The government has been accused of a failing to get to grips with the real issues facing Britain's crisis-hit jails after it announced prison officers were to be given pepper spray in response to the epidemic of violence they face on a daily basis.
Prisons minister Rory Stewart said on Tuesday that all officers working in male prisons would be given canisters of PAVA spray, saying it would “act as a deterrent and prevent incidents getting out of hand".
But prison officers have said they needed “more than a bottle of pepper spray” to deal with vulnerable and violent inmates, and accused ministers of glossing over the “real problem” of severe staff shortages.
Prison governors meanwhile expressed concern equipping staff on wings with spray would worsen the current "culture of conflict" in jails and could be viewed as a “challenge” to prisoners, potentially placing officers at more risk.
It comes as the president of the Prison Governors Association (PGA) accused the government of failing to respond quickly enough to the jail safety crisis. Andrea Albutt told a conference that “dis-investment” had contributed to the decline in standards across England and Wales.
A new report from the Inspectorate of Prisons meanwhile revealed violence and self-harm rates at HMP Exeter, now one of the most crowded prisons in the whole estate, had soared in the past two years.
One prison officer, who works in high-security prisons but did not want to be named, told The Independent the roll-out of PAVA spray was “a knee-jerk reaction and nothing more” and accused the government of “appeasing the voters by making it look they are doing the right thing”.
“It’s too little, too late. The trouble with PAVA spray is that in the wrong hands it can be very dangerous. Some officers would be reluctant to use it as they are reluctant to draw their batons,” he said.
“I have known incidents where prisoners have taken batons from staff in incidents and used them against staff. PAVA will be no different.
“Ultimately the government are glossing over the actual problem which is there are not enough prison officers to get things under control.”
He added: “All the armoury in the cupboard will change nothing ... Batons, PAVA or any other method does not make up for experience dealing with the most vulnerable and violent people in the country.
“I need more staff around me to protect me, not a bottle of pepper spray. Prisoners will see this in the news and laugh at it, and most will just think ‘Bring it on’.
“Certain jobs can be done on the cheap. Prisons aren’t one of them.”
Tess Wale, a former officer who quit the job because she felt in danger on the wing and unsupported by her managers, told The Independent she believed officers needed more than pepper spray.
Ms Wale added: “The government need to face the real issues inside of prisons and wake up to the fact the prison service is on its knees.
“The issue is that prisoners have more rights than the officers and all the governors are worried about is numbers and figures to make themselves look good. The problems run deep.”
However Mark Fairhurst, national chair of the Prison Officers Association (POA), welcomed the move, saying it “vindicated” strike action by officers on 14 September.
“When violence against staff is at an unprecedented level and we are expected to work in the most hostile and violent workplace in Western Europe, we naturally welcome the introduction of a vital resource to keep staff and prisoners safe,” he said.
“We are pleased that we have a prisons minister who is actively listening to our concerns.”
John Podmore, a former governor at the high-security Belmarsh prison in London, said jails were best run on co-operation and that the pepper spray would worsen the current ”culture of conflict“.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today it was part of a ”downward spiral", adding: ”The POA are already now asking for Tasers. What next? Sidearms, rifles in conning towers on perimeters?"
Asked whether officers should be able to defend themselves against violent prisoners, he added: "Good luck with one can of pepper spray against half-a-dozen prisoners.
“There is talk of this being a deterrent, I think for many prisoners it will be a challenge and there is a real risk the pepper sprays will be turned on the officers.”
However, Phil Taylor, the former governor of Wormwood Scrubs, said he accepted it as part of wider reforms, praising the MoJ for ending its “inertia” on prison violence.
He told Today: “At the moment, as well as unlocking 1,200 prisoners in Wormwood Scrubs this morning I suspect there may very well be more than one prison officer injured this morning, through some level of assault placed on them.
”Whilst I think it’s a regrettable step perhaps, I don’t think it’s a retrograde step.
“I think it’s a much wider picture that we need to consider and it’s fair and proper that prison officers should be protected.”
Speaking to The Sun, Mr Stewart said trials of the PAVA spray had already shown positive results, without the officer needing to use the spray.
“The mere fact that an officer is wearing the canister on their belt acts as a deterrent and can prevent incidents getting out of hand,” he said.
He added that the decision to arm prison officers with the spray had come following “serious thought”, but that safer prisons “are vital for all of us”.
He said: “Our prison officers are doing one of the most important and heroic jobs in our society. We must give them the means to do their job.”
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