Custody officer disciplined after prisoner uses razor blade to cut wrists while in police custody

A police custody officer has been disciplined after a prisoner at the Strand Road police station in Derry/Londonderry cut his wrists with a razor blade in June 2011.

Police Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, found that the prisoner should not have been given unsupervised access to a razor blade while washing.

During a pre-detention assessment the prisoner had told the custody officer that he was suffering from depression but had never self harmed.

He was placed under supervision at 30 minute intervals, which were adhered to by staff, but was left unsupervised for a period of nine minutes while showering.

This allowed him to cut both wrists with a razor blade supplied to him as part of a standard issue custody hygiene pack.

The prisoner had been transferred to Strand Road from Maghaberry Prison - where he was on remand for murder and attempted murder - for questioning about a separate offence of causing grievous bodily harm with intent.

Police Ombudsman investigators reviewed CCTV footage of the entire period of his detention. This showed that the 30 minute checks were adhered to and that he at no time had given any indication that he intended to self-harm or take his own life.

Two doctors examined him during his detention. One reported him to have been “calm and polite” with a “stable mental condition.” The other said he had expressed “no issues of any suicidal thoughts, plans or intent.”

Neither had he made any comments relating to self-harm to his solicitor.

After questioning, he was charged with GBH with intent, and was due to be taken to Londonderry Magistrates Court the following morning.

Shortly before 8.30am he was granted permission to shower and shave before his court appearance.

CCTV footage showed him being escorted to a shower block by a civilian custody officer, who gave him a hygiene pack containing toiletries, a razor blade and a towel. He then left the prisoner unsupervised while he took over supervision of a female prisoner who was being monitored by another civilian colleague.

When the second detention officer went to check on the prisoner nine minutes later, he found him sitting on a bench with blood coming from both wrists. The plastic housing of the razor was found to have been broken, and the razor itself exposed further by bending.

He was given first aid before an ambulance took him to Altnagelvin Hospital.

A detention officer said that while she was giving him first aid, the prisoner told her his head “was away with it” and he had decided to kill himself.

The Police Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, said the situation could have been prevented if the prisoner had been allowed to shower in private, and only given the razor to shave under supervision.

He recommended that the custody officer be disciplined, and that supervisory failings by the two civilian detention officers be brought to the attention of their management for appropriate action (the Police Ombudsman has no remit to make disciplinary recommendations against civilian police employees).

On the day of the incident, the PSNI issued guidance to staff at Strand Road that detainees “should be provided with shaving equipment only when they can be properly supervised.” The direction was issued service-wide several days later.

Dr Maguire also recommended that the PSNI should reinforce the importance of completing paperwork designed to identify risk factors when prisoners are transferred to police custody from other custody e.g. prison.

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