Poor physical conditions in court custody across north and west London

The physical condition of custody suites in criminal courts and immigration and asylum tribunals in north and west London was “overwhelmingly poor”, according to an inspection report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons.

In a report on a set of unannounced inspection visits, published today, Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said that despite the conditions, staff were trying to improve the treatment of people detained in court and tribunal cells.

Inspectors found “found reasonable and improving working relationships” between the key organisations delivering court and tribunal custody in eight Crown and Magistrates courts, and two Immigration and Asylum Chambers (tribunal centres).

“Senior managers described a willingness to improve the treatment and conditions of detainees…Staff mostly dealt patiently and professionally with detainees. HMCTS had an appropriate focus on utilising video link hearings for eligible cases, which reduced the effects that the upheaval of journeys to court could have.”

Unfortunately, Mr Clarke added, there were few other positive features in what he described as a “disappointing” inspection.

Inspectors found that numerous cells were out of use because of defects including broken lighting and faulty cell call bells. Serco staff ‘escalated’ problems to HMCTS. “However,” the report noted, “we were advised and saw that staff had become desensitised to low standards and that escalation processes were not always followed. The environment across the court custody estate was overwhelmingly poor.”

Delays in resolving these problems were causing frustration among staff and, in some cases, affecting the safety of the custody environment. Reduced cell capacity delayed the transfer of some detainees from police custody suites and meant more detainees shared cells, potentially increasing risks.

As with previous inspections, the court custody estate continued to suffer from a lack of investment. The report said: “During the inspection, we were advised that staffing was often running significantly short. We saw staff in some courts struggle to conduct even routine tasks, such as initial risk assessments and cell-sharing risk assessments.”

Inspectors also found:

  • Too many detainees stayed in court custody for too long.
  • Release arrangements did not adequately focus on ensuring detainees always got home safely.
  • Handcuffs were applied to detainees routinely even in secure and controlled custody areas without an individual risk assessment, which was disproportionate.
  • Arrangements for detainees held in the custody suites for tribunals in Immigration and Asylum Centres at Hatton Cross and Harmondsworth “were not good enough.” There were no formal arrangements to ensure that detainees were released safely from Hatton Cross, though Harmondsworth was better.

Mr Clarke said:

“Overall, this was a disappointing inspection. This report provides a number of recommendations for improvement that in particular address issues such as the deployment of staffing resource, the management of risk, the length of time detainees are held, and improvements to the conditions in which people are held.”

Notes to editors:

  1. A copy of the full report, published on 6 October 2017, can be found here.
  2. HM Inspectorate of Prisons is an independent inspectorate, inspecting places of detention to report on conditions and treatment, and promote positive outcomes for those detained and the public.
  3. This is a report in a series of inspections of court custody facilities carried out by HM Inspectorate of Prisons. These inspections contribute to the United Kingdom’s response to its international obligation to ensure regular independent inspection of all places of detention. The inspections focus on outcomes for detainees in three areas: strategy, individual rights and treatment and conditions, including health care.
  4. This was the second group of courts to be inspected in the London cluster. The inspection focused on courts in west London and four previously uninspected courts in the north and north east of the cluster. There were eight courts in use that had custody facilities, including two crown courts, and six magistrates’ courts. The magistrates’ courts were Hendon, Willesden, Barkingside, Romford, Ealing and Uxbridge. Harrow and Isleworth Crown Courts were inspected.
  5. The Prisoner Escort and Custody Services (PECS) arm of HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) had contracted Serco on behalf of HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) to provide court custody and escort facilities in the region.
  6. The area also included two immigration asylum chambers (IACs) (tribunal centres), for which care of detainees was contracted to be provided by Mitie (Harmondsworth) and Tascor (Hatton Cross.)
  7. These unannounced inspections took place between 29 May–6 June 2017
  8. Please contact John Steele at HM Inspectorate of Prisons press office on 020 3681 2775 or 07880 787452 if you would like more information.