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Poor recording of health needs putting children and young people’s welfare in jeopardy, says custody watchdog in 2018/19 annual report

Vulnerable people ‘falling through the net’ of complex prison, police, court and transport arrangements

Poor recording of health risks, unnecessary use of handcuffs and custody suites which are unclean and covered in sometimes gang-related or abusive graffiti are putting vulnerable people’s welfare and their access to justice in jeopardy.

The situation is compounded by a lack of effective oversight of the various government bodies and contractors responsible for transport and court custody.
Those are the key findings of the annual report of John Thornhill, the National Chair for Lay Observers (LOs), the volunteers appointed by ministers to ensure children and adults detained in, and transported to, court custody in England and Wales are treated decently.

Grave concern is expressed in the report about the gaps and errors in the Person Escort Records (PERs) completed by prison and police staff when handing over someone to be transported to and from court by escort contractors.

This means that the risks of detained people self-harming or being violent are not properly captured, and has led to prisoners not receiving correct and/or timely medication or being handcuffed unnecessarily because staff are not properly informed of that person’s circumstances.

Weak overall co-ordination and oversight of these arrangements by contractors and the 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 long journeys for vulnerable people, including young defendants under 18, was also raised as an area where improvements are needed.

John Thornhill, LO Chair, said:

“While there have been welcome developments in some areas, and staff generally do their best to provide a decent and respectful service, too many children and vulnerable adults have their welfare put in jeopardy due to poorly coordinated transport arrangements, erratic recording of information and court cells which are unclean or covered in graffiti – or which even lack functioning toilets and running water.

“Worryingly, oversight at both regional and national level appears patchy at best, even though LOs regularly highlight these concerns, some basics, such as compatibility of computer systems containing detainees’ information, appear to be missing. As my report makes clear, there needs to be a step change from HMCTS, HMPPS, the police and contractors in the leadership and coordination of transport and custody arrangements. The complex, fragmented system for court custody and transportation fails many detained persons.”

He added: “These issues are having a significant impact not only on the welfare of those detained but on their access to justice. It is clear some people have to give evidence having travelled for long distances, at times without access to appropriate medical support or having been kept for long periods in court cells which are not fit for purpose.”

The report highlighted cases of concern including:

  • an agitated and aggressive man at Liverpool Combined Court whose PER did not indicate he needed medication and whose secure property bag had to be opened by staff to gain access to it, when it should have been clear what he could take and when, and been easily available;
  • a woman who was eight months pregnant and who was taken on a round trip (including travel and being held in a cell) totalling 10 hours for a 10-minute court appearance in Southampton; her PER was incomplete, with no details of who to call for medical advice about her condition and medication needs not clear, even though she was a methadone user who was experiencing severe anxiety and was three weeks from her due date;
  • a 14-year-old held for eleven hours for a one-hour court appearance in Bradford;
  • the lack of awareness of staff in the Thames Valley area of the importance of maintaining ligature knives to cut down detainees if they try to hang or injure themselves, despite a ‘near miss’ at a court in nearby Oxford
  • the condition of around one in six custody suites with large quantities of unacceptable and ingrained graffiti (which can be abusive in its content, or allege that named people are acting as police informers) and poor overall cleanliness.

The findings do recognise improvements including better sanitary provision for women, enhanced medical support and work to better manage court temperatures, and Mr Thornhill paid tribute to the staff who make every effort to provide decent treatment in sometimes difficult circumstances.

The report’s recommendations include:

  • improving communication between the various bodies on the treatment of those detained, and better training and quality assurance programmes for PERs;
  • the publication of focused guidelines on the treatment of women, children and young people with specific reference to transport, court facilities and waiting times;
  • access to medical and mental health support with medication dispensing authorisation located within the court precinct for custodies with more than an average of ten detained persons per day and
  • creation of a separate and appropriate PER for children and young people;
  • children and young people’s appearances in court should be prioritised.