Sweatboxes and Holding Cells in Courts


I first heard of the above article through Twitter, which shows the value of social media. Amongst all of the stuff I read every day – mainly the FT in terms of general news – but also the one hour I dedicate to Channel 4 News and some World Service and Radio 4 content – without Twitter I might have missed this extremely important event which only the Guardian seems to have reported. I would be delighted to be proven wrong if anyone has any other news sources. That shows how little attention is being paid, in general, to the failings of the prison/justice system.

The focus of the article is on the fact that the man died because of the excessive heat that day. What is worrying is that nobody seems to understand that these SERCO vans (sweatboxes as they are commonly called) – are an inhumane form of transport under any conditions. A prisoner is placed in one of up to 14 tiny mini-cells of less than a square metre of area and sat on a plastic seat without a seatbelt. There is no room to move, except vertically by standing on the seat, and often the noise from the radio or shouting between prisoners or staff is intolerable. Usually one is given little cartons of water when available. To be in one of these vans for more than 45 minutes, and in his case with the air-conditioning turned off which is not unusual, is torture – and I do not use that expression lightly. 

Moreover, SERCO is also responsible for what are called “Court Custody Suites”, which is a polite term for the cells beneath the courtrooms used for holding prisoners before a court session and afterwards, awaiting return to prison or some other detention facility. Most decent people would be horrified by the conditions of detention. In these cells there are no windows, no toilet facilities and an in-built bench about 40 cm wide. You are not allowed any reading material apart from that which relates to the court case. It is possible for there to be multiple prisoners in a cell which can be extremely dangerous. There are spaces available for legal visits but it is often the case  that visits before or after a court session are not allowed because of problems in the custody suite.

In this case the prisoner seems to have been held from 10:00 and was found dead at 14:45. Unfortunately, surveillance is not carried out by prison officers or police but by SERCO staff. With the best will in the world, it is important that the general public be made aware that delegation to the private sector of this function, like many functions in the prison/justice system, does not work.

The quote from the charity Inquest tells only part of the story “There is an accountability gap in the inspection and monitoring of court cells and the treatment of detainees. This must be urgently addressed at a national level. Without this, there is the ever-present risk of future deaths and harms.”

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