Independent Custody Visitor Blog
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 2020 - special guests!
It’s the start of the first full week of October - and we’re certainly into autumn!
So, what has been happening over the last month?
September has seen two great visits by special guests.
Sabri Ben-Ameur (a member of our ICVS and local restaurant owner) kindly visited the Investigation and Detainee Handling Centre at Brighton. Sabri was asked to walk through the Custody Centre as if he was a detainee and tell us how we could further improve facilities for the Muslim community. This was following some positive feedback received from a detainee, which we were interested in further exploring with Sabri. It was a really useful experience for us and a huge thank you to Sabri for his time. We’re continuing to work together on this.
The High Sheriff of West Sussex, with his lovely wife Sarah, visited the (temporarily opened) Investigation and Detainee Handling Centre at Chichester. The purpose was to share his work on community safety and for him see first-hand the incredibly important impact of the ICVS on our judicial system. This was outlined to the High Sheriff who was impressed with the level of scrutiny around detainee care, particularly for the most vulnerable members of the community. This was an extremely positive visit with a productive exchange of information and useful insights from the High Sheriff for us to consider in our work. The Chichester Observer reported it.
I was kindly invited by the Custody Training department to present to new staff members and attended this session with the award-winning Brighton Panel co-ordinator. We talked about the history of the ICVS, the importance of independent visits and the changes bought about for detainee care and welfare, particularly in recent years. For us this was a super opportunity to engage with the trainees, listen to their experiences and share the national significance of the Scheme with them. A great morning - and we’ve been invited back to present on other courses. Exciting times ahead!
In light of recent Covid-19 updates and the changes that we’re facing, I‘ve visited the Custody Centres across the county. It has been useful to spend time with such dedicated officers and staff who are ensuring that PPE and safety considerations remain firmly in place for detainee care, and for the safety of our volunteers who are conducting physical visits in line with Health & Safety guidance. Another development has been our system for remote visits which we’re close to piloting - not a replacement for physical visits, but designed to enhance our scrutiny of detainee care and welfare as we move through the uncertainty of the months ahead.
Wishing you all a very happy and safe October.
See you next month.
August 2020 - Hello!
So here I am in settling into my new role as the Independent Custody Scheme (ICVS) Manager, and what an incredible couple of months we have had.
As the new manager of the ICVS, I am responsible for the Scheme as part of a national statutory requirement which is placed with each Police & Crime Commissioner’s Office in England. I work with a team of dedicated community representatives who visit each of the Custody Centres in Sussex. During the visit they review the facilities and speak to the detainees to ensure that they’re being cared for in accordance with the relevant legislation.
So how has my first month been?
Reflecting on the last five weeks has made me realise that I will be unlikely to experience anything like this again. Beginning a new role in the midst of a global pandemic has presented some different challenges, while at the same time making me feel incredibly supported by the whole team.
I have visited the Custody Centres across the county, and have seen first hand the impact of Covid-19 on how they’re managed. The dedication and commitment of the department in carrying on ‘business as usual’ has been a privilege to witness. Staff and officers have worked through the challenges of lockdown and the easing of restrictions, while implementing new measures to ensure detainee and staff welfare.
From new routines around cell cleaning, quarantining books and magazines between uses to new processes around Custody activities, hand washing routines, sanitiser and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and so the list goes on…
I have worked online with the volunteers so that the unannounced visits to detainees continue, in line with the current Covid-19 Health and Safety guidance. As a team, we’re working on increasing our online activities to streamline the running of the Scheme. This is in support of our physical visits, and is allowing us to develop ways to run future meetings, training sessions and as a great way to simply keep in touch with each other.
I’ve been introduced to the Independent Custody Visiting Association (ICVA) - a Home Office, Policing Authority and Police & Crime Commissioner funded membership organisation set up to lead support and represent the Schemes.
Through ICVA, I am building networking opportunities with other ICVS Managers to ensure our Scheme performs at the highest level possible for our detainees, while learning from colleagues across the country as we work together in sharing best practice. We help each other with subjects such as risk assessments, online visit report forms and the impact of Video Enabled Justice on detainee visits.
Time has flown by and I am loving this role. Now for the next online meeting.
See you next month.
June 2020 - Thank you and Goodbye
I wanted to write a final blog as it's important to me to reflect on the last few years and what it has meant to me.
I am leaving my role at the end of this month but as I walk out of the office for the last time I know my emotions will range from sadness of leaving a role I've thoroughly enjoyed, to pride for what the Scheme achieved over the last few years, and then to excitement for a new challenge.
Having spent most of my career as a front-line Police Sergeant, when I had my two boys, I changed my perspective on work and took a few years off to look after them. Then I saw this role advertised and it ticked all my boxes: back in an environment I know, an area that intrigued me, and part time too…it had to be a winner!
It had its challenges to start with, but I worked through them and really started to get excited about going to work (that hadn’t happened for a long time). With the support of my fantastic colleagues - shout out to the great Performance Team headed by Graham, the volunteers and the lovely Katie and Sherry at ICVA -the project accelerated into becoming an award-winning Scheme.
Looking back there are several highlights. For example, pushing for Sussex to reinstate tampons was hard work at times; I spoke about them every day for over a year to anyone that would listen to me, but hey, it worked!
I’ve often had eyebrows raised about changes I recommended: water in cells, distraction objects for detainees, thicker mattresses and in particular green cells, but thanks to Sussex Police they have all been implemented. I’m going to miss #custodydoggo and all the Custody Officers and staff.
