Police taken to task over custody cells

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Police chiefs have been told they need to change the way they deal with suspects held in custody following an inspection of 14 police stations including those at Wallsend and North Shields.

Northumbria Police’s custody arrangements were judged adequate, but several problems were highlighted in a report by Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, and Dru Sharpling, an inspector for Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary.

All eight of the force’s 24-hour custody suites, including the 40-cell unit at Wallsend’s Middle Engine Road police station, were visited in July last year, along with six standby or part-time suites including 20 cells at North Shields police station in Upper Pearson Street.

Officers were praised for good practice overall, but several areas for improvement were identified.

The report concludes: “Overall, police custody was adequate, but problems were evident in some important areas.

“Detainees were generally treated respectfully and their basic needs were provided for, but this was too often at the initiative of the detainee rather than custody staff.

“Conditions varied from good to poor, and the inconsistent application of risk assessment processes was a significant area of concern.

“We consider the routine use of handcuffing to be disproportionate, and more needs to be done to support those with mental health issues.

“We expect an action plan to be provided in due course.”

Superintendent Vince Stubbs said: “Custody suites are very busy, dynamic operational environments, and more than 72,000 detainees were processed through them last year.

“We take our commitment to the welfare of all detainees very seriously and welcome the report, which highlights what we do well and areas where we can improve.

“Steps have already been taken to improve our custody services.

“We do continually look to improve the custody facilities we have and in November 2010 opened a new 40-cell custody complex in North Tyneside and have a planned new 50-cell custody suite due to open in Newcastle in 2014.”

The £27m North Tyneside area command building at Wallsend was repeatedly praised in the report.

It says: “The booking-in area at North Tyneside was spacious with a large gap between desks, and detainees could be booked in with reasonable privacy.”

The station was also commended for respecting Muslims’ rights.

It was criticised for keeping knives for cutting ligatures used by detainees trying to hang themselves too far away from the cells and also for not allowing those in custody to exercise often enough or to shower in privacy.

The report says: “Anti-ligature knives and cutters were not carried by staff and were not always quickly available.

“At North Tyneside, the knives were stored a long way from many of the cells, and the blade of one ligature knife was clogged with debris.

“There was an unacceptable lack of privacy in some shower areas. The screen doors at North Tyneside were so small that some female detainees were likely to feel unable to use them even though staff said they would clear the corridor of male staff and detainees if a woman did want to shower.

“In our survey, only one out of 47 detainees said they had been offered exercise.

“At North Tyneside, two immigration detainees had been in custody for 41 hours without being offered exercise.”

The report says: “Only the cells at North Tyneside indicated the direction of Mecca. The inspection took place during Ramadan, and good provision had been made at North Tyneside for two Muslim detainees to pray and take their meals after sunset.”