Prison inspectors have warned against the deployment of a controversial pepper spray used to suppress violent prisoners becoming ‘routine’ at a prison in Staffordshire. An unannounced inspection by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons of HMP Swinfen Hall, a category C prison which holds 531 men mostly serving sentence of over four years, called into question the effectiveness of its COVID-19 regime restrictions and reported levels of violence were ‘on the rise’ despite a third of prisoners being locked up 22 hours a day.
‘It was very concerning to see increases in the use of PAVA incapacitant spray as the regime began to open up and leaders needed to make certain that this did not become a routine way of managing challenging behaviour,’ warned chief inspector Charlie Taylor. You can read the report here.
PAVA is a synthetic pepper spray used as a form of restraint. It is sprayed into people’s eyes causing severe pain as well as violent coughing. Three years ago the Ministry of Justice announced it would roll out its use across all adult male prisons as a response to increasing levels of violence despite a six month trial revealing a high risk that it was likely be used unlawfully without additional safeguards.
The equalities watchdog the Equality and Human Rights Commission has warned that disabled people with mental health conditions and learning disabilities could face disproportionate use of force and highlight the MoJ’s own research about its disproportionate use on people – about half of HMP Swinfen Hall’s prisoners are BAME. Last yeat th Prison Reform Trust wrote to the prisons minister about their concerns. PRT director Peter Dawson recently wrote: ‘The message PAVA sends – whether the prison service means it or not – is that officers can spend less time working out why someone is angry, and less time trying to find a solution where no-one gets hurt.’
Between May 2020 and May 2021, officers used the spray 17 times and ‘almost half of which had occurred in the last two months’. The proportion of prisoners affected was ‘relatively small’ but this ‘concerning increase… was higher than we have found in similar establishments’, the inspectors said. In many of the cases staff had faced ‘very challenging and violent situations where force had been justified’. ‘Force was often instigated to preserve the life of other prisoners including attacks on individual prisoners by multiple assailants. CCTV and body-worn video camera footage showed staff dealing with volatile individuals. It was also evident that some staff lacked the confidence to manage incidents, resorting to force before exhausting alternative solutions including de-escalation.’
The latest inspection follows intensified scrutiny of prisoners’ welfare over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Justice Gap previously reported on the results of the prison inspectorate’s latest annual report. This report noted that prisoners felt ‘drained, despondent, depleted, helpless and without hope’ during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, despite a 35% reduction in violence in men’s prisons between December 2019 and December 2020.
According to inspectors, the level of violence at Swinfen Hall remained ‘too high and many incidents were serious’. Over the previous 12 months, there were 255 incidents of recorded violence and 65 reported assaults on staff, an increase of a third compared on their previous inspection. Despite recognising the ‘considerable and fundamental’ nature of the work entailed by the prison service, inspectors remarked upon failures to enforce previous recommendations on ‘key concerns’ related to the use of force, and to the prevention of self-harm.