Spotlight on Security at Cygnet Hospital

SINCE a low/medium-secure psychiatric hospital opened three years ago, readers have voiced concerns over the robustness of the security measures in place. So Comet reporter Louise McEvoy decided to pay a visit to Cygnet Hospital in Stevenage, to meet with

SINCE a low/medium-secure psychiatric hospital opened three years ago, readers have voiced concerns over the robustness of the security measures in place.

So Comet reporter Louise McEvoy decided to pay a visit to Cygnet Hospital in Stevenage, to meet with hospital manager David Beattie and find out just how secure the building is.

The building of Cygnet started in April 2005 and the first patients were admitted on May 10 the following year.

The six wards were opened gradually, over a 12-month period, until the final ward opened on May 31, 2007.

Mr Beattie explained: "We would never open all of the wards at the same time. That way the patients are gradually and safely settled in, and the staff learn to understand the risks and are able to respond to potential problems before they arise."

All patients admitted to Cygnet have been sectioned under the Mental Health Act.

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Mr Beattie said that in the three years the hospital has been operating three patients have escaped.

Two escaped in 2006, with one female patient returning to the hospital about four hours later. The other, a male patient, was picked up by police in London about 14 hours after his escape and was returned to the hospital shortly after.

Mr Beattie said a number of staff were dismissed as a result of these escapes, and a design flaw in the building was also resolved.

In 2008, an adolescent patient exited the building because of a 10-second lapse in the electricity supply to the hospital, due to works being carried out elsewhere in the area by an electricity supplier.

Mr Beattie said the patient was closely followed by staff, was stopped shortly after leaving the building, and returned to Cygnet within one hour of the escape.

He added: "We have very robust procedural, relational and physical security features in place."

The hospital is surrounded by a 5.2m high security fence, which has additional security-related features attached to it.

On entering the hospital's reception area, visitors must surrender any contraband, which includes mobile phones, car keys and chewing gum.

Every few weeks, sniffer dogs are used to detect if any contraband has entered the hospital, either via staff, visitors or patients.

All access doors in the hospital are locked and can only be opened by members of staff. There are a number of airlocks within the hospital, where two doors will not open simultaneously.

There are also CCTV cameras all over the building, and there is a full-time head of security.

Hospital staff have monthly security meetings and also meet regularly with Herts Police to discuss high risk patients and security issues around the building.

Cygnet is preparing to admit its first patient from a high-secure hospital.

Mr Beattie has also confirmed at least another three patients from high-secure hospitals are likely to be transferred to Cygnet.

He said: "If there were any concerns about security, we wouldn't be allowed to admit high-secure patients.

"We also wouldn't be able to admit prisoners. If a hospital like this had repeat escapes, the Ministry of Justice would stop admissions of this type of patient."

Mr Beattie said Cygnet achieved an outstanding result in the Medium Secure Health Check undertaken by the Department of Health in May 2008. The focus of this check was security.

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