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Custody visiting in police stations a 'waste of time'


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Former custody visitor Dr John Kendall tells Police Oracle why the scheme is flawed on many levels.

Custody visiting in police stations a 'waste of time'

As one former custody sergeant said to me, custody in police stations is a very locked-down affair - detainees spend most of the time isolated in their cells.

The police say the primary purpose of detention in custody is to make the suspect “amenable” to investigation, which suggests pressure to make confessions. The police have wide discretion in how they operate custody. A small minority of detainees are neglected and abused by the police, and some 20 detainees each year die in police custody.

The Independent Custody Visiting Scheme enables custody visitors to look into this locked-down environment, and these visitors are the only outsiders to get regular access to detainees in their cells. The visitors are volunteers drawn from the general public. They make random, unannounced visits to check on the welfare of the detainees, and they report to the local Police and Crime Commissioner.

After a career as a commercial solicitor and mediator, in retirement I had an interest in finding out about custody, though at that stage I had no intention to write about custody visiting. I joined a local scheme and worked as a visitor for three years. I was surprised to find there was no academic study of the scheme, so decided to write one myself. I undertook a self-funded research project at the University of Birmingham, and obtained access to visitors, custody blocks, police, and detainees in a local visiting scheme which I believe to be typical of those in other parts of the country. Material from my PhD thesis has now been published in my book, Regulating Police Detention, Voices from behind closed doors: Policy Press 2018.

The policy of custody visiting has been developed by the police and the Home Office. Custody visiting is organised in a way that causes the police least trouble, and the authorities have airbrushed out the idea that custody visiting could be a deterrent to police misconduct that might lead to deaths in custody. I found that while the party line was for the police to support the visiting scheme, what the police really thought was that the visits were a nuisance with no real purpose or effect. The police do not respect the visitors, and see them as amateurs who don’t understand the police’s work in custody. 

To do their job properly, visitors need to be independent. I found that the visitors were not independent, because of their background and the structure of the scheme. The visitors often came from sections of society more favourable to the police, and some were related to police officers or friends with them; visitors who make trouble can be dismissed summarily; many did not keep their distance from the police; the training they receive was mono-culturally from the police’s point of view; and the visitors failed to challenge the police.

I found that the visits took place at predictable times, and never during the night. I found that the existence of the visiting scheme, and specific visits and the reports of those visits, made no significant impact on police behaviour. The police could delay admission to the custody block and deny access to some detainees. The custody staff hovered close by the cells while the visitors were meeting detainees, making it impossible for the detainees to speak freely to the visitors. The visitors could not monitor police interviews. The police and crime commissioner gave no useful information to the public about the work of the scheme.

Custody visiting does not live up to the claims made for it in the official literature: it does not provide reassurance to the public about custody, nor does it contribute to police accountability. Custody visiting is in fact counterproductive, as it obscures the need for proper, effective regulation.

Could custody visiting make a more effective contribution to the regulation of police detention? Extensive and radical reforms would be needed, reversing all the defects noted above, and with much greater independence from the state. My research should show politicians and the public that the visiting scheme lacks legitimacy. When that is appreciated, pressure for these reforms must surely follow.

Dr John Kendall is a visiting scholar for the Birmingham Law School, an external associate for the Centre for Crime, Justice and Policing at the University of Birmingham; and a former custody visitor.

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What a strange piece. I wouldn't argue that the visits aren't worthless. If people want to do random visits then why not. 

As for the concerns, not allowing immediate access, staying near the cell, not having a wide range of visitors and removing disruptive ones. Pretty sure that's all very logical and necessary. 

I really can't see how these random visits would prevent deaths in custody. It's pretty clear what the causes of these are, but visits are unlikely to change anything. 

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It reads to me that this Dr set off with a preconceived idea before he even started the research. He claims independence is needed yet he is already far from independent - he has probably watched too much Life on Mars.

"The police say the primary purpose of detention in custody is to make the suspect “amenable” to investigation, which suggests pressure to make confessions."

This belies his lack of knowledge of a subject he proposes himself to be an expert in.

He goes on to level criticisms at best practice which is put in place to protect him - not allowing access when prisoners are violent and also ensuring a member of custody staff is on hand when untrained lay people are at a cell door! 

He also appears to elevate the role beyond its intention - in asking to sit in on interviews he is confusing the line between a lay visitor and a solicitor.

I would seek out his report but this article has dissuaded me. He has done himself a great disservice and in my mind depreciated the value of his research by sharing such a biased stance showing a lack of maturity and comprehension.


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Got to agree with the above. Why would he want to ‘monitor’ interviews when that’s what a lawyer is for and even without one it’s tecorded and can be dip sampled later.

Out visitors get to have 1-2-1 chats with prisoners if they want and there’s no suggestion of violence.

They also call in unannounced and do visit on nights.

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