Government accused of ‘secretly’ rolling out pepper spray in prisons during pandemic

‘The prison service is not in control of the weapon it’s put into officers’ hands. The rollout has to stop,’ says Prison Reform Trust

Chiara Giordano
Monday 08 November 2021 12:47
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<p>Prison inspectors found incidents involving the use of Pava pepper spray at HMP Hull were ‘not necessary and sometimes not proportionate or safe’</p>

Prison inspectors found incidents involving the use of Pava pepper spray at HMP Hull were ‘not necessary and sometimes not proportionate or safe’

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The government has been accused of “secretly” accelerating the rollout of pepper spray in adult male closed prisons during the coronavirus pandemic.

Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust (PRT), has called for Pava spray to be withdrawn from prisons where use of the “weapon” has been found to be “unnecessary, disproportionate and unsafe”.

His warning comes after the prison watchdog raised concerns about use of the spray following unannounced inspections at HMP Hull and HMP/YOI Swinfen Hall.

Mr Dawson, a former prison governor, claimed the substance had been quietly rolled out to all adult male closed prisons in England and Wales during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic last year.

He believes the rollout continued despite the pandemic because of concerns about disorder and low staffing levels – at a time when many prisoners were spending more than 22 hours locked inside their cells.

“Our worries were really sparked partly by the way it was introduced, which was pretty secretive,” he told The Independent. “We’ve been particularly concerned that it’s an extreme use of force.

“We actually got in touch with the Ministry [of Justice] and said can you give us an assurance that the rollout of Pava will stop during the pandemic because you’re not going to be in a position to deliver all the assurances you’ve given and we were told it would – and then we discovered literally within a matter of a few weeks that the decision had been taken to roll it out to all adult male prisons.

“It was very shocking because it was the reverse of what we had been told to expect. There was no public announcement of the rollout being extended.”

Dame Anne Owers, national chair of the Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs), made up of volunteers who have unrestricted access to their local prison, also submitted evidence to the Justice Committee in June 2020 claiming some IMBs had reported it appeared Pava was being introduced “by the back door”.

The rollout of Pava (Pelargonic Acid Vanillylamide), which causes severe pain when sprayed into the eyes, was initially announced by the government in October 2018 following a six-month pilot at four prisons – HMPs Hull, Preston, Risley and Wealstun.

However, concerns were raised about the substance, including that it would be disproportionately used against Bame (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) inmates, and about its use on prisoners with mental health conditions and learning disabilities.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (ECHR) claimed the six-month trial showed a high risk Pava would be used unlawfully and that significant additional safeguards were needed to prevent discrimination.

It backed a disabled prisoner’s application for judicial review of the rollout in 2019, which led to the Ministry of Justice committing to strengthened safeguards on when it could be used and better record-keeping of who it is used against. The Prison Service also said Pava would only be introduced in prisons where an effective key worker scheme was in place and at least 50 per cent of staff were trained in its use.

Inspectors raised concerns about the “frequent and increasing” use of Pava pepper spray at HMP Swinfen Hall - a category C men’s prison and young offenders institution in Staffordshire

In April last year, the government wrote to stakeholders notifying them the rollout was being paused.

A month later, it wrote again to announce Pava training was being paused – but that an “operational decision” had been made to introduce the spray at all male adult closed prisons where it could be used by prison officers who had already received the necessary training.

Pava has now been introduced at 81 of the estimated 90 adult male closed prisons in England and Wales.

HM Inspectorate of Prisons last week revealed the spray was used at HMP Hull on three occasions over the six months to July 2021, including two incidents involving the use of a baton.

In the latest report on conditions at the prison, chief inspector Charlie Taylor said inspectors reviewed prison records and video footage of the incidents and found the use was “not necessary and sometimes not proportionate or safe”.

It came just a month after he also raised concerns about the “frequent and increasing” use of Pava at Swinfen Hall, a category C prison and young offenders institution for men aged 18 to 28 in Staffordshire.

Here, 17 incidents involving Pava were recorded in the 12 months to May 2021, almost half of which had taken place in the last months. The inspectorate found use of the spray at the prison was higher than in similar establishments.

Mr Dawson is calling for the spray to be immediately withdrawn from prisons where it has been found to be misused.

He said: “The prison service is not in control of the weapon it’s put into officers’ hands. The rollout has to stop, and Pava must be withdrawn from the prisons where the standards promised just aren’t being met.”

A Prison Service spokesperson said in a statement to The Independent: “Pava is only used as a last resort by specially trained prison officers. We monitor its use carefully, including for any disparities in the way it’s deployed.”

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