Only weeks after his sentencing to life imprisonment for holding women captive at his house in Ohio, Ariel Castro was able to hang himself whilst unattended in his cell.
No matter what the allegation or conviction, deaths of people in custody are always a tragedy and deeply regrettable as such.
When a person is brought into police custody in England & Wales, the first thing that the sergeant will do is to conduct a risk assessment with the aim of establishing what steps might need to be taken to manage any vulnerabilities.
A series of medical questions are asked to identify any conditions or medication that might need to be addressed whilst a person is detained.
Their mental welfare will likewise be carefully considered, the circumstances of the arrest, offence, and previous indicators suggesting self harm (marks on wrists, warning markers on their record etc) all contribute to a the risk assessment.
With the information collected, the sergeant then has to make a decision about how best to manage the prisoner’s welfare.
If medical conditions have been raised as an issue, it might be that they’ll need to be seen by a nurse or doctor prior.
When self harming presents itself as a possibility, the sergeant has to choose the appropriate level of observations under which to keep the prisoner for the duration of their stay.
There are four incremental levels that apply as set out in the beefy Safer Detention guidelines, they are -
- Level one (General observation) - The prisoner will be visited once an hour
- Level two (Intermittent observations) - Once every half an hour the prisoner will be visited and roused
- Level three (Constant observations) - The prisoner is visited as above but also watched at all times e.g. via CCTV
- Level four (Close proximity observation) – Someone will sit with the prisoner at all times and personally supervise them
Because risk assessment is an ongoing process, risk levels can vary as a person’s detention continues with their demeanour improving or worsening.
Cell watches are not the most glamorous part of the job and will either be conducted by custody staff or police officers, depending on staffing.
They too can be very difficult to manage, I’ve spent some shifts sat in cells with prisoners physically holding their arms and reassuring them to prevent them harming themselves by punching out at the walls.
Managing a high risk detainee is no enviable task and is as the case outside of custody, if someone if set upon harming themselves then it can be very challenging to prevent them doing so.
We take detainee welfare very seriously and whilst no cell can be truly suicide proof, we do all we can to ensure that the ‘death in custody’ is as rare an event as is possible.