03:54, October 09 52 0 theguardian.com

2018-10-09 03:54:08
Giving prison officers pepper spray 'will worsen conflict'

A former prison governor has criticised a decision to arm prison officers with pepper spray, saying it is part of a downward spiral that will worsen a culture of conflict in system already in crisis.

John Podmore, who turned Brixton prison in south London from Britain’s worst performing jail to its most improved, said the move – announced by Rory Stewart, the prisons minister, in the Sun on Tuesday - “is not going to help the control that’s been lost in many prisons at the moment”.

Pointing out that large prisons such as Wormwood Scrubs, another London jail, have only 40 officers in charge of around 1,200 inmates, Podmore told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Prisons run on cooperation; they don’t run on coercion. They run on staff personal relationships and unfortunately there’s currently … in many many prisons a culture of conflict, and pepper spray will make it much worse. It’s a downward spiral.”

The problem, Podmore said, was that “we’ve got far too many prisoners with nothing to lose”.

“They’ve got nothing on the inside and nothing on the outside, and that’s what we need to address.”

Pava, a synthetic incapacitant pepper spray, has already been trialled in four prisons and is now to be rolled out to all jails that house male prisoners. Stewart told the Sun that trials of the spray had been a success – even without officers needing to resort to using it.

“The mere fact that an officer is wearing the canister on their belt acts as a deterrent and can prevent incidents getting out of hand,” he said, adding that the decision to arm prison officers with the spray had come following “serious thought” and that safer prisons “are vital for all of us”.

“Our prison officers are doing one of the most important and heroic jobs in our society. We must give them the means to do their job.”

Stewart’s announcement came ahead of a speech by Andrea Albutt, the president of the Prison Governors Association (PGA), in which she was expected to accuse the government of failing to respond quickly enough to the jail safety crisis and point to “horrendous” quarterly statistics on violence.

She is expected to say: “We have crumbling prisons and an inability to give a safe, decent and secure regime to large numbers of men and women in our care due to lack of staff, not fit for purpose contracts and a much more violent, disrespectful, gang and drug-affiliated population.”

Thousands of prison officers staged a walkout last month in protest at conditions in jails in England and Wales, where there has been a rise in the number of assaults and incidents of self-harm, as well as an an increased number of phones and drugs seized. In the year to March, there were a record 9,003 attacks on prison staff – up 26% from 2017 – with 892 classed as serious.

Overall, attacks in prisons hit a record 31,025 assaults – almost twice the 15,644 assaults recorded in the year to March 2008 and up 16% from the previous year, according to the most recent figures from the Ministry of Justice.

Phil Taylor, a former governor of Wormwood Scrubs, backed the move, despite saying he agreed in parts with Podmore’s critique of the decision. “Whilst I think it’s a regrettable step perhaps, I don’t think it’s a retrograde step,” he told Today. “It’s part of a much wider picture that we need to consider and it’s fair and proper that prison officers should be protected.”

But, Taylor said, arming prison officers could not reverse the impact of the loss of thousands of experienced prison officers due to job cuts. “What we’ve got here is a reduction in prison staff by over 10,000, and the government lauding the fact that they replaced it with three and a half thousand inexperienced staff who lack confidence and ability to deal with the things that they are confronted with on a daily basis,” he said.

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