Where is the dignity in justice?

When someone is arrested and detained by the police they are innocent until proven guilty. But does our police custody system treat them as such? And how can notions of dignity improve police custody practices?

person sat in police custody graphic

Time has passed, but how much time you can’t be sure. There are no clocks in here. The walls are closing in on you as you wait, alone, with heavy cell doors slamming shut all around you and other detainees banging and shouting. A feeling of helplessness begins to creep in coupled with uncertainty. For people who are detained across the UK this reality is all too common – as Layla has discovered.

Layla Skinns is a Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice and Director of the Centre for Criminological Research at the University of Sheffield. As the twin of a criminal defence lawyer, Layla often heard stories of police custody facilities and the interactions between custody staff, solicitors and detainees. It was these stories that sparked a desire to understand the experiences of the people involved in the custody system and led her to her work today – researching and improving police custody practices. 

In England and Wales approximately 700,000 citizens are arrested and detained in police custody annually. Of these, some will be charged or cautioned by the police whilst others will be bailed, released under investigation or simply have no further action taken against them. This makes police custody an important site for everyday interactions between the public and the police. For many, these experiences are emotionally-charged and very difficult which makes the small things really matter. “The taking away of personal possessions such as wedding rings can cause a huge amount of upset,” explains Layla.

But there are much more distressing scenarios such as conducting a strip search. It’s incredibly hard to do in a dignified way, and is made even more difficult when the detainee is a woman. “Strip searching of women is supposed to be conducted by female staff but in such a male-dominated workplace this doesn’t always happen,” Layla continues. Simply having access to the time is another key aspect affecting a detainee’s experience of police custody. Not knowing how long you’ve been there or how much longer you have to wait can be frustrating and disorientating. It may even discourage detainees from making full use of the rights that are available to them.

Clocks showing passing time graphic

Through a research study which began in 2013, Layla has been developing a detailed understanding of how the processes within police custody are viewed through the eyes of both detainees and custody staff. The study is broken down into three phases. Phase one collected data from custody managers in 40 of the 43 forces in England and Wales. It showed patterns of custody delivery, including who worked there and in what capacity. It also highlighted the extent to which police custody has taken up civilianised roles (roles not conducted by police such as detention officers), and the extent to which police custody has been privatised.

Phase two involved observation in police custody and interviews with detainees and staff in four forces. Finally, phase three tested preliminary ideas about what good custody truly means through a survey of staff and detainees in 27 custody facilities in 13 police forces. “We found that staff must continuously balance competing priorities of safety, security, risk, cost effectiveness and the law, but what required greater priority was detainee dignity,” Layla explains.

During the study dignity became a recurring theme. “One of the things that was commonly said to us when we were interviewing detainees is that they just wanted to be treated like human beings. And it’s important to remember that at the point when they’re detained by police they are only suspects. There’s an allegation of wrongdoing but it’s not proven at that point,” says Layla. By framing what detainees repeatedly said in relation to the concept of dignity, particularly through ideas of human worth, Layla had a eureka moment. Dignity could be conceptualised, researched and used as the basis for improving police custody practices.

“Dignity works as the main strand in the research, and then around that we also began to pay careful attention to the idea of material conditions because we found that these have a huge bearing on the detainees and staff,” explains Layla. Material conditions encompass different aspects from the physical environment – what it feels like, the noises and the lighting – to what is physically in the room with the detainees, like blankets or books.

It’s not rocket science when you think about it but this is just as important for staff as it is for detainees. Where staff feel good in the environment they’re in, we found they’re more likely to treat detainees in a dignified fashion. This benefits the detainees but it also benefits staff too.

Professor Layla Skinns

Reader in Criminology at the University of Sheffield

It’s findings such as these that have contributed to the “Good police custody recommendations for practice guidelines”, which is now influencing police custody practice across the UK in different ways. These recommendations focus on changing police attitudes and interactions with detainees, improving training for officers, giving information to detainees about the process they’re going through, and improving overall material conditions. 

There are three key benefits to these recommended changes to police practices. The first is that detainees are more likely to accept their situation and cooperate with necessary police procedures. Secondly, better material conditions are likely to improve job satisfaction and reduce stress amongst custodial staff. And, finally, improved job satisfaction of custodial staff is shown to lead to stronger interpersonal relationships between staff and detainees, and more dignified treatment. Ultimately, the end result is detainees being treated like human beings as they should be. As Layla says, “in many respects, detainee dignity is an important goal in and of itself”.

Layla’s recommendations about police custody practices have seen uptake across England and Wales. Five forces were poised to trial implementing them in March until Covid-19 meant that this work had to be postponed, with a trial in one force due to resume in November 2020. Some are also trialling specific elements of them such as clocks in all detainee cells. Others have used the guidelines to overturn the use of undignified and ill-fitting ‘rip-proof’ clothing detainees are often forced to wear after a strip search or removal to the cells. Other forces have built the recommendations into their training.

Being trapped in a lifeless cell with no knowledge of how much time has passed and being treated as less than you’re worth is a situation many of us would rather avoid. And for detainees this is no different. They’re innocent until proven guilty and should be treated as such. Changing police custody standards to focus on dignity is just one step towards improving the situation for both staff and those detained.

Written by Alicia Shephard, Research Marketing and Content Coordinator

Graphics by Ella Marke, Visual Designer

Further information

The Good Police Custody project

The Pains of Police Detention, Off the Shelf

Relevant research

Pain in police detention: a critical point in the ‘penal painscape’?

“Treat Them as a Human Being”: Dignity in Police Detention and Its Implications for ‘good’ Police Custody



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