The Home Secretary is being urged to introduce guidelines for police to deal with women detainees on their periods, following reports that they are being “routinely ignored” and left to “bleed out”.
The Independent Custody Visiting Association (ICVA) believes the way menstruating suspects are being treated in police detention could be in breach of human rights and equality laws and has called on Amber Rudd to take “swift action” to address it.
The ICVA - which is funded by the Home Office - has written to Rudd saying women in England and Wales are often held in police cells without access to hygienic sanitary protection or facilities for washing and changing.
The situation was further compounded, the ICVA said, because many women detainees were not able to speak to a female police officer, or there weren’t enough on duty.
“No woman or girl should be left in indignity by police officers for want of a difficult conversation or an inexpensive box of tampons,” the letter to Rudd - which has also been sent to Women and Equalities Minister Justine Greening and David Isaac, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission - reads.
In a post on Facebook, Dame Vera Baird, Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria, backed the ICVA’s calls, writing: “Failure by police to give good quality sanitary protection packages automatically to all female detainees is lamentable.
“ICVA have stories from a number of women about being left without adequate protection, simply to bleed. Apparently, one inspection found tampons on a police store beyond their expiry date, when they can cause toxic shock, capable of being fatal.
Police and Crime Commissioner for Sussex, Katy Bourne, tweeted her support the the campaign on Thursday, applauding the ICVA for “highlighting” the issue.
The ICVA provided Rudd with the example of one woman who had her clothes removed and was dressed in only a paper suit, despite having her period.
It said the woman was denied any sanitary protection: “She was left in a state of vulnerability sufficient to cause concern for her wellbeing, bleeding in a paper suit, alone in a cell.”
This must immediately stop and police must revise their process. Women must not be required to ask male custody officers for sanitary protection but must be given automatically and at repeat intervals throughout detention. There should be automatic access to a female officer too.” Dame Vera Baird, Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria
Speaking on the BBC Today programme on Thursday the IVCA’s Chief Executive, Katie Kempen, was unable to detail how widespread the problem was, as its volunteers only “see a percentage” of the nearly 120,000 female detainees held each year in the UK.
“We don’t know how many have been left to bleed out,” she said, adding that the type of women passing through police stations are often “vulnerable... they won’t have a voice to complain or mention things”.
Working with the National Police Chiefs’ Council, the IVCA said it has identified a number of “problems we need to solve”, from the number of female officers working, the fact detainees are often too “overwhelmed” to ask for help and that products are denied due to police’s “approach to risk... which sometimes is done with the best intentions”.
Kempen argued that if the risk to detainees personal safety was that high they should be “constantly monitored”.
She said the IVCA had received a “fantastic response” from civil servants about its concerns and was “hopeful” guidelines would be implemented nationally.
The maximum amount of time people can be held in custody is four days, with judicial authorisation. That increases to two weeks under terrorism legislation.
The Home Office has said it is working with the ICVA and the National Police Chiefs’ Council “to understand where improvements can be made on this issue”.
National Police Chiefs’ Council Lead for Custody, Assistant Chief Constable Nev Kemp said in a statement on Thursday that the police service is “committed to upholding the highest custody standards to ensure that all detainees are treated in the right and proper way”, but confirmed there has been a “very small number of detainees affected by inadequate sanitary protection”.
Kemp said: “We regularly facilitate unannounced, independent inspections of custody units and use the feedback to improve our approach.
“Although there have only been a very small number of detainees affected by inadequate sanitary protection, we are committed to achieving greater consistency across the country so that women in custody are always treated with dignity and respect.
“In consultation with women’s groups and other organisations, we are in the process of developing comprehensive guidance for officers on how to deal with these sensitive and often complex cases.”
Recommendations from the IVCA include:
During the booking-in process, women detainees should be asked about their needs in private
They should be provided a female officer point of contact
A hygiene pack should be offered automatically to all women, with a fresh pack offered after six hours
Hand-washing facilities must be available
CCTV monitoring should be pixelated or alternative arrangements made to allow women detainees to change in private
Where the removal of clothes is necessary due to risk of self-harm, the removal of sanitary protection should be subject to individual risk assessment