Social work students in custody suites

Posted on Wednesday 12th December 2012

PolicemenSOCIAL work students are gaining experience behind bars in a unique initiative that sees them help care for vulnerable detainees in police custody.

Final year MA and BA undergraduates from Birmingham University have assisted in monitoring prisoners deemed a self-harm risk or with medical conditions, whilst offering emotional and practical support to others.

Ten students – all of whom received training on cell safety, custody procedures and legal issues, plus time shadowing experienced staff – took part in the three-month pilot project at Birmingham’s Steelhouse Lane police station.

Collectively they completed 360 hours worth of CCTV and cell-door watch – and it’s meant officers regularly drafted in to help monitor inmates were freed up to police communities and respond to emergency calls.

West Midlands Police Sergeant Andy Tanner is behind the Custody Placement Project. He said: “The students bring an academic approach to issues like mental health, drug addiction, social deprivation and causes of crime…they have been a hugely valuable addition to the custody block.

“Prisoners have responded positively: there’s not been a single case of aggression, threats or abuse directed at students.

“Students offer a listening ear, advice and information about support services that could help prisoners. Sometimes detainees prefer talking to a young social work student rather than a police officer…they feel they can open up more.

“Recently a student spent several hours with a man upset after being charged with an offence. He told the student he normally struggled to confide in others and that the chat had done him good.

“Importantly, though, the project also provides future social workers with experience caring for vulnerable adults and juveniles…that’s invaluable for their careers.”

The project has proved so successful that the force is planning to roll out the initiative to custody suites in Wolverhampton, Bournville and Coventry in conjunction with other universities. 

Birmingham University Social Work Education Director Gary Hickman, said: "It's offering our studens exposure to people with a range of issues in a challenging work setting. It's an ideal development opportunity and will help prepare them for their future career. All students agreed they would recommend this opportunity to fellow students; the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and should increase their employability in what is a competitive job market."

And student Kamal Kaur, added: “Communication skills are essential for social workers and this project has helped immensely. I’ve had chance to speak with several prisoners – often it’s challenging because they may feel they’ve been unfairly arrested or are simply angry they’ve been caught.

“I was surprised with the high level of respect a prisoner is given by custody staff…it helps diffuse confrontations. Detainees can tend to initially be un-cooperative but many I’ve spoken to have welcomed the chance to talk about their lives and families, plus also their criminal behaviour and the causes of it.”

Sgt Tanner stressed the project was professionally risk assessed and that undergraduates don’t escort or interview detainees.

He added: “The safety of students is paramount. The half-hourly visits and rousals are done by custody staff in the normal way; prisoners are risk assessed and searched to ensure they are suitable for students to monitor or engage with.”

All students were CRB checked and vetted before being allowed onto the project.

More information

If you would like more information about this or about studying social work at Birmingham, please contact Gary Hickman, Director of Social Work Programmes,