Trust highlights urgent concerns over impact of PAVA spray on BAME prisoners and potential spread of Covid-19

The Prison Reform Trust has issued an urgent call for the government to reverse its decision to roll out PAVA spray to all staff trained in its use in prisons on the adult male closed estate.

The government’s unexpected decision, which was made public in a letter to stakeholders on 18 May, goes against a previous commitment made in April to pause the roll out of the controversial weapon in prisons for three months as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a letter to the prisons minister Lucy Frazer published today (Saturday 13 June), the Trust highlights concerns regarding the disproportionate impact of the roll out on the 27% of prisoners from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, and the potential risk of contributing to the spread of Covid-19 in prisons.

Evidence over many years has consistently shown that people in prison from BAME backgrounds are more likely to have force used against them than white prisoners.

The government’s own equality assessment of the roll out found that the weapon “has been drawn or used more against BAME prisoners. The evidence from wider use of force would suggest that this trend will continue as roll out progresses.”

Despite these concerns, the external advice and scrutiny panel, set up by the government to support the implementation of the recommendations of David Lammy’s review of racial disproportionality in the criminal justice system, was not even given notice of, still less consulted about, the decision to roll out the spray.

In its letter to the minister, the Trust also warns that the use of the incapacitant spray, which causes people affected to cough, is untested in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, and risks contributing to the spread of the disease in prisons.

It also highlights the risk to people suffering any health condition affecting their breathing, of which Covid-19 is one. Last week a black prisoner reported as suffering from asthma died after being pepper sprayed in a New York prison.

The Trust asks the minister “to confirm that medical advice was sought about the specific risks associated with PAVA use in prison during the pandemic”.

The letter also highlights concerns that the manner of the roll out “appears to breach undertakings given in public documents and…promises made in private on the government’s behalf to the Divisional Court”.

In its equality assessment of the roll out and in confidential assurances given to the courts in order to settle litigation supported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the government made a series of undertakings to introduce safeguards before PAVA was issued in more prisons.

Officials also gave undertakings in response to concerns raised by the Prison Reform Trust and many others. In total, the Trust has counted 31 commitments. To the best of its knowledge, 25 remain unmet wholly or in part.

In its evidence to the Justice Committee published yesterday, the Independent Monitoring Board said it was “highly regrettable that the Prison Service authorised the wider use of PAVA spray, without the previously agreed safeguards, and without informing scrutiny bodies or stakeholders of the change in policy, having previously stated that the roll-out had been suspended.” 

Concluding the letter, Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, says:

“It would be hard to imagine a more important issue in terms of demonstrating your department’s commitment to the equitable treatment of people with protected characteristics under the law. As events in America have shown, the abuse of force epitomises and symbolises a much wider pattern of discrimination, and that is true in our prisons too. I strongly urge you to reverse the decision that has been taken, and instead to keep the many promises that have been broken.”

Find out more about our work on PAVA over the last two years by clicking here.