Lay Observers 2019/20 annual report published
Dirty cells, poor support for children and rising errors in medication records a ‘matter of embarrassment’ for the criminal justice system, says custody watchdog
People with health problems still ‘falling through the gaps’ in complex prison, police, court and transport arrangements
Poor recording of medical needs, lack of accessible sanitary provision for some women detainees, dirty toilets and cells covered in sometimes abusive or drug-related graffiti in some large courts combine with long transport delays to put vulnerable people’s welfare and their access to justice in jeopardy.
Those are the key findings of the 2019/20 annual report of John Thornhill, the National Chair for Lay Observers, the volunteers appointed by ministers to ensure children and adults detained in, and transported to, court custody in England and Wales are treated decently.
The situation is compounded by a lack of effective communication between the various statutory bodies and organisations responsible for detainees who attend court, though the planned Partnership Board overseeing new (2020 onwards) escort and prison escort contracts is welcomed.
Significant concern is expressed in the report about the rising number of gaps and errors in the Person Escort Records (PERs) completed by prisons and police stations when handing over someone to be transported to and from court by escort contractors. Sixty-one percent of PERs examined were incomplete or inaccurate compared to 55% in 2018/19.
This means that detained people can become ill or agitated due to lack of medication because escort and custody staff are not properly informed of that person’s circumstances.
As LOs reported last year, the lack of national oversight resulting in weak overall co-ordination and effective communication between the organisations involved, contractors, prisons, courts and police – including apparently incompatible computer systems – means that information and good practice is not being shared and failures are not properly addressed.
The impact of transport delays and long journeys for some vulnerable people, including young defendants under 18 is raised again as an area where action is needed.
However, improvements have been made in some areas including most (although not all) custody suites being better maintained and cleaned, ongoing work to better manage court temperatures and some success of new medication guidelines; escort and court custody staff continue to work hard to overcome these problems and provide detainees with appropriate support.
John Thornhill, LO Chair, said:
“We have seen some welcome improvements over the year, for example to medication management procedures, and we see the majority of escort and custody staff doing their best to deliver a decent and respectful service often in difficult circumstances.
“But too many children and vulnerable adults have their welfare put at risk because of extremely poor recordkeeping, which leads to critical medication not being available for people with conditions like asthma and diabetes, the risk of violence to staff and other detainees.
“Transport arrangements remain erratic in a worrying numbers of cases, with long delays waiting for vans to take detainees – including children – to and from prison or secure placements and very long journeys late at night.
“These issues are having a concerning impact on access to justice. It is clear some people have to appear in court having travelled hundreds of miles, others are not supported with their medical conditions or disabilities; some are then kept in dirty court cells for hours on end. This is a matter of embarrassment in a modern criminal justice system.”
“Coordination between police, prisons and courts at both regional and national level varies considerably with some very good practice. However any improvements made seem to be incremental at best and the fragmented system for court custody and transportation still fails many detained people.”
The report highlighted cases of concern including:
• A 16-year-old girl who had a long wait for transport after her court appearance and then a 235-mile journey; as a result, she did not arrive at her placement until 3am
• A 14-year-old boy who was held in the cells for 11 hours including an hour-long court hearing; he was driven to his placement arriving very late at night
• A young person with Downs’ syndrome who had to wait four hours to see his solicitor due to lack of available space
• A young person with autism who became distressed after having to wait in his cell for over two hours for transport
• A woman who did not drink on a four-hour journey from Preston to a court in London because she was told there would not be a comfort stop
• The condition of around one in six custody suites with large quantities of unacceptable and ingrained drug, gang or racism-related graffiti and in some courts, poor overall cleanliness. Its recommendations include:
• quality assurance programmes for PERs;
• consistent training programmes for the preparation and completion of PERs;
• effective communication between the agencies (police, prison, courts) on the treatment of detainees and in particular PERs;
• effective cleaning of custody suites;
• the treatment and removal of graffiti;
• effective monitoring and inspection of safety measures such as fire extinguishers.
• more flexible opening hours for prisons, to allow timely reception of detainees