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Cops, robbers... and nurses

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As a custody nurse, Lorna Stephens cares for people who have anything from diabetes or drug dependency issues to depression


Snapping pictures of bloody clothes, lifting fingerprints and bagging evidence may seem more like a job for an investigator on the silver screen - but it is also all in a day’s work for those who work as custody nurses.

In February, Leeds Community Healthcare Trust was awarded a three-year contract to provide healthcare services in police custody suites in Leeds, Wakefield, Huddersfield, Halifax and Bradford. Physical and mental healthcare, as well as addiction services, will be provided on site to anyone who enters police custody.

Lorna Stephens, who

works as a custody nurse at Huddersfield, says it is rare that a detainee comes in who does not need medical assistance of some kind.

“For every person they book in there will be a health issue,” she says. “Most people now that are booked into custody are seen by the nurse. It is actually more rare that they don’t. Many suffer from anxiety or depression.”

Along with standard injuries, Ms Stephens says that custody nurses see people who have epilepsy, those dependent on alcohol who are experiencing withdrawal symptoms, and people with diabetes who need to be regularly tended to for blood-sugar monitoring. Initial assessments on booking give the nurses an idea of what care is likely to be needed while a detainee is with them.

Previously, custody nurses operated on an on-call system through a private company. Nurses would be phoned from centres when prisoners needed medical assistance, then travel to help them. In West Yorkshire’s contract, nurses are based at the custody suites, benefitting the nurses and those in custody.

“People are seen and processed straight away,” Ms Stephens says. “If they require medication, it is brought to them. Things are done quickly for them. A lot of people - for example, those who are drug or alcohol dependent - don’t look after themselves. If they have a dressing that needs renewing they go and get intoxicated. They may have access to healthcare, but they don’t use it.”

Custody nurses have become part of the booking process by being on site. With materials and problems at their fingertips, Ms Stephens says things are much easier and can be dealt with in a timely manner. She believes the biggest benefit is for those with social problems, such as drug or alcohol dependency, because they can get treatment rather than continue with substance abuse.

Along with treating injuries of detainees and police officers, custody nurses are also trained to handle forensic evidence that will be used in the legal process.

“We can work with some quite serious things - accused murderers or rapists. We are under pressure to make sure the evidence is collected correctly, bagged and labelled. If my documentation is good and clear, I will usually be asked for a statement by the police and to provide details of what I did and the time,” Ms Stephens says.

Before working as a custody nurse, Ms Stephens worked for five years in an accident and emergency department on medicine surgery, which she said benefitted her greatly in the ever-changing environment of a custody suite.

“In A&E you see everything,” she says. “Medical and surgical problems, as well as mental health problems -

it was quite helpful to know the pathway to refer people

to the appropriate services. It is always helpful when you have looked after it and dealt with it.”

As many problems as she deals with, Ms Stephens enjoys the unpredictability of her job because it keeps her on her toes.

“You can be doing something as basic as a dressing or a three-hour job that is a serious case,” she says. “You can be collecting evidence and documenting injuries, which is quite exciting. Every day is different and you never know what you are going to get.”

Abigail Holman

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