Inspectors condemn West Midlands police cells

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The Independent Online

Virtually every police cell in Britain's second largest force failed safety tests, inspectors said today.

Many of the older cells in the West Midlands contained ligature points which detainees could use to harm themselves, the joint report by prison and force inspectors found.

And one custody suite in central Birmingham was "inherently unsafe", with restrictions imposed on the number of improvements that could be made due to its Grade II listed status.

"Virtually every cell surveyed across the estate failed to pass our safety examination - there were numerous ligature points and health and safety monitoring was inconsistent," the report said.

Despite substantial investment, the 51 cells at Steelhouse Lane were poor, with restrictions imposed by English Heritage preventing authorities from replacing cell doors.

"This custody suite was inherently unsafe due to the age of its fabric, and staff were not trained or equipped to identify the full range of ligature points that we found," the inspectors said.

"There had been a substantial investment in resources across the custody estate, particularly at Steelhouse Lane in central Birmingham, although this was still a poor facility.

"Health and safety monitoring took place but inconsistently, and some staff were not trained or equipped to identify problems."

The inspectors also criticised a large wall board with detailed information about the detainees, including their names, alleged offences and required referrals to health services, which was "visible to all detainees being booked in and anyone else passing through the booking-in area".

Elsewhere across the West Midlands, many custody suites contained clinical and forensic equipment that was out of date, the report, based on inspections carried out in October, said.

While there were some areas of "excellent practice", Nick Hardwick, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, and Dru Sharpling, Her Majesty's Inspector of Constabulary, said the numerous ligature points, inconsistent health and safety monitoring and a mixed approach to risk assessment all raised concerns.

Chief Constable Chris Sims and the police authority will be expected to "consider these issues within the wider context of force priorities and resourcing and to provide us with an action plan in due course", they said.

West Midlands Police said the inspectors "expect very high standards of safety in all cells and do not differentiate between old and new cells in terms of building design and safety standards".

Acting Chief Inspector Tracey Packham, who is in charge of community justice and custody, said the force "welcomes the report and has already addressed many of the areas concerned around ligature points in cells".

"Work has already taken place at Steelhouse Lane and all the ligature points identified during the inspection have since been removed," she said.

"Work is currently under way to remove ligature points in other custody stations."

Ms Packham said all custody staff have received refresher training since the inspection and added that some of the force's work around mental health diversion has been held up as best practice nationally.

"West Midlands Police feel the inspection report reflects much of the work already undertaken to improve safety in custody suites across the force and is taking action to implement the recommendations to improve safety standards further," she said.

Extensive improvement works in April last year aimed to raise standards across the force's custody blocks, she added.

A high-quality CCTV system was installed in all custody blocks and many of the cells are fitted with CCTV cameras to protect the most vulnerable detainees.

"Steelhouse Lane has had a new fire alarm system installed and all of the larger custody blocks are currently having a new cell call system installed where detainees can press a buzzer to speak directly to custody staff from their cell."