THE first full inspection of court custody facilities in the North-East has painted a damning picture of the conditions faced by prisoners.

An inspection of custody suites by HM Inspectorate of Prisons declared cells at Newcastle Magistrates Court as “deplorable” and suggested they should be completely refurbished or closed.

Cells at Newcastle Crown Court Moot Hall were described as “ancient and dungeon-like” and deemed poor at four other sites, Newton Aycliffe, Sunderland and Teesside Magistrates and Newcastle Crown Court.

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At Aycliffe, cell doors, wooden benches, toilet doors and ceilings contained graffiti, including a swastika in one cell.

Walls had not been recently painted and there were traces of food and other stains on them.

At Teesside Magistrates prisoners’ names had been burnt into ceilings, while a lift for those with disabilities had been out of action for several months.

Inspectors said cells at Durham Crown Court were tiny, claustrophobic and with no natural light, while at North Shields and Teesside Crown Court – both described as being in a reasonable condition – custody staff had repainted the cells themselves.

Nick Hardwick, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, said court managers needed to take a more active role in how custody suites were run by visiting them regularly to monitor standards.

A programme of deep cleaning should also be implemented.

The HMIP report covered four crown courts and 12 magistrates courts in Cleveland, Durham and Northumbria, which were inspected in August last year.

Custody staff were described as being “generally amiable and polite” with some well attuned to the needs of vulnerable detainees.

However inspectors found there was a lack of a thorough risk assessment on prisoners.

One member of staff reportedly said: “All I am bothered about is that no-one dies and no-one escapes.”

There was said to be widespread confusion about the separation of men, women and children, who were not always kept appropriately separate whether in vans or cell areas.

In some courts pregnant women also had to sit on hard benches for several hours.

There were also concerns about detention times with some prisoners from HMP Durham being held for periods of up to five hours while requests for their release were dealt with.

Mr Hardwick said: “Custody staff did their best to take care of detainees, in conditions which were in many cases poor, and with underdeveloped approaches to assessing and managing risk and to meeting legitimate needs.

“Improvements to buildings will require spending, but there is much that can be done to improve matters in the short term, especially if managers focus on the custody suites as an integral part of their role in running the courts.”

A spokeswoman for Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) said: ''HMCTS tries hard to be fully compliant with the latest standards.

''However, that is not always possible for a number of reasons, including physical constraints, which can be a particular problem in the case of the oldest courts. 

"Improvements can also be delayed or constrained by heritage or conservation issues.

''Since this inspection, a survey of all cells on the Cleveland, Durham and Northumbria estate has taken place, and a programme of remedial works identified, which will be completed by the end of the financial year.
''A programme of deep cleaning has also been commissioned for all courts in the North-East, which will be completed by the end of the financial year. "This will be followed by a regular programme of deep cleans for each custody suite thereafter."