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Inside the hidden world of police custody

This is the really sharp end of policing - the custody unit where suspects are kept during that volatile period between arrest and, possibly, a court appearance. So what happens there? Justin Kelly spent a year observing one to find out.

Rich West is the custody sergeant in charge of the shift and he's not happy.

A young man's been brought in for burglary and during a routine strip search, officers have found a few wraps of heroin in his underpants. Worse still, officers suspect he's hidden more inside himself, which could explode.

"There's a risk to your health and your life, which may ultimately result in death," says Sgt West. "Is there anything I can do to get you to consent and attend hospital for any kind of imaging?"

If the wraps leak, it's highly likely that the prisoner will overdose and die. But without his co-operation, the detention staff could be in for a long wait. The last "packer" managed to avoid the toilet for a record 16 days.

Welcome to The Lock Up at Priory Road Police Station in Hull. It's in the 20 cells of this custody suite that anything can and usually does happen.

'Miniature prisons'

About 6,500 prisoners were brought in last year, under suspicion of anything from shoplifting to murder. Locked in an eight by ten foot cell, the suspects can be waiting in here up to 24 hours to hear if they'll be tried in court.

Image caption Sergeant Dave Beer supervises information being put into the computer system at the custody desk

During a year of filming at Priory Road, custody staff handled some of the most volatile, fragile and demanding members of society - attempted suicide, and "dirty" protests, teenage drug addicts, children in care and violent offenders.

The custody suite is a hidden corner of policing that goes largely unnoticed by the public but it's the gateway everyone must go through if and when they enter the criminal justice system.

Inside these miniature prisons, the role of the police is unlike any other. The sergeant and his team of detention officers are not interested in whether prisoners are innocent or guilty. Their role is solely to ensure the welfare of inmates while they await their fate.

"I'm not a judge, I'm not a jury, and I'm not a social worker, and neither doing this am I a policeman," explains Sgt Ian Goode. "I'm a custody officer. I've got a totally different agenda to everybody else. I don't take sides. I don't form partnerships with anybody."

About 70% of prisoners that turn up at Priory Road are arrested for a misdemeanour fuelled by drugs or alcohol. A quarter are regulars, many are on first-name terms with their captors, others are in a state of shock, angry or frightened and it's a daily battle for staff to keep the custody suite on an even keel.

It may only take a smile or joke to pacify an inmate. Other times, if they turn up spitting, kicking and screaming, a prisoner may need to be strapped up in a makeshift padded cells to prevent injury to themselves those around them.

"Once you've let them get the upper hand, you've lost it in here," says custody sergeant Jane Biglin. "And then it's not good, it's not a nice environment to be in at all."

Image caption Detention officer Rob Andrew takes the finger prints of the latest person to be taken into custody

Detainees often have some of the most tragic stories to tell, like the confused teenager abandoned by his parents or the recently bankrupt businessman suffering from a breakdown.

"I've heard some right life stories," says detention officer Michelle Cox. "But if I let it get to me, I'd go home crying every night, some of the things people have told me. I'd probably take all the prisoners home, have a massive house and keep lots of prisoners!"

While officers need to show their humanity to gain the trust of detainees, it's crucial they don't show any weakness. It's a sobering thought for every custody sergeant that they're the ones who will end up in court should the slightest mishap befall an inmate.

It's not something that's lost on Sgt West, who's decided to hold firm against the suspected burglar and drugs packer.

To his relief, the prisoner finally agrees to a hospital scan after two hours. The results show that he was hiding several wraps of heroin.

The scan also reveals two rings that the suspect has swallowed from the burglary. He passed those before the week was out but three months later in prison, after chest complaints, doctors found another ring lodged inside his lung.

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