0300 GMT February 24, 2020
The Pava incapacitant spray, which is notably stronger than CS gas, causes acute pain if sprayed directly into the eyes. One officer described its effects as “unbearable, like your skin peeling off” after being affected when it was deployed.
Last December, a six-month pilot project was launched in four prisons – Hull, Preston, Risley and Wealstun – where, it was stated, Pava would be used as a “personal protection aid for officers to use reactively to defend themselves or others against serious attack.”
A report on the trial said the spray was used 50 times in the pilot jails, including 18 times to stop prisoner-on-staff assaults and 14 times to stop prisoner-on-prisoner assaults. The remaining 18 incidents comprised eight cases of passive non-compliance, seven of aggressive noncompliance, two of active self-harm and one unspecified “incident at height” – all of which were nonviolent and outside the stated guidelines.
The report found that levels of violence continued to rise in the four jails where Pava was tested. Despite those findings, the spray will now be issued to all officers in state-run jails.
Staff in private sector prisons will not be allowed to use it. Discussions are taking place between the prison service and the Prison Officers Association about equipping staff in female and juvenile prisons.
The incapacitant spray, dispensed from a hand-held canister containing a solution of pelargonic acid vanillylamide, has an effective range of up to four meters. It has been approved by the Home Office for use by police forces since 2004.
In October, the prison service announced that the trials had been successful and the use of Pava would be rolled out across all prisons in England and Wales. The evaluation report on the trials has not been been published, but Rob Allen, the co-director of Justice and Prisons, obtained a copy via a freedom of information request.
The report said, “Some staff were developing an overreliance on Pava as a way of resolving conflict and used the spray to enforce rules and gain compliance when it was not clearly the last resort, or when more time could have been spent talking [to the prisoner].”
Those using Pava were positive about the spray, even though staff were affected by its use on 13 occasions. The report said staff played down their descriptions of the impact of the spray on prisoners, describing it as a “minor use of force.”
Rates of violence in prisons in England and Wales are at an all-time high and rising. The report said, “Overall violence levels continued to rise across all the pilot jails during the period of the trials.”
John Podmore, a former prison governor who ran jails in the high-security estate, argued that the use of Pava would only escalate conflict.
He asked why the report had not been made public, saying, “Justice minister, Rory Stewart, promised that the prison service would be more transparent. So why was this report kept under wraps?”
A Prison Service spokesperson said Pava incapacitant spray helped prevent serious harm to staff and prisoners, as well as being an additional tool when dealing with violent offenders.
“Prison officers must complete specialist training before being allowed to carry the spray, ensuring it is only used professionally, safely and lawfully,” the spokesperson said.
CHRISTOPHER THOMOND/THE GUARDIAN