Prison staff armed and extremely dangerous

Custodial manager Ash Bateman demonstrates the spray

On 9 October, Prisons Minister Rory Stewart announced that from January 2019 all officers in adult male prisons will be issued with the incapacitant spray PAVA, describing this as ‘a crucial step to help reduce serious harm in prisons’. The Prison Officers’ Association (POA) has long campaigned for its members to be provided with the substance and the nationwide roll-out follows what Stewart claimed was a ‘successful trial’ at four prisons. Nicki Jameson reports.

What is PAVA?

PAVA is an incapacitant spray, which is dispensed from a handheld canister in a liquid stream containing a 0.3% solution of pelargonic acid vanillylamide (PAVA) in a solvent of aqueous ethanol. It has an effective range of up to four metres but it is recommended that it be used from a distance of 1.25-2 metres for maximum accuracy. Sprayed into the eyes, it causes severe pain.

PAVA is significantly stronger than CS gas. Possession of either substance by a member of the public is an offence under Section 5 of the Fire­arms Act. It has been approved by the Home Office for use by police forces since 2004.

POA claims success

The POA celebrated the announcement, congratulating itself on having pushed the government into doing this, and making it clear it wants those working with women and children prisoners to be able to spray and blind them too. In a circular to members, National Chair Mark Fairhurst wrote:

‘It is due to your continued support, solidarity and unity that we have reached an agreement to equip staff with this vital piece of personal protective equipment. The protest action we staged on 14 September has yielded immediate results and the correct decision has been made in order to assist staff in quelling violence and to keep themselves and prisoners safe. Further discussions on equipping staff in the juvenile and female estate will continue. Staff in the open estate will be issued PAVA during night patrol state. The POA will continue to lobby for the private sector to issue their staff with PAVA.’

Not such a successful trial ...

The government had been considering issuing incapacitant spray to prison officers since 2016, and in December 2017 began a six-month pilot project at Wealstun, Risley, Preston and Hull prisons. At the time of the October 2018 announcement that the trial had been successful and the use of PAVA would therefore be extended nationwide, the report of the pilot had not been published. However, researcher Rob Allen obtained a copy via a Freedom of Information request and published it on his blog Unlocking Potential on 9 November.*

The PAVA in Prisons Project Evaluation Report does not describe the same picture of success painted by Rory Stewart. Instead, it says:

‘The... project 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.’

On the basis of information about PAVA use in prisons internationally, the report concluded: ‘... we should expect some staff to use PAVA in situations that extend beyond policy and training boundaries, and which would not meet with standards of professional behaviour or expectations set by external regulators.’

This was borne out in the pilot prisons, where: ‘The... project found staff using PAVA more quickly than they would a baton or C&R [control and restraint], and that some staff were developing an over-reliance on PAVA as a way of resolving conflict. The decision-making process was at times flawed, and it appears that some staff will use PAVA outside of guidelines...’

During the trial, PAVA was threatened or fully used 50 times across the four prisons. Of these, 18 occasions are described as prisoner-on-staff assaults and 14 as prisoner-on-prisoner assaults; the remainder consisted of eight cases of ‘passive non-compliance’, seven of ‘aggressive non-compliance’, two of active self-harm and one other unspecified ‘incident at height’. The example given of passive non-compliance 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.’

As Rob Allen points out: ‘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 22%)...were thought to have fallen outside of operational policy and expectations of professional conduct, and would therefore warrant further investigation.’

Deadly PAVA

Even before its introduction into prisons, PAVA has been controversial, with police using it against individuals staging peaceful protests and groups of football fans including children as young as 12. It can also be lethal: in August 2016, 50-year-old Alan Hay died the day after being PAVA-sprayed by Police Scotland officers.

Clamping down and tooling up

As Britain continues to hold over 90,000 prisoners in appalling conditions, violence within the system grows. For decades, the POA has repeatedly cried wolf to the effect that the central problem is staff shortages, even in high security prisons where staff ratios were at one stage virtually one on one. How­ever, as we highlighted in FRFI 265 (‘Chief Inspector says prison conditions worse than ever’), in the past five years, the effect of cutting staff numbers while herding ever more people into custody has genuinely begun to be felt across all medium and lower security prisons, the majority of which are beset with unprecedented levels of chaos and violence.

Prison itself is a weapon used by the capitalist state to brutalise and discipline the working class and even the most mild reform is currently nowhere on the agenda of any of the major political parties. Far from planning the large reduction in prison numbers which would be needed to ensure that those held behind bars receive the minimum of decent treatment, two more mega prisons are due to be built over the next three years. Meanwhile prison staff’s response to the situation continues to revolve around increasing demands for weaponry with which to further damage the people supposedly in their care. For any change to come, prisoners will need to begin – as they have done in the past – to organise together in their own interests.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! No 267, December 2018/January 2019


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