Use of force in prison

When are staff allowed to use force against a prisoner?

Prison Service Order (PSO) 1600 Use of Force contains details about when and how force should be used. The PSO states:


The use of force by one person on another without consent is unlawful unless it is justified.


The use of force will be justified, and therefore lawful, only:

  • If it is reasonable in the circumstances
  • If it is necessary
  • If no more force than is necessary is used
  • If it is proportionate to the seriousness of the circumstances

PSO 1600 describes each of these points in more detail, which we cover on the next page.


Use of force as a last resort

Use of force should always be seen as a last resort.


Wherever possible staff should try to resolve a situation using de-escalation and communication skills, such as speaking to the person involved.


When considering using force in self-defence, staff should consider if there are other options available such as retreating and summoning help.

Prison rule 47 / YOI rule 50 also says that ‘No officer shall act deliberately in a manner calculated to provoke a prisoner.’

How is use of force justified?

PSO 1600 describes the ways use of force can be justified in more detail


Reasonable in the circumstances


Whether it is reasonable to use force will be different in each case.


PSO 1600 says that things to think about when deciding if using force is reasonable include the size, age and sex of both the prisoner and the member of staff, and whether there are weapons involved.


If it is necessary to use force

PSO says that ‘the action taken must be necessary’.


Staff should consider what type of harm they are trying to prevent to decide if using force is necessary. This could include:

  • Risk to life
  • Risk to limb
  • Risk to property
  • Risk to the good order of the establishment

PSO 1600 says ‘It is clearly easier to justify force as ‘necessary’ if there is a risk to life or limb’. Force used in self-defence may also be more easily demonstrated as ‘necessary’.


However, PSO 1600 says ‘It is not enough that a prisoner be given any ‘lawful order’ to do something and has refused to do so’. 


No more force than is necessary is used


­The PSO states that ‘No more force than is necessary shall be used. Any greater force than is necessary could be deemed as unlawful.’

Proportionate in the circumstances

Staff should be able to demonstrate that the action taken was proportionate to what they were trying to achieve.

Action taken is unlikely to be regarded as proportionate if less forceful alternatives would have achieved the same result.

What if I need medical help during an incident?

Your health should be considered in the following ways if force is being used:

  • Whenever possible, healthcare staff should be present when there are plans to use force.
  •  Staff should be aware of any signs that someone is having medical difficulties when using force.
  • Healthcare staff should be consulted if staff think that mental illness or drug abuse is involved in someone’s behaviour.

·         If a medical emergency occurs, the person should be released from all holds and medical advice should be sought immediately.

What should happen after an incident involving force?

The following things should happen after an incident involving use of force:

·         A report should always be completed by staff involved. The report should include details about what happened before force was used, what type of force was used and why.

  • You should be examined by a member of healthcare as soon as possible and within 24 hours after force has been used. They should complete a report, called F213, even if you do not have injuries.
  •  You can also ask for photos to be taken of any injuries you have received. This might be useful if you want to make a complaint – the following page for more details.

What should I do if force used against me was not justified?

You can make a complaint if you think force used against you was not justified.

In your complaint it is a good idea to:

  • explain what happened before and during the incident
  • ask for photos to be taken of any injuries you received, if this has not happened already
  • ask that any camera footage from CCTV and Body Worn Video Cameras is saved whilst your complaint is considered

The prison should look at the reports made by prison staff and healthcare staff when considering your complaint. They may also need to speak to you, to staff involved, or other witnesses.


The prison may need longer than the usual 5 working days to investigate and respond to your complaint. You should still receive an interim response explaining this.


If you are unhappy with the response to your complaint you can appeal using a COMP 1A form, which you should do within 7 calendar days of receiving the response.


If you feel a complaint is still not resolved after appeal, you can ask the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) to look into it. The PPO have experience of investigating use of force cases and have written about their findings in reports called ‘Learning Lessons’.

There is more information about making complaints in our information sheet ‘Making a complaint in prison.

Can I report the incident to the police?

If you think the police should be involved you can request this.

It is best to make this request in writing. You can do this in your initial complaint or in a separate application.

The prison should pass this request to the police. The Police Liason Officer may also come to see you.

Further information

Useful PSIs and PSOs (these should be available in the library):

PSO 1600 Use of Force

Prisoner Complaints Policy Framework

PSI 30/2015 Amendments to Use of Force Policy



PRT information sheet ‘How to make a complaint in prison

Prisoners’ Advice Service information sheet ‘Complaints

Prisoners' Advice Service information sheet 'Racism Complaints'

PPO Learning Lessons Bulletin Use of force (January 2014)

PPO Learning Lessons Bulletin Use of force – further lessons (May 2016)


For a print-ready version of this information, click here.