12:16, October 09 233 0 theguardian.com

2018-10-09 12:16:05
UK rights watchdog criticises prison pepper spray plan

The rollout of pepper spray to prison officers across England and Wales puts inmates at risk of inhumane treatment, the head of the UK’s human rights watchdog has said.

David Isaac, the chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), said the use of Pava, a synthetic incapacitant pepper spray, to control behaviour in jails could cause pain and injury.

Rory Stewart, the prisons minister, announced on Tuesday that £2m would be spent on arming every officer in adult jails with Pava, after a pilot by the Prison Service.

Isaac said: “We understand that prison officers need methods to protect themselves and other prisoners but such protections must not be at the expense of the basic rights of prisoners. Everyone has the right to live without fear of inhumane treatment, and the use of Pava spray in a detention environment is a way of controlling behaviour that causes pain and can seriously injure.

“We wrote [to] and met with the Prison Service last month to set out our reservations about the widespread introduction of Pava spray in the prison system, and are disappointed that there has not been any further debate ahead of this announcement. Making Pava spray available to every prison officer increases the risk that it might be used inappropriately. We will be writing to the Prison Service to repeat our request for further information about their pilot project so that we can assess the adequacy of the restrictions and safeguards for Pava spray’s use.”

Nick Hardwick, a former chief inspector of prisons, echoed Isaac’s concerns. “I heard today that staff are now going to be given pepper Pava sprays. What an admission of failure,” he told the annual conference of the Prison Governors’ Association.

“I don’t dispute that things have got so bad that that may be necessary, but we should resist the argument that greater use of force is any kind of a penalty compared with enough experienced staff creating relationships.”

Earlier John Podmore, a former governor who turned Brixton prison in south London from Britain’s worst performing jail into its most improved, said the move “is not going to help the control that’s been lost in many prisons at the moment”.

He pointed out that some large prisons such as Wormwood Scrubs, another London jail, had only 40 officers in charge of about 1,200 inmates.

“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,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Podmore said the problem 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.”

Thousands of prison officers took part in 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 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 rose to a record 31,025 last year, 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.