Exclusive look inside Forest Gate custody lock-up
- Credit: Archant
An ashen-faced woman alleged to have slashed her partner with a 10inch serrated knife is led in by two police officers.
It’s 9am on a Wednesday and this is my rather abrupt introduction to Forest Gate’s custody suite, one of the busiest across the entire Metropolitan Police force.
The 26-year-old is suspected of GBH, with the wounds across her partner’s back, stomach and bicep expected to require gluing.
“This knife is normally used in the kitchen,” custody sergeant Raj, who asks me not to use his full name, says with a rueful smile.
Of course he’s seen it all before, including Dirty Harry-style guns complete with homemade ammunition being seized by officers.
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But as the huge knife is being bagged up as evidence, I spot blood on its handle and can’t help but be slightly taken aback by the horrible insight into what it was supposedly used for.
The woman speaks limited English but luckily one of the officers who arrested her is fluent in Portguese and can act as a translator to help complete a compulsory questionnaire which assesses her physical and mental needs.
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Raj can speak Tamil and Senegalese, while other Designated Detention Officers (DDOs) on his team can speak Punjabi, Russian and Lithuanian – which often comes in useful due to the multitude of nationalities that they deal with on a daily basis.
Seven of the 16 cells are already occupied by the time I arrive – three men locked up for immigration matters, a woman suspected of committing ABH and a 16-year-old boy believed to have kidnapped a 13-year-old girl.
There’s also a man in for stealing from a shop (who had £10,000 in cash in his pocket when he was arrested) and another accused of perverting the course of justice. He unsuccessfully tried to board a flight from Manchester Airport but checks at passport control showed that he was wanted by the police.
“Most of the people we see arrested are suspected of domestic violence, shoplifting and more serious crimes, like stabbings, rape and murder,” Raj explains. “From bank managers to school kids, people from all walks of life end up in here.
“The turnover is so high and we easily see between 20 and 30 arrests a day. Within a very short period of time, all the cells can be full.”
Then people are shipped off to the Freshwater Wharf custody base in neighbouring Barking or the Leyton Custody Centre, both of which act as overspill.
The “knife-wielding” lady is being asked to remove her belt, shoelaces and hairband to prevent her causing harm to herself when a man is brought in.
He’s been arrested for harassment and breach of his prison release conditions by allegedly setting up a false Facebook account to speak to somebody he is banned from contacting.
When officers arrested him, he claimed to need the toilet and unsuccessfully tried to discard a memory stick, which is now being carefully placed in an evidence bag.
I feel a bit uncomfortable as he gets increasingly aggressive and uncooperative, repeatedly murmuring “I don’t trust you” to officers.
A search of his records shows that he’s been in and out of jail between 1997 and 2011 for various crimes.
A doctor arrives to assess injuries and the mental state of several of those detained while Superintendent Ian Larnder is called down to give permission to extend the detention time of the boy accused of kidnapping.
Officers have 24 hours to try and identify a charge. After this point, detainees are released or an extension must be approved from the borough commander or a superintendent.
There is a welcome lull and what seems like a rare moment of quiet – a word DDO Nicola Bailey explains the custody team avoid saying for fear of “jinxing” it.
She’s the only female member of the five-strong team and as a result sometimes faces odd behaviour from those locked up.
“One time I was doing a constant watch and a man stripped naked and starting dancing on the bed,” she recalls. “It can be intimidating and you do get aggression and abuse but you are kind of trained to deal with it.”
“It can be just as dangerous, if not more, inside here compared to out on the streets,” Raj adds. “There are roll arounds [fights] and everything falls on my head.”
Raj takes me on a quick tour, pointing out the ominous looking red strips which line the perimeter of rooms and sound an emergency alarm, plus the CCTV in corridors to keep the officers and prisoners safe.
Unusually, a man has handed himself in for overstaying at the police station’s front desk and the team begin the process of detaining him.
Ten of the cells are now full and it’s only just 10.30am.
A call comes in to say that a car is enroute to take the four men locked up for immigration matters to a Home Office detention centre where they’ll be questioned before deportation.
Raj looks relieved. He needs some cells empty to deal with what is set to come in the remainder of his hectic 12 hour shift.