Security Technology News - August 2007

New Security Report Condemns Court Cell Use

Posted by Security Technology News' International Correspondent on 20/08/2007 - 13:02:34

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A new report has been issued in which serious concerns regarding the use of court cells in London this year is a focus. The concerns are depicted in regards to these cells being required in the absence of any available prison space. The cells are described as "inadequate", alongside criticism in the report made of the fact that prisoners were being detained for entire weekends, and of the level of facilities and food provided. In response, a spokesman from the Ministry of Justice affirmed that the use of West London Magistrates Court was a last resort.

The report, the initial one to cover the summer's prison overcrowding fiasco, is spearheaded by the Chief Prisons Inspector, Anne Owers, and the Chief Inspector of Courts Administration, Eddie Bloomfield. In it, they confirm an inspection of the facilities at the west London court, where at least 150 excess prisoners had been held in May, was undertaken on June 13th.

In line with Operation Safeguard, in excess of 400 people were detained in police cells. However, as these reached capacity, higher numbers of prisoners were relocated into court custody rooms _ the least favoured option.

In discussion with the BBC, Ms Owers detailed the situation further, stating: "We know that the early days of custody are when people are at their most vulnerable and for that reason prisons have developed various support mechanisms. Healthcare checks, risk checks, special first night centres, proper detoxification to reduce that risk. Those facilities aren't and weren't available in court cells".

She added: "Court cells are only designed to hold people for a couple of hours, they're not designed to hold people overnight or, as was happening at west London, sometimes over the weekend."

English and Welsh watchdogs discovered that the prisoners were detained at West London Magistrates Court on a weekend basis because of lack of space elsewhere. Inspectors lauded staff there for the level of care provided to the prisoners, however highlighting how the situation could not compare to regular prison protocol. For example, new arrivals were not assessed in terms of mental health _ something that is normally the case. Further to this, as per Ms Owers, the courts did not offer "diversion schemes", which would relocate those deemed to be mentally unstable to more appropriate facilities.

Further criticism of the scenario includes mention that prisoners could not smoke or take exercise, that showers fell short of acceptable standards, and that no direct links were given between inmates and their families.

Additionally, West London Magistrates Court was used to accommodate offenders from across the country. In one instance, says the report, a man was sent from Birmingham, arriving at his destination at 1.30am. He subsequently departed several hours later, but still before significant daybreak. This, said the inspectors, was unacceptable.  

The number of prisoners held in Britain peaked at 81,000 two months ago. Since then, the twin factors of an early release scheme, and additional cells, have lessened this number to approximately 80,700. As of three days ago, when the latest information was available, 904 prison cells are currently unoccupied.

Addressing the situation covered in this new report, a spokesman from the Ministry of Justice stated: "We used court cells as a measure of last resort when accommodation in prison and police cells [Operation Safeguard] was exhausted due to exceptional prison population pressures. We have not used them since 20 June."

Source _ Security International's London Reporter

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