21st-century custody

NZPA | Mon October 1st, 2018

It’s hard to find anyone who misses the old custody suite at Auckland Central Police Station – even a little bit. For decades, the underground facility, described as a dingy dungeon with poor lighting and cells like cages at a zoo, was the everyday environment for Police staff and the temporary holding pen for those who passed through – often leaving behind a scrawled insult on the motley walls.

Auckland Custody teamStation OC Senior Sergeant Ash Gore, far left, with the custody unit's audiovisual team, AO Kerryn Hoskyn and, left to right, Sergeant Boycie Nelson, AO Mark Elder and AO Ryan Erasmus. Photos: ELLEN BROOK

In Police-speak, the old Auckland Central Police Station custody suite was “not fit for purpose” – for staff or detainees.

Like the rest of policing, it was time to move custodial management in our biggest city into the 21st century and this month marks one year since the new Auckland Custody Unit, attached to the Mt Eden Correctional Facility, opened for business.

It joins other upgraded custody facilities at Counties Manukau, Rotorua, Tauranga and the recently opened Christchurch Justice Precinct.  

Old custody unitAbove: The old custody unit at Auckland Central. Below: The new custody unit.

Custody control roomThe Auckland unit can house up to 43 prisoners with overnight holding cells, at-risk cells, a padded cell, a search cell, day room, video interview suites and medical and mental health assessment rooms.

The circular, modular construction incorporates CCTV monitoring, electronic control systems, prisoner call buttons and smart glazing (able to be switched from opaque to clear) on cell windows.

There is some natural light in many of the cells, which have been carefully designed to avoid any ligature points. The water to the toilets and hand basins can be switched off and on as necessary.

Music can be piped into the cells and, according to staff, is often requested.

The five sections of one sergeant and four authorised officers (AOs) are well settled into the new environment and no one is pining for the old days.

Sergeant Scott Johnson says it’s much better for everyone – staff and prisoners. They are enjoying the light, fresh, clean surroundings in which they can easily monitor detainees and ensure their safety and wellbeing.

And there is no tagging allowed. “The old cells were full of graffiti and initials going back decades. We want to keep this place pristine and we have zero tolerance for any damage that would degrade the facility.

If detainees do mark the cells, they are charged with wilful damage and it is quickly sanded down and painted over.”

The unit is also trialling an audiovisual link with the Auckland District Court so detainees can “appear” before the court without leaving the custody unit, and are then bailed directly from the unit. The five AV rooms are managed by the AOs.

AO Kerryn Hoskyn says the new system is working well for everyone, including the fact that “there’s no dock to jump over”. Up to 60 per cent of detainees will appear using the AV system, but youth and those accused of serious crimes are required to attend the court.

Custody unit avAbove: Audiovisual booths link prisoners to the Auckland District Court.

Duty lawyers visit the unit as necessary and transportation to the courts is still part of the job, but there are fewer journeys than in the old days.

AO Matthew Kelsall, another graduate of the Auckland Central cells, says he’s noticed that the new facility seems to make the detainees behave better too. “The new cells are easier to work with and safer. There are no long corridors and you can see every cell.”

It all helps with the duty of care that police have to the many people who come through the facility each day.

Sgt Scott JohnsonAbove: Sergeant Scott Johnson says everyone, staff and detainees, are enjoying the light, fresh clean surroundings.

OC Senior Sergeant Ash Gore says the custody unit sergeants have an important role to play.

“The sergeant is the gatekeeper for all the cases coming through and can make important decisions about what should happen, ie, a pre-charge warning, proceeding with a prosecution or referring a case to an iwi panel. What happens in the custody suite can influence where things end up. Discretion can be applied to the benefit of individuals and the justice system.”

Sadly, Ash notes, a high percentage of those coming through the unit are “1Ms” (mental health) with drugs and alcohol as contributing factors.

“If we can do something at this point to stop them coming back or progressing through the pipeline, then that’s fantastic. We have obligations to take a transformative approach here.”

Certainly, the surroundings and the technology will make that goal seem more attainable. – ELLEN BROOK

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