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Guest blog - volunteering as an independent custody visitor during lockdown

Our latest guest blog comes from Natalie Hill, who describes the amazing work our volunteers have done visiting people held in police custody throughout the Covid-19 lockdown - one of the few schemes in the country to continue doing so.

“So, how was your lockdown?” – A question I have been asked by many friends, many times recently. 

This is usually followed with a story about how they’ve learnt a new language, completed a video game they have owned for years, or baked multiple loaves of bread.

However, as an Independent Custody Visitor (ICV) my lockdown was a little bit different…

Independent custody visitor Natalie Hill

The COVID-19 pandemic changed life as we knew it, and everyone needed to find new ways to do the things we used to do naturally. Police custody was no exception to this.

As the UK went into lockdown, shops and businesses shut down or paused for months, and the public stayed behind closed doors. However, policing could not do so, and continued to serve the public under extraordinary circumstances. With custody continuing, and knowing that vulnerable detainees were likely to be held there, monitoring became increasingly important to ensure that the human rights, dignity, and welfare of those held there was being maintained even under increased pressure.

In March 2020, ICVs were classified as key workers, allowing visits to continue during lockdown. Of course, those visits were subject to the same challenges as all other organisations and, so, we also needed to find new ways of working. 

Dorset’s ICV Scheme rose to the challenge!

independent custody visitors

While some schemes understandably completed visits remotely, or adapted to speaking with staff and detainees via an intercom, ICVs in Dorset sought to maintain our usual visiting practises, safely. Ultimately, Dorset’s ICVs continued with physical unannounced visits to custody throughout the lockdown. We were one of only a few to do so.

We spoke with staff and detainees in person. We had access to soap and water before and after visits, as well as facemasks and latex gloves to wear if we couldn’t provide our own. We are also able to socially distance during the visit and while reviewing detention logs.

ICVs who have worked in the car industry shared knowledge about the safe removal of disposable gloves and others gifted each other homemade face masks, in various patterns and colours.

Some of the ICVs found that they, or those they live with, needed to be shielded and physical visits to custody became impossible for them. However, many ICVs stayed in touch with each other remotely, offering support to the Scheme and companionship to each other through lockdown.

Why go to all this effort if visits could be done remotely?

As well as the checks we would usually complete, we were also able to check on how the pandemic had impacted custody and complete additional checks during visits. As the pandemic began, we were able to check on new hygiene standards in custody and identify any issues with access to soap and water.

We were also able to note if there were issues with Solicitors and Appropriate Adults being engaged with. By completing physical unannounced visits during this time, we would also highlight just what it was like on the ground and how this could impact staff and detainees.

As the UK later went into full lockdown, ICVs kept close to changes rolled out to continue to feed back on detainee welfare and new processes, such as virtual courts. By continuing to complete physical visits, we were able to provide the public with reassurance that custody is both safe and dignified.

Moving forwards, like many other organisations, the pandemic has provided us with the platform to rethink how we work. I am looking forward to our first virtual Panel meeting in July, and we are still working on how we can deliver more of our training virtually in the future.

ICVs in Dorset are extremely proud to have continued custody visiting during the Covid-19 pandemic, but this could not have been achieved without the commitment of the whole ICV Panel, Dorset Police’s custody staff and our lovely Scheme Manager, Yvonne Fenwick.

I am grateful for all their support and inspiration in recent months. I look forward to seeing them in person, to share a cup of tea and plate of biscuits!

To find out more about what independent custody visiting involves, please visit:

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