maybe the situation and surroundings make you more grateful at the time! 203 calories (the lowest yet.) 4/10
Saturday - I have the Hearty & Spicy Beef Chilli with rice. The rice is one lump of stodge again and the chilli is as spicy as it says! 70% is sauce with only 8% minced beef but actually it’s really tasty and you don’t need the meat. This one is probably up there with the vegetable curry for me. 249 calories. 8/10
The only meal left is the All-Day Breakfast which my boss Graham offers to taste test for me. He says: “I was pleasantly surprised. Two sausages, fried diced potatoes, mushrooms and a generous helping of baked beans. The sausages tasted so much better than their anaemic appearance suggested and the beans, whilst clearly not Heinz, were more than edible. The biggest compliment I can pay the breakfast is that I’d have happily eaten another one straight afterwards. 8/10“
A few points to note. The average daily calorie intake should be 2500 and these meals fall well short, but for the amount of time a person is in Police custody I don’t see this being an issue. I know if someone’s still hungry and asks for a second meal it’ll usually be accommodated. The rice is shocking but these meals aren’t kept in fridges; they’re stored in a cupboard with long life dates. You can tell this as the plastic to peel off is double strength and requires scissors!
Overall my summary is that the meals are hot, tasty, and definitely fill a gap!
February 2019 - How to find new volunteers
Having been in post for nearly 18 months now, I’ve come to the conclusion that recruitment is by far the most challenging part of my role.
I knew it wasn’t going to be easy to find new volunteers - there are so many different organisations in need of them that it’s not as simple as putting an advert in the paper and waiting for all the applications to come in.
So last year I thought recruitment fairs may be the way forward. I packed my pull-up banner, promotional leaflets, Sussex Police & Crime Commissioner tote bags and headed off – along with more than 50 other organisations - to a local library.
That’s when I quickly realised that people just don’t know about the ICV scheme. Around me were representatives from children’s charities, Victim Support, Scouting, helping the elderly and animal charities. It’s hard to compete with stroking cats for an hour (which I’d love to do) when I’m standing with a picture of a cell block and someone in handcuffs, offering volunteers the chance to go to custody suites and talk to detainees on a Friday night.
Most people walked past, whilst others stopped and asked what an Independent Custody visitor did. Once I explained, they either looked surprised and made a quick escape or they asked further questions - those were the ones I knew were the right people as they’d stopped, looked, listened and were interested in finding out more.
To be an Independent Custody Visitor you must have an interest in the welfare and human rights of people being held in custody; that’s the number 1 priority. The role is extremely interesting and you’re helping the local community and public to feel reassured that there’s independent oversight of ANY person being detained within Sussex.
The scheme has a diverse make up of over 50 fantastic volunteers! So this year I’m concentrating on promoting the ICV scheme and hope that’ll lead to the recruitment of more volunteers. If you want to know more, as an individual or an organisation, please let me know. I’m happy to travel around Sussex to talk about what we do.