Meet the woman who goes into police station cells in the Portsmouth area

Vanessa Upton
Vanessa Upton
  • Team of 19 volunteers check on detainees in police cells
  • Independent volunteers visit Fareham, Portsmouth Central and Waterlooville cells
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Few people may know what she does and may never see her.

But Vanessa Upton plays a crucial role in the criminal justice system.

If it was my son, daughter, mother, father, brother or sister in custody, I would like to know there was someone that was going in and doing these checks

Vanessa Upton

The 44-year-old swimming instructor from Warsash goes into police station cells to make sure people who have been arrested have their rights upheld.

As a convenor for the Independent Custody Visiting Association, Vanessa speaks with arrested people, looks at the condition of facilities and also co-ordinates volunteers.

Her team of visitors is responsible for checking up on Waterlooville, Portsmouth Central and Fareham stations’ cells.

Working in pairs the volunteers can drop go in at any time without prior warning.

‘The first time you go into custody it’s quite an intimidating environment and that’s why I think what we do is so important,’ Vanessa says.

‘Detainees who have not been in custody before, they’re having their liberty removed, their property removed.

‘It’s a very unfamiliar environment. To have a friendly face to check on you must be very reassuring.

‘Certainly the very first time I went in with my mentor, it’s quite an intimidating place.

‘It’s very rare that you go into custody and it’s hell.

’The more that you go into custody the more you realise it’s not intimidating, it’s place of safety and care.’

Visitors speak with police officers and interview as many detainees as possible.

Vanessa adds: ‘If there are particularly violent detainees or detainees under the influence of drugs or drink then we might be advised not to go and interview them.’

People in custody have certain rights, including free legal advice, having someone told where they are, to be fed and have their medical needs looked after.

It is those that the volunteers are checking on.

Visitors never know the detainee’s name so as to ensure they treat everybody the same.

They also look at food preparation areas, blanket stores and the medical room.

Anything not up to scratch is flagged up with custody staff immediately.

If a problem cannot be fixed then it is reported to Hampshire’s police and crime commissioners Simon Hayes’ office.

Vanessa added: ‘There are occasional times when things aren’t quite as good as we expected but that’s the very nature of the beast.

‘Thankfully they’re few and far between.’

Vanessa has also seen an improvement since the force pledged to reduce the number of people with mental health problems detained in the cells.

Figures show 15 children were held in cells under section 136 of the Mental Health Act.

This included one for less than 24 hours between January and March last year.

Between April last year and July 10 children were taken to a place of safety, not cells.

She said: ‘Custody is definitely not the right place for people with mental health issues.’

Busy cells are visited about once a week, with quieter suites seen once every 10 days.

Vanessa runs the south east panel, with others running volunteers in the south west, north and on the Isle of Wight.

Her 19-strong team is made up of carers, insurance brokers, retired people, criminology students and ex-military officers.

Each will only have to do one visit a month.

Vanessa joined 10 years ago after seeing an advert in a newspaper.

Volunteers go through a tough interview process and are vetted by Hampshire Constabulary. Applicants then have a one-day training course. If successful they do six months on probation and are interviewed again.

If the office is happy then the volunteer is taken on for another two and a half years.

A review is held every three years and there is continuous training.

In October last year Mr Hayes announced the police installed new display units for religious materials in cells.

This was done as a direct result of two visits by a volunteer.

Vanessa adds: ‘If it was my son, daughter, mother, father, brother or sister in custody, I would like to know there was someone that was going in and doing these checks.

‘We’re all human and people need to be treated as such.’

Mr Hayes said: ‘People held in detention may be vulnerable and these checks provide an opportunity to ensure that the conditions in which they are held are suitable, and that their rights are being respected.’

Anyone interested in joining the scheme cannot be employed by Hampshire Constabulary and need to be 18 or older.