Writing for the prison newspaper Inside Time, Prison Reform Trust Director, Peter Dawson examines the case for a rethink on the introduction of PAVA spray.

Everyone knows that violence in prison has got much, much worse over the last 5 years or so. The statistics are alarming – every quarterly publication describes a new record level of assaults against both prisoners and staff. Violence is both more frequent and more severe. It’s not surprising that people in prison, whether they live there or work there, say “something must be done”.

That was exactly the reaction of both staff and some prisoners who were questioned as part of the evaluation of a pilot scheme in 4 prisons where PAVA spray – a ‘chemical incapacitant’ – was issued to all officers. The evaluation actually showed that PAVA did nothing to reduce violence, but people seemed resigned to its use in any case. Staff in particular felt reassured; regardless of the evidence. ‘Something’ needed to be done. The trouble is that ‘something’ in this case risks making matters a great deal worse in the long run.

I used to govern a big local prison and although that was before the spike in violence of the last few years, dealing with the aftermath of violence was still a significant part of the job. It could be the worst part; I am never going to forget telling a colleague and friend that they were to be medically retired because of irreversible injury suffered during an incident involving C and R. I really struggled to reach a view about whether PAVA might actually be a safer way to deal with violence than what the prison service currently does. I understood the argument that having the means to incapacitate someone without either putting ‘hands on’ or, worse, using an extendable baton, could reduce the likelihood of really serious injury.

So the prison service decision to trial the use of PAVA in 4 prisons made a lot of sense, as did the commitment to a detailed evaluation, which would include the views of staff and prisoners, but from that point on, things started to go downhill.

In October, the prisons minister announced that PAVA was to be issued to all prison officers in the adult male estate, following a ‘successful trial’. What he didn’t do was publish the evaluation of that trial. So the Prison Reform Trust and others asked to see it. A few weeks later, we were sent a document marked ‘sensitive-draft’. We examined it carefully and wrote back to the minister with a request that the national roll-out should be paused because of serious concerns about what the evaluation report showed. He politely refused.

Why were we so concerned, and why do I now have no doubt that the decision to issue PAVA to all staff is a serious mistake?

First, the pilot showed that staff did not use PAVA in line with the instructions they had been given. The justification for trialling it, repeated by the minister, was that it was intended only for exceptional circumstances where there was serious violence or an imminent risk of it taking place. The guidance officers received for the pilot imposed some sensible extra conditions, making clear that PAVA should not be used against people with mental health conditions, in incidents at height, or in confined spaces for example.

What actually happened was that staff used PAVA when it made sense to them. I examined the case study of every time PAVA was deployed, and found that in 34 of the 50 cases it appeared that the guidance had been ignored. In a quarter of cases PAVA was just used incorrectly, for example in incidents at height, or directed at the wrong person. In a quarter, it was plainly not the last resort; other methods to deal with the perceived threat were available. And in a third, there was not an appropriate justification for its use – for example it was used to enforce an order, something the guidance explicitly ruled out.

I remember a colleague with a military background once telling me that “the first casualty of battle is the plan you had before it started”, and that’s what happened with PAVA. What the prison service said should happen didn’t happen in reality. Unfortunately, what we already know from existing use of force techniques is that the management safeguards against misuse don’t work very well. Post-incident paperwork is not completed properly, or at all; body worn cameras are not worn or not turned on, or footage is lost; complaints systems don’t work.

We also know that some people are much more likely to have force used against them than others – coming from an ethnic minority, or having mental health problems, for example, make you statistically more likely to have force used against you. In the PAVA evaluation, that data wasn’t even included. The government has a statutory duty to assess the equality impact of important new policies before they are implemented – on PAVA it simply hadn’t done that when the minister made his announcement in October.

Why does this matter so much?

First, the message PAVA sends – whether the prison service means it or not – is that officers can spend less time working out why someone is angry, and less time trying to find a solution where no-one gets hurt. ‘C and R in a can’ is what some have already christened PAVA. It was no surprise that prisoners’ perceptions of staff carrying PAVA were that they were less interested in resolving conflict, and less fair.

Second, the way the decision has been taken – keeping an evaluation report under wraps and ignoring what it shows – undermines the commitment to policies grounded in evidence. This is way too important a decision to take on any other basis.

And lastly, because the evaluation report also looked at 4 prisons where PAVA wasn’t used, but keyworking was being rolled out. Instead of prisoners’ confidence in staff being undermined, it found confidence increasing. At the very moment when more staff and better training might be making a difference, the prison service is about to make a change it can’t control and can’t undo.

Photo credit: Andy Aitchison