Heyfield’s Carolyn Escreet has won the Victoria Police inaugural custody practitioner of the year award.

Most days the police custody officer (PCO) drives to Morwell and settles into a day, or night, of work.

PCOs are at the frontline when it comes to people in ‘the lock up’.

They feed them, care for them, recommend if they need medical treatment and escort them to and from court hearings.

Morwell is one of regional Victoria’s bigger police stations and has the capacity to hold 10 people overnight.

Last Thursday at 7am there were five occupied cells.

PCOs wear badges, but are not police officers, rather public servants tasked with looking out for people who have landed themselves in a police cell.

They wear grey, not blue and “we consider our grey as a bit of a bargaining tool also, people often don’t know why we’re here”.

“You’re often seeing people on the worst day of their life,” said Carolyn, “they’re in need of empathy and understanding – some of them at least.

“You see their highs and lows, sometimes people are suicidal, it can be very confronting, but if you’ve talked someone around, then you’ve shared something with them, it’s a very privileged position to have.

“I’m both lucky and privileged, I always had parents who cared for me, were there for me, took me to sport, travelled for sport, I had a good family life – a lot of people are not so lucky,” she said.

Carolyn Escreet in the underground tunnel between the Morwell police station and the courthouse.Photos: Daniel Pedersen

While apportioning blame is not part of her role, as a parent to four children and grandparent to another four, she feels the pain of an individual’s failure.

“Heyfield-born and bred” Carolyn was among the first intakes of PCOs. In youth she’d had aspirations of becoming a police officer, but university, marriage, a home, children and a career as an accountant intervened.

PCOs first arrived in Victoria in 2016, when studies identified taking police officers away from the daily responsibility for people in cells meant more time for policing.

Carolyn undertook eight weeks of intensive training at Victoria’s Police Academy then debuted in Morwell in 2017.

Since then she has become a supervisor and is author of guidelines available to police officers, who don’t get the level of training a PCO does when it comes to handling people in custody.

The guidelines and a checklist for police officers came in a ‘light-bulb’ moment at an annual conference of PCOs; they’re now available for use by all police officers.

Empathy is a recurring theme in Mrs Escreet’s description of what she does.

“Family violence, opportunistic theft and drugs,” she says, when asked the most common reason people end up in one of Morwell’s cells.

The drug ice lands a lot of people in a lockup, somewhere they never would have been but for their use of the drug.

“Sometimes you see the same people, you watch their demise, their ever-diminishing bodies, they diminish in size and behaviour, and you’re witness to it,” she says sadly.

“Sometimes when they come in they don’t recognise you, they might literally run around the cell for hours, cutting tiny laps, then become tired and sleep – and sleep – sometimes we have to wake them up to make sure they eat.

“Then, once they’ve made it through that phase, they recognise you and are glad to see a familiar face.”

Because of the confronting nature of the role, it is a struggle to find people prepared to do it.

Everything is reported, every meal, whether a person refuses to eat, if they’ve been visited by a legal representative, whether someone has dropped off clothes for them, if they’re vulnerable, whether they’ve been searched, every single event is documented.

Sometimes people don’t even make it from the police divisional van to a cell; should a PCO determine they’re in need of medical attention, they can be diverted to hospital immediately.

In Gippsland just Bairnsdale, Sale and Morwell police stations have PCOs, across the state that extends to Mildura, Horsham, Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong.

A place most people hope they don’t end up, one of the class ‘A’ cells at Morwell police station.

On any given day, there could be as many as eight PCOs in Morwell court accompanying prisoners. A shift’s full complement is 22 PCOs and six supervisors.

 

There are four shifts daily, there’s 9am-5pm, 7am-3pm, 3pm-11pm and 11pm-7am.

“We’re low on numbers at the moment and we’ve had police coming in,” said Carolyn, explaining it was discussing obvious police training deficiencies with a duty sergeant that seeded her checklist and guidelines concept.

It’s not a job for everyone, but can be a beginning for someone who aspires to becoming a police officer.

“They can dip their toes in the water,” Carolyn said.

She recommends some previous work or world experience for someone contemplating the role because “we regularly get abused, but then we had a lass in who’d worked at Woolies and she was fine, saying ‘We always got abused at Woolies, this is nothing’”.

Traralgon, Moe, Warragul, Wonthaggi and Korumburra are the ‘feeding pools’ for Morwell station, which has class ‘A’ cells suitable for overnight detention, cells that PCOs also have to clean.

“We’ve been complimented on the cleanliness of our cells when bosses have come down from Melbourne,” said Carolyn, obviously taking pride in one of the more mundane roles she’s expected to perform.

She mentions protecting people’s human rights in the same sentence as discussing where it’s okay to take a photograph and cleaning cells.

PCOs are also responsible for signing weapons in and out for police officers, and detainee searches.

There’s general searches and then there’s full searches, reserved for those with a weapons or drug history.

“Everything is on camera,” she said, the full searches are even on camera for posterity’s sake “if there’s a complaint, but they aren’t broadcast for whoever might be walking by to see”.

Carolyn said COVID had changed the justice system, and now audio-visual hearings were possible, which was a good thing.

“At least now you don’t have people transported from Melbourne appearing in court here and being released without any of their worldly possessions and with nowhere to go,” she said.

PCOs also escort people being released to Centrelink to access whatever benefits might be available to them.

Deaths in custody – it’s a conversation stopper, even between two people who know the topic will inevitably be breached.

“We have never had a death in custody in Morwell,” said Carolyn, quite proud of the record and one she’s determined to maintain.

Carolyn Escreet is one of our community’s unsung heroes.

She still lives in Heyfield and was president of the Heyfield Football Netball Club for eight years and also does part-time work for Ambulance Victoria as a community officer.

At Heyfield, a community officer for Ambulance Victoria could find themselves deployed as far afield as Licola, administering emergency-response medicine, stabilising patients and feeding paramedics en-route situation reports, filling them in about what to expect.

Next year will mark a decade in that role.

“My husband says I’m a glutton for punishment. Tomorrow’s my day off and I’ve got a 12-hour Ambulance Victoria shift.

“I do it for the community,” she said.