The Prison Reform Trust has called for an urgent moratorium on the planned roll out of PAVA spray to prison officers in the adult male estate.

It warns that the roll out, which is due to begin in the New Year, is likely to do more harm than good and undermine the safety of prisoners and prison officers.

After the decision to roll out PAVA was announced in early October, the Prison Minister Rory Stewart said that PAVA would only be used in “exceptional circumstances” to protect staff from the threat or perceived threat of serious violence.

However, a new analysis of the pilot evaluation by PRT’s Director Peter Dawson, who is a former prison governor, shows that nearly two thirds (64%) of incidents in which PAVA spray was deployed by prison staff may have contravened the guidance for its use.

PAVA was deployed 50 times during the course of the pilot which took place in four prisons between January and June 2018.

PRT’s analysis reveals that in 34% of cases an inappropriate justification was used to authorise its use; in 24% of cases its use was unsafe; and in 24% of cases an alternative was available. In several cases the use of PAVA was outside the guidance for more than one reason.

In one case, PAVA was deployed against a prisoner who was self-harming and where there was no indication of a threat to the officer.

In another, PAVA was sprayed at the same prisoner three times in ten minutes, including at point blank range through the cell flap. The prisoner against whom it was deployed had clear, known and obvious mental health issues.

In a number of incidents there was no indication of a threat of harm and PAVA was used to enforce an order, in direct contravention of the guidance. In some cases, PAVA was deployed against the wrong prisoner, and in others officers mistakenly sprayed themselves and other colleagues.

The £2m roll out to prison officers on the closed adult male estate was announced in October. At the time of the announcement, the evaluation of the pilot was not published or even summarised but was subsequently revealed through a freedom of information request.

In a letter to PRT in November, Rory Stewart said that PAVA “will be used in exceptional circumstances where a member of staff or is faced with serious violence, or the perceived threat of serious violence.”

Announcing the roll out, the government claimed that PAVA would be “a crucial step to help reduce serious harm”. It assured that PAVA would “only be deployed in limited circumstances when there is serious violence or an imminent risk of it taking place, and where its deployment will reduce the risk of serious injury”. The evidence from the pilot is that none of those tests were met.

The author of the analysis, PRT’s Director Peter Dawson, has 12 years’ experience of dealing with and authorising use of force in custody as a former prison governor. On the back of the analysis, Dawson has written to the Prisons Minister calling for an urgent moratorium on the planned roll out.

In his letter, Dawson warns that “the availability of such a potent weapon has immediately created a norm for its use which is different from what you intended, and which the safeguards in place – even in a closely monitored pilot – failed to control. Perhaps as a consequence, there is clear evidence from the pilot that deployment of PAVA undermined the trust that prisoners had in officers and in the legitimacy of the authority those officers hold.”

The evaluation reveals that violence levels in the four prisons continued to rise during the period of the pilot. According to the Trust, this shows “conclusively that there was no objective basis for the increase in staff confidence” which was used as the main justification for the roll out. “PAVA did not reduce violence, whatever staff felt, but did undermine the trust prisoners felt in staff.”

Violence also continued to rise in the four “control” prisons in the pilot, where PAVA was not deployed. But in those prisons, relationships between prisoners and staff appeared to be slowly improving as a result of the introduction of keyworking – dedicated time for officers to spend helping prisoners cope with their sentence and prepare for release.

Far from being a tool that gave confidence to inexperienced staff, the evaluation shows that PAVA was used predominantly by experienced staff and predominantly in situations where the ability to use existing control and restraint methods (with three or more staff present) was available.

PRT’s paper also criticises the poor quality of the equality analysis conducted as part of the pilot evaluation, which was disclosed to the charity through correspondence with the Minister. Furthermore, there has been no equality impact assessment of the decision to proceed with a national roll out. This is despite clear evidence that current disciplinary and use of force measures are disproportionate and discriminatory, and casts doubt on whether the department is meeting its statutory duties under equalities legislation.

PRT’s analysis acknowledges that the decision to roll out PAVA was made in the context of “an apparently inexorable rise in violence across much of the prison estate. That rise includes an increase in severity as well as volume of violent incidents, with both prisoners and staff as victims. It coincides with many prisons absorbing a very significant loss of experienced staff and an influx of newly trained staff, with an associated loss of confidence overall. PRT realises that the rollout of PAVA spray was only ever contemplated because of the risk to life that violence in prison represents, and that the policy has been subject to lengthy debate within the prison service.”

But the analysis concludes that, “Unfortunately, that debate has not taken place outside the service or the Ministry of Justice to any significant degree, and the evidence to inform it has been kept secret until after the decision to roll out was announced. That cannot be acceptable in a matter of such long-term significance to the welfare of all those who live and work in prisons. Perhaps the only uncontroversial aspect of the debate is that its outcome will have a profound and enduring impact on the ethos and culture of prisons – it is too important to be concluded behind closed doors.”

Click here to download a copy of our position paper on the introduction of PAVA, which includes a copy of the evaluation report.