Would you like some salami with your pepper?
“The PAVA in prisons project was unable to conclusively demonstrate that PAVA had any direct impact on levels of prison violence.” – PAVA in Prisons Project Evaluation Report.
Most of you who follow me on Social media will be aware of the stance I have taken against the government’s decision to issue front line staff with PAVA spray.
For those of you who do not; here you go:
I cannot, under any circumstances, condone it.
Ok, let’s get the standard reply out of that way from those of you who will disagree. “But you’re an ex-prisoner, of course you won’t like it.” Utter tripe, I am afraid. If you know me at all, you know that one would be hard pressed to find a stronger supporter of the hard- working, dedicated professionals that I came across during my time in prison. They helped me mould back into the person that I lost for a long while. I owe them a debt of gratitude that, through my work, I try to repay daily.
However, I feel that arming prison officers with a tool, that incapacitates a fellow human being, is one step too far.
I have read the recent evaluation report issued by HMPPS/ MOJ into PAVA and I scatter some of, what I feel to be the most salient points throughout this little rant.
"The PAVA in prisons project found staff using PAVA more quickly than they would a baton or C&R, and that some staff were developing an over-reliance on PAVA as a way of resolving conflict. The decision-making process was at times flawed, and it appears that some staff will use PAVA outside of guidelines."
In essence, what I get from the report is that the staff in the four pilot sites felt safer when carrying PAVA.
Now, I am all for these most dedicated of public servants feeling safe in their daily lives, but I am not for them using such a tool of incapacitation instead of the other tactics they are trained to use. And that is, basically what the report confirms they are doing.
We are arming our prison staff and I don’t like it one bit. We are making our prison staff look and act like police officers and that is not what they signed up for nor for what they trained. They signed up, I like to believe, to help care for those remanded into custody, help them turn their lives around (as I did mine) and yes, maintain a safe and above all DECENT environment. Making them look and act like police officers will only have a disastrous effect.
Sit back for a minute and let me tell you a story…
There was a prison that was having a few “issues.” They called in the National Dog Squad . These dogs are not known to be play things or to be petted (unless of course you want to lose a finger or two). They are seen to be a deterrent. Now the governor of this prison, very wisely put the dogs out on the exercise yards when they were empty. They barked and yelped just to, you know, let the lads know they were there. A good deterrent and a wise decision in my eyes. The handlers later put their dogs away and came onto the wings to help this understaffed prison carry out their “lock up” duties (that time in the evening where the men are asked to go back to their cells).
The officers that handle these dogs wear high- vis jackets, usually black cargo trousers, radios and a smattering of black baseball caps etc.
Now this where we get to the interesting bit; as they came onto the wing, the atmosphere changed from reasonably calm to exceedingly tense. The prisoners grouped together, and they shouted that “The Cops are on the wing!” They then proceeded to circle the dog handlers; questioning them, in some of the most eloquent of languages, as to why they were in the prison. They started reaching for whatever wasn’t nailed down as a full-blown incident was about to “kick-off.” It took one very brave junior grade governor who had nothing but his pointy finger and fairly loud, Welsh, voice to shout. “CALM DOWN LADS, THEY ARE DOG HANDLERS NOT THE POLICE” He told the handlers to take off their vests and show their prison uniforms. The prisoners backed down immediately and went up and shook the hands of some of the handler’s apologising. “We thought you were cops, the way you looked. Fair play, we’ll lock up now.”
You see where I am going with this? Make the staff look and act like police and reap the problems you will sew. Of course, I mean no offence to the police force, I have respect for most of them. But their job is not in a prison. I explained this recently to a serving police officer on social media and he wrote back understanding the aggression it could cause were the police perceived to be on a prison landing.
