Men, women and children should not be transported between courts and prisons in the same vehicles, the Chief Inspector of Prisons has said.
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) found escort vans run by private contractors GeoAmey, Serco Wincanton and Secure Escort Services for Children and Young People (SESCYP), carried a mixture of men, women and children, sometimes without the required screen placed between them.
HMIP also found few prisoners on longer journeys were offered a “comfort break” to use the toilet and instead had to use a liquid absorbing gel-bag while the van was on the move.
In addition, the inspection found there are no seat belts and detainees complained of being thrown around in the escort van as it travelled.
Nick Hardwick, chief inspector of prisons, said: “Escorts are a critical part of the custodial process – for detainees new to custody and in particular for those, like children, who might be particularly vulnerable, the effectiveness with which the process is managed may allay or inflame tensions and fears.”
He went on: “For good reason, great efforts are made to keep children, women and men separate in custody and it is wholly inappropriate that they are transported in the same vehicles.”
Mr Hardwick added that a greater use of virtual courts and video link would mean fewer escort journeys had to take place.
Between October 2013 and September 2014, there were 818,168 escorted journeys of men, women and children provided by Prisoner Escort and Custody Services (PECS), which is run by GeoAmey and Serco Wincanton, at a cost of £128.2 million.
There were 3,962 escorts of younger or more vulnerable children to or from Secure Training Centres, provided by SESCYP, in a four-year contract costing £9.1 million.
Inspectors said detainees generally reported that escort staff treated them well, although those from minority groups were less positive.
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “From this grim report it’s clear that the transportation of livestock in this country is better regulated and managed than the transport of men, women and children between courts and custody.”
Prisons Minister Andrew Selous said: “The safety and security of those we escort is of paramount importance and we work closely with our contractors to ensure that standards are maintained.
“By transporting different categories of prisoner together we have improved the service by offering greater flexibility and reducing overall costs, without compromising safety and decency. In total our current contracts are saving taxpayers more than £250 million over a seven-year period.
“We are considering the recommendations made by the Chief Inspector and have already started tackling a number of the issues raised. Importantly, we have made a clear commitment to increasing the use of virtual courts and video links.”