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Volunteers are vital in keeping communities safe

In her latest blog Alison reflects on International Volunteers Day and highlights the excellent work of our Independent Custody Visitors.

PCC Hernandez and Julie Dowton


What would you think if you saw a small crack in the wall or some poor welding around a door frame? Most of us wouldn’t think much of it – we might nip down to a DIY store or call someone to fix it at a later date but in a custody setting these small things can be enough of a defect for someone to seriously harm or even try to kill themselves.

Recently there has been a huge amount of work to reduce the numbers of mentally unwell people who are taken into police custody. In partnership with the NHS we have a mental health early intervention scheme up and running which aims to get people to a doctor before they reach crisis point. And a pioneering scheme in Plymouth is giving courts the ability to sentence treatment, rather than custodial terms, to those who are experiencing mental illness at the time they commit a crime.

Despite these programmes there are still occasions where some of our most vulnerable people are entering police care. Thankfully, we have a dedicated team of independent custody visitors who regularly check on police custody suites across Devon and Cornwall. They are volunteers from the local community who visit custody centres unannounced and examine all areas including the cells, outdoor areas and medical facilities to ensure that they are safe and fit for purpose. The volunteers also check that things like food, medical supplies and sanitary items are in date, stored correctly and kept clean.

As well as reviewing the physical state of the building and facilities, independent custody visitors check on the welfare of detainees, ensuring that their rights and entitlements are being observed. This can include things like making sure detainees have received all relevant information about why they are being held or that they have been offered food. It’s also important that any religious requirements have been taken care of. Any immediate areas of concern will be raised with custody officers at the time of the visit and any necessary action taken. Other comments or suggestions are dealt with anonymously by my office and I will take them up directly with the force.  

The scheme is run by my office and I am incredible proud of the transparency and reassurance it provides to the public about the treatment of detainees.

Last Wednesday (Dec 5) at an international volunteers’ day celebration I was fortunate enough to meet many of our dedicated custody visitors. I am always heartened to meet and hear stories from those who give up time to help their community, many of whom are working or studying full-time as well.

I was also very touched to hear what a positive impact the role has had on their personal lives too – one lady told me volunteering had given her back her confidence after suffering a chronic illness for many years where she hadn’t managed to leave the house much. She said getting back out into the community and feeling like part of team had done wonders for her mental and physical health.

There are two independent custody visitors who I want to give a special mention to as they truly have gone above and beyond the call of duty to make the scheme a resounding success.

Julie Dowton from Launceston and Maria Hassell from Saltash both received a Commissioner’s Award at last week’s celebration for their outstanding contribution to the scheme.  As well as conducting visits, Julie co-ordinates the scheme and trains all the volunteers to the high standard required. She also researches national issues and always introduces her newly acquired knowledge to the rest of the team. She was instrumental in ensuring adequate feminine hygiene forms part of the visitors’ checks.  In addition to her commitments to the independent custody visiting scheme Julie is the Chairperson of Devon and Cornwall Watch Association and also chairs local Crime Stoppers.

Maria has been with the scheme since 2012 and embodies what volunteering is all about. In the last quarter Maria has completed an incredible 16 visits rather than the six expected of her, and this has been instrumental in keeping the scheme going during a challenging year of low visitor numbers. In addition, Maria has ensured that language line is available for all detainees whose first language is not English.

I think you will all agree that both these women do fantastic things for our communities and it was utterly brilliant to recognise and celebrate their achievements on international volunteers’ day.

If you are interested in volunteering opportunities within the OPCC please contact the office via opcc@devonandcornwall.pnn.police.uk or phone 01392 225555.

Alison Hernandez