It’s more than a year since the custody suite at Hastings Police Station was closed down, there is a commitment on the part of Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner Katy Bourne to reopen it but it’s going to be months rather than weeks before the facility becomes operational again.
This week Hastings In Focus was invited in to see what has been happening inside the custody suite by Hastings divisional commander, Chief Inspector Paul Phelps, and there is still some way to go before prisoners will be able to be detained in Hastings.
Plans for the new layout of the custody centre have been hammered out and finalised. Those plans include reducing the number of cells from the current 13 down to ten and significant amendments to the reception area where prisoners are checked-in, known as ‘the bridge’.
Last autumn headlines screamed that the custody unit had been closed because of fire safety concerns and in its present configuration it’s easy to see why the unit would be difficult to evacuate quickly, especially when you consider that in the event of an emergency evacuation officers would have to unlock each cell individually.
But planning a fire escape from a police custody suite is not a straightforward issue. Those escaping through any fire exit are in detention and cannot just be released into the outdoors, so plans needed to include an outside area where prisoners can be held after escaping from the building and where that holding area can located within the campus of Hastings Police Station dictates where the emergency exit can be created.
The re-development of Hastings custody centre is not, however, just about creating an effective fire exit. Once work was scheduled to take place to upgrade the facility modern standards required by organisations including H.M. Inspectorate of Prisons and Constabulary, Ministry of Justice and The College of Policing all kicked in meaning extensive additional work is required before the custody suite can re-open.
It was 1999 when the Hastings custody centre was last overhauled and since then the standards required in custody facilities have changed very significantly. Custody centres like the one at Hastings police station now seem very out of date when compared modern purpose built facilities created under the Private Finance Initiative (PFI).
To bring Hastings custody centre fully up to date new digital CCTV must be installed and a complete new air conditioning system is needed too. The specification for the air conditioning system is prescriptive, modern regulations require that each cell must have six complete changes of air every hour for example.
Other elements of the building have to be constructed to very specific tolerances. There can be no gaps round doors of any more than two millimetres, likewise the holes in the mesh across the air conditioning ducts must also be less than 2mm and drainage from toilets and sinks within each cell also need to be specially designed. All these measures are deemed necessary to ensure that prisoners are unable to injure themselves or even attempt to kill themselves.
Chief Inspector Phelps explained that although full plans have now been finalised for how the revamped custody facility will look when its finished it will be several months yet before the facility reopens. Plans must go out to tender and a contractor selected before work can start.
On average Hastings custody centre dealt with seven prisoners per day according to Mr Phelps and until the Hastings facility is ready to re-open those prisoners are being transported to and from Eastbourne police station’s custody centre. It’s a situation that is known to have been a concern to members of the Hastings legal profession.
Under plans drawn up by Sussex Police there will be six custody centres across Sussex, these will be at Worthing, Crawley, Chichester, Brighton, Eastbourne and Hastings. Sussex Police last reviewed its custody facilities in 2002 and says there have been recent discussions to help it keep pace with what it says are ‘significant changing demands on the service’.