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Pepper Spray for Prison Officers

Pepper Spray for Prison Officers

Yasmin Karabasic, of our prison and public law team, with a keen passion in Human Rights and Justice has reviewed the recent announcement that prison officers will be given PAVA aka pepper spray.

This synthetic pepper spray temporality incapacitates those who it is sprayed upon.

In October this year, the Ministry of Justice announced its plans to equip prison officers with the infamous ‘PAVA spray’ to enable them to be better prepared to deal with prison violence.

Rory Stewart, Prisons Minister, under considerable pressure from the Prison Officers Association has announced that this new £2m investment is due to be rolled out this nationwide, and will ensure every prison officer in the adult male estate is equipped with PAVA spray.

This was following ‘successful’ pilot trials in 4 separate prisons, Hull, Preston, Risley in Warrington, and Wealstun in North Yorkshire.

The pilot esearch has now been released into the public domain and notes some concerning points:

  1. “The pilot was unable to establish that PAVA had any direct impact on levels of prison violence. Overall violence levels continued to rise across all of the pilot sites during the period, continuing previous trends.”
  2. PAVA was drawn or deployed in 50 incidents, involving 56 prisoners in the four pilot sites. These included prisoner on staff assaults, prisoner on prisoner assaults, passive non compliance, aggressive non-compliance and active self harm.
  3. “Staff across the pilot sites have made inconsistent decisions about when PAVA is justified. Despite clear training guidance saying that PAVA should be only used reactively, the pilot has recorded instances when PAVA was used to address passive non-compliance or to deal with situations that most people would agree do not fall within policy.”
  4. “Prisoners in particular think it is vital to have strong governance and rules about when PAVA should be used to prevent it being “sprayed around like air freshener”. Prisoners are worried about over-use and over-reliance on PAVA and this concern was also expressed by staff in one of the pilot sites in particular”
  5. “Prisoners and staff reported concerns that PAVA was being used in non-violent incidents for purposes of manipulation rather than protection. In these instances, use was seen as lacking in legitimacy. When PAVA was perceived to be overused prisoners also raised concerns about legitimacy”
  6. “PAVA was presented, if not deployed, in incidents of self-harm, incidents at height, and on individuals with significant mental health issues. In fact, whilst a majority of officers claimed to feel more confident in resolving conflict quickly and safely, as well as feeling more confident interacting with prisoners on the wings, officers witnessing incidents termed this as ‘misplaced confidence’. As Officer B in Case study 31 stated, PAVA “gives the people who aren’t confident that inner confidence to deal with situations maybe not in the right way”.”

It is extremely concerning to discover PAVA was used on individuals actively self-harming.

This new initiative has received some praise, yet this plan glosses over the real crisis we are facing in our prisons today.

The Prison System is thought to encompass both retributive and restorative justice, and only this way can it act as a deterrent for future offending. It is argued in many cases that the instalment of the PAVA spray initiative will neither act as retributive nor restorative justice. It is entirely adding to a culture of conflict, one in which we are so desperately trying to prevent in this country. For want of better words, it could be described as putting fuel on the fire in delicate circumstances, which should not be dealt by ‘incapacitating’ a human being.

And finally, “The chaotic nature of the prison context (the number of variables at play) make it impossible to draw robust conclusions on violence data.” Thus, with such negative comments, it is wondered how a £2m investment into this is justifiable. The only seemingly positive finding in this is that ‘when violence occurred staff felt better able to deal with it and better equipped to arrest escalation and prevent harm with PAVA’. What is clear is that a secure and stable set of rules needs to be in place before this is rolled out nationwide, and those who use PAVA spray must be accountable.

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