From drug dealing and possessing weapons to serious assaults and attempted murder – if it happens inside a Leeds prison then it is up to Detective Inspector David Roberts and his team to build the case.
Just over 700 incidents have been reported to Leeds District Prison Crime Team in the year or so since it was set up to lead the vast majority of police investigations at HMP Leeds, HMP Wealstun and Wetherby Young Offenders’ Institution.
Det Insp Roberts said: “While it seems like a lot of crimes in 12 months, you’ve got to realise these are people who have been sent to prison for committing crime. The challenge for us is to reduce it. Investigating more effectively is the way to do that because the prison population will realise we’re better at it.”
Just over half of the 708 incidents reported took place at HMP Leeds, the biggest of the three prisons covered.
Detective Sergeant Lee Stowe, who acts as the main daily contact for the prisons, said: “Assaults are common place. It’s our biggest area of business. Anything from minor assaults to attempted murders, we’ll have dealt with it.”
One such case was the attempt made by a Leeds prisoner to murder a fellow sex offender by strangling him with a ripped bed sheet in their cell. After an investigation by the team, he admitted the offence and was handed nine more years in jail.
“It’s really nasty business in prisons,” Det Sgt Stowe said. “They will try and do the most serious harm to people. We’ve got quite a lot of stabbing incidents that are currently in the criminal justice process.”
Makeshift weapons are fashioned by some, with one prisoner caught trying to use an axe made from a piece of wood broken off a pool table, glass from a smashed cell window and strips of ripped bed sheet.
Det Sgt Stowe said: “We recently had an assault which was a victimless prosecution. People didn’t want to talk to us. However, if we’ve got the evidence then we’re still going to with it.”
The reluctance of victims and witnesses to speak to police is one of the regular challenges for the team, particularly when those people are prisoners.
Prison officers can be a closed group too, though, and often feel a loyalty to their colleagues, Det Insp Roberts said.
“We have investigated some officers and they’ve been convicted – and we’ve still got to go into those prisons,” he said.
“Preservation of scenes in prisons is really problematic too. On the outside, it’s easy for us to put up tape and put an officer there. In some of the areas in prison, it’s not possible to stop people accessing it.”
It is here that training prison officers on scene preservation and promoting the use of bodyworn cameras is paying off.
Sgt Stowe said: “The cameras don’t lie. It helps protect the officers but it also protects other people. It’s reducing the number of assaults against prison officers.”
CCTV cameras on site, training prison staff on how to write statements, and access to prison documentation are all proving useful tools as well.
Beyond the prison walls, the team has also been working hard to build relationships with its counterparts regionally and nationally so they can learn from each other and get support with investigations.
It could be as simple as making an introduction, as was the case when the team needed to interview the victim of an assault at Wetherby who had been moved elsewhere.
Det Insp Roberts said: “Our officers travelled to the other side of Birmingham and he had been moved that day. We had a week to get the statement. The first request to do a legal visit at the other prison was rejected. We contacted the prison team in the area and they fixed it up the next day.”
The Crown Prosecution Service is now looking at how it can roll out the way it works with West Yorkshire Police’s dedicated prison investigators across the whole region.
Rachel Baldwin, its Yorkshire and Humberside crimes and prisons lead, said: “I’ve been working with West Yorkshire Police in my role for two years and over that time we have built a really constructive relationship.
“We are always looking at ways we can work together to increase the efficiency of our prosecutions.
“We now have a network of direct contacts in the police and in each prison which has enabled us to be able to deal efficiently with issues as they arise. The project has been a great success and we are looking to replicate this work at a regional level in future.”