Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Dramatis Personae (3)

Go down the discreet stairs next to Reception, and you enter the world of custody, where subjects of Her Majesty are detained while waiting to have the judiciary decide their fate, or, for the unlucky, waiting for transport to prison.. You will pass the Police Liaison office, usually staffed by a couple of experienced officers on a not-too-bad posting before they retire. They have powers of arrest, and access to the Police National Computer, essential to the Court's daily business. Then you come to a heavy steel grille, which will be electrically unlocked if the custodial officer thinks you might be all right to admit. The next grille will not unlock until the lock of the first has clicked into place, and the officer is sure of your bona fides.
The custody staff are a remarkably cheery bunch, considering the job they do, and they manage their charges with a mixture of firmness and sympathy. If you don't give them a hard time, they will treat you kindly, call you by your first name, and do their best to make the experience of being locked up bearable (and every prisoner starts off in Magistrates' Court cells, even the murderers). If you give them a lot of attitude, then firmness comes to the fore, as you would expect. Nevertheless, the system depends on compliance from those in custody, and mostly, that's what we get.
The cells are basic, without toilets, and with fittings that are carefully designed not to offer ligature points. There is a varnished wooden bench, and that's about it, apart from the plentiful graffiti, much of which is depressingly lacking in imagination. Prisoners' names are chalked on a board outside each cell, and there is a stark interview room for lawyers to see their clients. The toilet facilities offer limited privacy, for obvious reasons. Those in custody have a choice of ready-meals that are microwaved when required, and in deference to Human Rights various religious and dietary options are available. Most prisoner movements are in handcuffs and the guards wear wide wristbands, round which they fasten their half of the cuffs. That way if the prisoner chooses to pull on the cuff it hurts him a lot more than it does the officer. The vans sit outside waiting to be driven into the loading dock to collect or deliver their charges. They are very cramped and basic, each prisoner having less space that he would have in a normal toilet cubicle. When the London prisons 'lock out' as they often do, prisoners have to be driven long distances to alternative accommodation, and while a rough-and-ready approach is sometimes taken to a man who needs a pee, anything more serious requires a visit to a police station or prison that has a secure yard.
On the wall of reception is a plastic folder holding a dozen sheets of rough translation of common words. These sheets have been written by our regular interpreters, so the officer only has to ask his charge to point to a word, then he can look across to see the translation, be it 'toilet' 'food' 'lawyer' or whatever. Although I looked, none of them seemed to say 'I didn't do it'.
Almost every criminal court has this sub-world beneath. The job done there is essential, and I am glad that we have people who manage to do it with, on the whole, sympathy and good humour.

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