PAVA has been available for the National Tactical Response Group (“The Nationals” or “Tornado” if you prefer) since 2005. These individuals are highly trained and called in when there is a concern for large scale unrest. Their courage and professionalism know no bounds and it is right that in a national emergency where unrest is taking place that they have the correct tools. Their training is intense, and they are only called out in the most serious of incidents. Not, when a prisoner refuses to go into his cell, as was the case where PAVA was used in one of the pilot sites.
My goodness, the current training for PAVA spray according to the report is a half-day which is comprised of telling the staff of the legal issues surrounding its deployment and HMPPS’s expectations for appropriate use. Oh yes, and they give them some time on telling them how to use it (which in a couple of instances obviously hasn’t been explained properly as in 13 of the 50 times it was used “friendly fire” resulted in the staff being incapacitated themselves).
It scares me that when reading the evaluation report that it is felt that staff used the drawing of PAVA to be the default answer to everything. It worries me that it was used on prisoners who have mental health issues and were self-harming. It concerns me that some staff were “drawing” it but not reporting the deployment.
"Prisoners and staff reported concerns that PAVA was being used in non-violent incidents for purposes of manipulation rather than protection."
Most of all it confounds me that the report states that there is no direct link to the reduction of violence and the use of PAVA. The comparator sites and the PAVA sites had a reduction of violence. The comparator site said it was through the use of Body Worn Cameras and the fantastic Five-Minute Intervention program along with the roll out of the Key Worker programs. Therefore; they said, talking works. The PAVA sites said it was because the carried PAVA. So, who is right here?
“Paired pilot and comparator sites both perceived improvements in safety over the course of the pilot. Staff in pilot sites attribute these changes to PAVA whereas staff in comparator sites attribute the changes in perception to other initiatives (BWVCs, FMI and key-working in comparator sites)”
What is interesting is that in the report it states that it was the officers with more experience that drew/ deployed PAVA and the newer staff did not. That flies in the face of a lot of the “they are so young, they have no jail craft etc” argument, does it not?
The report states:
“Staff across the pilot sites have made inconsistent decisions about when PAVA is justified. Despite clear training guidance saying that PAVA should be only used reactively, the pilot has recorded instances when PAVA was used to address passive non-compliance or to deal with situations that most people would agree do not fall within policy.”
That worries me…
Here’s a cracker from the report
“Crucially, PAVA should not be expected to be effective as a general deterrent to violence.”
They state that:
“The number of UoF (Use of Force, my inference) incidents is likely to increase as PAVA is likely to be used as an addition to, rather than a replacement for, baton use and is likely to precede C&R.”
Look, I am all for staff feeling safe I really am. I have stood in between an issue with a prisoner and a staff member and talked it down. Some of the men that I work with in the prisons do this on a daily basis. I even know one outstanding Director of a prison who won’t even have his staff carry batons. He said recently “I won’t have them, if my staff can’t deal with the problems by using their mouth then they have no place in my jail.”
I realise that our prisons are violent. I realise that they are (shock warning) full of criminals. I know that some of them will be violent. I hate the fact of anyone being attacked in a prison (staff or prisoner) but I just think that arming the staff is not the way to react to it.
Violence in prison is a complex issue and there is no “magic wand” to wave over the problems that staff and prisoners face on a daily occurrence. I know that; but as I said above HMPPS / MOJ have some marvellous initiatives under way. The Five-minute intervention where a staff member stops and talks to a prisoner or the Key Worker program are outstanding and that is the way to deal with it. If you need to use force to control a situation then all else has failed. That does happen, one would be naïve to believe that it doesn’t, but to give the staff a spray to use is not the way. When a staff member exerts a physical use of force, they think twice before they do. I fear that giving them the ability to reach around their belt and grab a cannister will result in them doing that as a default action instead of thinking about it first.
I will leave you with this one quote from a serving officer:
PAVA “gives the people who aren’t confident that inner confidence to deal with situations maybe not in the right way”.
Pepper spray should be left for me to put on my Spaghetti .
As usual, this is just my opinion, I could be wrong.