I was awarded employee of the year in 2018, partly in recognition of going above and beyond my role by being locked in a cell for over 17 hours. Again, this resulted in some controversy but as a result of that stay the mattresses got updated.
Working with the volunteers to achieve the Platinum Award was a great moment - we all put in the effort and it paid off. I was so proud going to the House of Lords with Graham to be presented with the award; the buffet and wine were much appreciated!
We all have prejudices and bias. One thing I take away with me is that years ago I used to take detainees to custody suites after I'd arrested them. I would leave them there and not give them a second thought as I’d be off doing paperwork. I wasn’t thinking about them eating/drinking/needing a nurse/being vulnerable etc.
This role changed that very quickly, helping me to see the other side. I enjoyed working with the volunteers to make sure the detainees' welfare was paramount.
For those who have criticised my choice and the role of the ICVs, please remember that everyone - whatever they're suspected of and whatever background they're from - has a story. It doesn’t mean they're above the law but it does mean they are human and should be treated the same as everyone else.
My successor Claire is looking forward to starting at the end of June. We have a couple of days together before I start my new role, still in the criminal justice arena.
It's been a great few years. Thank you for your support and I wish you all well.
January 2020: Guest blog for ICVA
Hi, I’m Sarah and I have been the ICV Scheme Manager in Sussex since 2017 and on the Board for ICVA since the latter part of 2019.
I live in Storrington with my husband, two young sons and Daisy the dog. Any spare time I have I am either running the boys to clubs, walking the dog or playing netball.
I work part time, 28 hours per week and am fortunate to have the flexibility of working from any of the five Custody Suites, home or the office in Lewes. I have a PA (pictured) if I work from home!
My week at work usually consists of attending meetings with Sussex Police Officers from the Assistant Chief Constable to the Inspectors who work in the suites and discussing feedback from the ICV visits. This can be anything from stock levels of food/sanitary items to suite refurbishments to data around detainees. I review every form that is submitted and collate the information so that themes can be identified and reported on.
I like to shadow visits with the ICVs, I’m more a hands on person so being out and about is great and it helps me to get a better over view of all five suites. My role is so varied which is why I enjoy it.
Reading down my to do list today it reads:
- send letters confirming interviews
- prepare interview forms
- email coordinators with updates
- set CCTV panel meeting
- review and enter new forms in
- ICV expenses
- print papers for Custody Safety and Legitimacy meetings
- reply to all emails and finally;
- write Blog for ICVA
I’m glad to say all but one done as the printer has broken down.
I was invited to be a Board Member following the Sussex ICV Schemes achievement of a Platinum Award last year. The Sussex Scheme worked hard to meet the criteria set from ICVA under the Quality Assurance Framework.
The reason I accepted the invite was really the same reason we worked towards the Platinum Award; I always strive to do the best in the role I am in and to make a difference. Differences have been made in Sussex with changes to female hygiene products, cell updates and new distraction objects to name but a few.
I would like to think I offer the role and the Board my practical on the ground skills along with the enthusiasm to make changes and differences for the detainees welfare and treatment whilst is Police Custody.
I’m on Twitter if you would like to follow what the Scheme is up to.
If you'd like to volunteer for the Scheme please head over to our volunteer page.
June 2019 - PLATINUM SUCCESS!
Last year we heard that all ICV schemes in the country were eligible for an award from the Independent Custody Visiting Association - the national body which supports, leads and represents local custody visiting schemes.
I remember the initial email explaining that all ICV schemes would be able to work towards these Quality Assurance Framework (QAF) awards. I opened the email and gulped, eyes wide like a rabbit in headlights, then got up to make a cup of tea and sat back down to digest the task ahead.
Reading through the criteria for each level of the award, I was confident we were fully Code Compliant. For the Silver level we hit about 40% of the targets; Gold 20%; and as for Platinum - Eek!!
It wasn’t really down to me to make the decision about which level we went for. Whilst I’d do the paperwork and presenting, it would be the ICVs themselves who’d have to update, change or work with any new processes – so the QAF working group was formed to discuss the awards.
After the initial meeting and showing the areas we’d need to evidence, we decided to aim high; we’d just see how it went and review it along the way. After a few months which passed by very quickly, I presented what had been done and the decision was taken to go for the Platinum level.
The fantastic news came through in April that we were one of only two schemes in the country to be granted Platinum status – the highest that can be awarded! We were all absolutely thrilled.
The last year has at times been hard work -but all our ICVs have engaged and supported what was required. The changes we’ve made to ensure that a detainee’s welfare is looked after (which is our common purpose) and that they’re treated with dignity have all been acknowledged and reflected in the award we’ve achieved.
On 15th May my manager Graham and I travelled up to the House of Lords to receive the award. It was a fantastic day, and to be invited to such an amazing place was so special. We listened to some great guest speakers and then had time to mingle and catch up with all the other schemes which had all done amazingly well.
So what’s next? We have to maintain the Outstanding status we’ve achieved, while looking at areas where improvements can be made. I’m so proud to call myself the Sussex ICV Manager – and we couldn’t have achieved this award without working as a team. So thank you to all the volunteers, to ICVA for their continued support and to Sussex Police who involve us in all things to do with Custody.
Our ICV scheme thoroughly deserves its Platinum recognition. It means we’re doing the very best we can – and we’ll continue to do so. If you live In Sussex and would like to be part of the ICV scheme then please email me at email@example.com
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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 on firstname.lastname@example.org 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.