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They are invisible to most. Their work – largely unseen despite hours of unstinting effort – benefits a section of society we often choose to forget. Their ‘customers’ are the people Norfolk Police detains for questioning at custody facilities in King’s Lynn, Aylsham, Great Yarmouth and Wymondham.
Unless you have spent time in police custody or work in the Police Investigation Centres where those detained are held, you probably won’t have heard of the Independent Custody Visitors (ICVs) – volunteers who, unannounced and in pairs, turn up to check on the treatment and welfare of the people held there.
Last year, Norfolk’s ICVs carried out almost 200 visits across the county, checking on over 700 detainees. With the new year fast approaching, Norfolk’s Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC), who runs the scheme, is putting out a call for more people to volunteer alongside them.
“As we get ready to welcome in the new year, and the resolutions that come with it, many Norfolk residents might be considering how they can give something back to society in 2019, possibly through volunteering.
“The closest most people will get to looking behind a cell door is watching police dramas and documentaries on television. But if you or one of your family members did find yourself in police custody, wouldn’t you want someone checking on your welfare?
“These volunteers are the eyes and ears of the public – visiting detainees every week of the year, reporting on what they see and offering public reassurance that the police are treating people with fairness and respect. Not only is it a unique and interesting volunteering opportunity, ICVs play a crucial role in safeguarding detainees – and the police too.
“We’re often very quick to highlight when things go wrong, but don’t always hear about the things that are done well. By visiting detainees and reporting on what they see, ICVs identified no issues of serious harm or threat in our police custody facilities last year and actually recorded 117 examples of positive comments about their treatment from those being held.”
The Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner for Norfolk (OPCCN) has launched a recruitment campaign this week to coincide with International Volunteers Day on Wednesday 5 December. Applications are being invited from individuals interested in joining any of the four ICV panels – King’s Lynn, Aylsham, Great Yarmouth or Wymondham. To apply, you must be over 18, live in Norfolk and have lived in the UK for more than three years. Although this is a voluntary role, expenses are paid. Successful applicants will need to attend an initial training course to prepare them for the role, and complete a six-month probationary period in order to be fully accredited.
In their own words…
What do custody visitors do when they visit the custody suites?
“We always work in pairs and, each week, we arrive unannounced at the custody suite at any time of the day or night, where we are given immediate entry to the building. We speak to the custody sergeant, who is always welcoming, and he gives us information about how many people are in custody. We have no reason to know their names, neither do we need to know why they are there - all we are interested in is whether they have been given their rights and how they have been treated since they came into custody. The sergeant takes us down to the cells, where he allows us access to the detained persons. We introduce ourselves and ask a series of questions to satisfy ourselves that all is well. Apart from visiting the detainees, we also check the fabric of the building to see that it is clean and tidy and ready for use, and anything that seems to need attention is written down. We spend some time checking the detained person’s custody report and cross-checking with the information received during our interview, then we write a report of our findings before we leave. Our visit can last up to about two hours.”
Why did you volunteer to be a custody visitor?
“I've been an ICV for about two years now. It’s been, and still is, an extremely interesting and often startling experience. The raison d’être of the role is to ensure, as far as is possible, that all detained persons in Norfolk’s Police Investigation Centres are being treated as we would like a family member to be treated. I feel great fulfilment when I've confirmed that a vulnerable detainee is being correctly and sympathetically treated. All in all, being an ICV is rewarding on many levels - a volunteer role with a difference!”
“When I became semi-retired a couple of years ago, I decided it would be appropriate to give something back to the north-west Norfolk community. I saw an ad in the local paper for Independent Custody Visitors. To be honest I had never heard of this before and, after reading up about the role, I thought ‘this is something a bit out of the ordinary’. Unlike my previous life, dealing with industrial projects, this was about dealing with people who were in a vulnerable situation and enquiring about their welfare while in police custody. Not everyone wants to talk to you, but most do.”
“I walked into Dereham Police Station one day to hand in a wallet I had found in a carpark and saw a leaflet asking for volunteers to visit detainees in custody in Norfolk. I took one because I have always had an interest in anything to do with the justice system. I went for an interview nearly nine years ago and I am pleased to say I have been a member of a visiting team ever since. I am one of a team of six people and we all get on really well together. We get to do a visit roughly twice per month and we have developed a good working relationship with the custody staff. Each of us has great respect for the other as we both have a job to do. I have met some interesting characters along the way. I like to think that I am doing something worthwhile with my spare time!”