As the Wikipedia entry makes clear, a custody suite is not the same thing as a cell, or even a cell block, although of course it contains cells. (There are no custody suites in prisons, for example.) It’s a self-contained unit which must contain not only cells but – among other things - a custody desk; interview rooms with recording facilities; washing and toilet facilities specially fitted with traps so that solid objects can’t be flushed down; areas for medical examination and strip-searches; food storage and preparation areas. None of these facilities can be shared with other parts of the building – e.g. prisoners’ meals may not simply be brought from the police canteen, and officers may not use the prisoners’ toilet facilities.
The Grauniad was absolutely correct to use the term, since it’s highly unlikely that Hazell appeared on that video link from his cell; the obvious procedure would be to take him to one of the dedicated interview rooms in the suite, which would as a matter of course have all the necessary equipment.
Dave isn’t quite correct to say that by using the term the Grauniad was ‘specifically calling out the fact that he is a prisoner’. It’s quite possible for a person to be in a custody suite without ever being in a cell, and indeed even without being arrested. When anyone is taken to a police station to be questioned (as Hazell had been some days earlier), whether they are actually arrested or simply ‘invited’ to come, the questioning takes place in a designated interview room in the custody suite. (This is officially described as ‘helping police with their enquiries’: an ostensibly neutral description which in fact conveys to all British ears the strong implication that they are suspected of having committed the crime in question, or at the very least of knowing more about it than an honest person should.)
The term custody suite, and indeed the thing, is a product of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984. Before that, arrested people could be held in whatever cells the station happened to have, many of which were barely modernised from the original Victorian or Georgian lock-up, and a few of which were genuinely medieval. Questioning took place in whatever room was available, usually with no facilities for audio taping, often a long way from the cell. On the trip from cell to interview room and back, anything could happen – surreptitious disposal of evidence, encounters between prisoners, duffings-up in empty corridors. Lavatories and washbasins had no traps in them, which meant that items could be washed away (or could be presumed to have been washed away), or there might be no lavatories and the sanitary facilities might be no more than a covered bucket. Food might variously be supplied from the police canteen; sent out for from a local takeaway; brought in by the duty sergeant’s wife; or whatever.
P.A.C.E. laid down very specific standards for the manner and environment in which arrested persons were to be held and questioned, which required the construction of specially-designed, self-contained custody suites in which all this could happen. It created the post of the custody officer, who is legally responsible for verifying that this has been done properly in all respects. If the custody officer cannot do so, a prosecution can be thrown out. Quite minor faults in the facilities or layout of the custody suite itself can be enough for this to happen.
The Wiki entry omits to mention that Her Majesty’s [Revenue and] Customs, who have as many, indeed more, powers of arrest and detention as the police, also have custody suites of their own which are governed by the same Act. If Customs arrest you, they hold you themselves; they don’t hand you over to the police.
A dozen or so years ago the defence lawyers in an important drug smuggling trial challenged the prosecution on the grounds that the custody officer’s sightlines in the suite where the defendant had been held on his arrest were inadequate. My husband, who was a customs officer back then, was promptly dispatched to measure the suite, check the sight lines and take photographs, and was able to show that all was in fact as it should be. But the heads of Customs were alarmed enough by the challenge that they ordered a similar survey of all their custody suites. For the next couple of months I barely saw my other half as he criss-crossed our fair islands, checking custody suites at ports and airports from Dover to Falmouth to Aberdeen via Belfast: from the palatial accommodation at London Custom House, where the corridors are carpeted, the interview rooms are mahogany-panelled, and the day’s menu choices are presented to prisoners in a leatherette cover (‘Were we taking the piss? You bet we were’ says my husband), to one- and two-cell suites at fishing ports and regional airports. In one of the latter, he discovered, the cell walls were constructed only of plasterboard – fortunately none of the people detained there had noticed this and realised that they only needed to kick a hole in them quietly enough to be able to walk out. (I can’t tell you where that one was, just in case Customs still haven’t got round to upgrading the facilities yet.)