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11 February 2015, 05:28
Court custody in Surrey and Sussex has "serious shortcomings'' according to the Chief Inspector of Prisons with problems including the care of children, overcrowding and women detainees being harassed by men in mixed sex prison vehicles.
A report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) has found that "no collective action'' had been taken to resolve safety issues following a restructuring of the 13 courts that had custody facilities in the two counties.
The National Offender Management Service (Noms) had contracted GEOAmey to provide custody and escort facilities for HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) in the two counties.
In 2013 HMCTS had restructured its operations in Surrey and Sussex to handle remand cases in a smaller number of magistrates' courts, sitting on fewer days.
A HMIP spokesman said: "This had resulted in the cells at those courts being overloaded, with detainees sitting on the floor on one day and all cells being empty the next. Physical conditions varied from good to very poor. Provision of basic toilet facilities, hygiene and cleanliness in some court custody suites was poor.
"The lack of adequate cell capacity and the poor quality of information about risk, health and self-harm which came with detainees from police stations and prisons was a significant risk to staff and detainee welfare.
"Inspectors were also concerned to find that essential information about health conditions was missing, and in one case a cell share had to be reviewed once further information about the detainee's psychosis had been relayed;
"Efforts made by custody staff to address the needs of children by asking the court to deal with their cases first were undermined by the escort contractor being unable to provide prompt transfers of children to secure training centres and young offender institutions;
"Women and children were transferred in cellular vehicles with male detainees (sometimes with all-male crews), which can result in women being harassed by male detainees; staff used restraints with compliant detainees, including women and children, and lacked the authority to challenge this; few detainees were offered information about their rights in custody.
"There were a few examples of staff taking great care to help vulnerable detainees but these were exceptional and any attempts to provide good care were undermined by the combined effects of the poor physical environment, inadequate information, extreme variations in workload and, at some courts, overcrowding.''
Nick Hardwick, chief inspector of prisons, said: "We found serious shortcomings in court custody in Surrey and Sussex, particularly in relation to safety, and in the care of children and other vulnerable detainees.
"Responsibilities for custody were split between several organisations that rarely met together, with none having overall responsibility for seeing the entire picture and driving forward urgently needed improvements. We have made a number of recommendations, some to be resolved nationally, to improve the safety and care of people in court custody.''