Last month , Prisons Minister Rory Stewart announced that every officer in an adult male prison will be equipped with PAVA – a synthetic pepper spray which can be used to incapacitate violent prisoners. The £2 million investment followed what was described as “a successful pilot”.
The government made no secret of the trial which took place in four prisons, but did not publish the evaluation. Having received it via a Freedom of Information request – well done to HMPPS for responding positively- I can see why.
For one thing the pilot “was unable to conclusively demonstrate that PAVA had any direct impact on levels of prison violence. Overall violence levels continued to rise across all of the pilot (and comparator) sites during the period, continuing previous trends. When violence did occur, “staff felt better able to deal with it and better equipped to arrest escalation and prevent harm with PAVA”. This seems the main criterion for success.
What’s worrying though is that “some staff were developing an over-reliance on PAVA as a way of resolving conflict.’' PAVA was drawn (taken out of the holster) or sprayed in 50 incidents in the pilot prisons. 18 of these were prisoner on staff assaults and 14 prisoner on prisoner assaults- the kinds of cases the spray is designed to stop. The other incidents comprised eight cases of passive non- compliance, seven of aggressive non-compliance, two of active self- harm and one other (an unspecified “incident at height”).
The example of passive non- compliance given in the study is: “Prisoner refuses to return to his cell, gripping the landing railings and refuses to move. Officer fears it will escalate to fight with other prisoners.” This is presumably one of the incidents the evaluators mean when they say "staff used PAVA to enforce rules and gain compliance when it was not clearly the last resort or when more time could have been spent talking".
This is some way from the use of the spray as a “personal protection aid, for staff to use reactively to defend themselves or others against serious attack”- which is what ministers were told it was for. Indeed a panel who reviewed each of the incidents thought between 2 and 11 (between 4 and to 22%) of the 50 incidents were thought to have fallen outside of operational policy and expectations of professional conduct, and would therefore warrant further investigation.
While no uses of PAVA were thought to have breached the law, puzzlingly the report claims there is a grey area between use of force that is legally justified and that which is professional and legitimate. Whatever that means, the evaluators estimate there will be a significant number of investigations into inappropriate or excessive use of what some staff refer to as "C&R in a can".
Prisoners and staff expressed mixed views on PAVA’s effect on relationships. Some prisoners had considerable concerns about overuse and procedural injustice, focusing on increasingly controlling and coercive behaviour of staff. Other prisoners saw the introduction of PAVA as necessary.
Staff were positive despite some being affected in 13 of the 33 cases where the spray was actually discharged. One of those described the experience as "nasty, unbearable, like your skin peeling off, as if you have been acid attacked" Troublingly, in the light of this, "staff played down their descriptions of the impact of PAVA on prisoners, describing it as a minor use of force”.
The evaluation concludes that what is very clear is the need for high quality governance and scrutiny of use of force and the need for clear leadership messages from governors to set expectations of a professional standard of use. Amen to that.