Notorious, harmful spray to be rolled out in all adult male prisons in England and Wales.
Rory Stewart, the prisons minister, announced on the 9th October 2018 that after successful trials at four separate prisons, the use of PAVA spray will become standard in all-male prisons in England and Wales with every prison officer receiving canisters of the chemical weapon.
PAVA is a synthetic incapacitant spray which produces similar, but more potent, effects to CS gas. A victim of an attack involving the chemical usually experiences severe pain and burning in the eyes which can last around 35 minutes.
Weapons designed to discharge a noxious liquid, such as PAVA spray, are prohibited under the Firearms Act 1968. Police and prison officers, among others acting with "authority", are exempt from this prohibition. The use of chemicals by the State to quell violent situations can never be easily justified - but the prisons minister's announcement earlier this month that all prison officers in adult male prisons will receive canisters of the notorious PAVA raises a number of concerns.
A government post claims that "[PAVA] will only be deployed in limited circumstances when there is serious violence or an imminent risk of it taking place, and where its deployment will reduce the risk of serious injury." However, David Isaac - chair of the independent Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) - has expressed deep concerns. Isaac has stated that if every prison officer is equipped with the weapon the likelihood of it being used inappropriately increases. Examples of such a scenario could include where a prison officer uses the weapon to exact revenge on a prisoner, or where another prisoner steals the weapon from an officer to use on a fellow prisoner. Indeed, a toxic chemical in the wrong hands would surely prove to be a grave issue around some of the country's most vulnerable people. Although those with "authority" are exempt from prosecution for using the chemical under the Firearms Act, Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights prohibits a State actor from subjecting individuals to torture or inhumane or degrading treatment (IDT). No information has been provided about what safeguards will be in place governing the use of PAVA, and the ECHR are renewing their calls for information about the trials to date to be provided to them by the government.
Isaac's comment is particularly worrying given that PAVA has already been linked to deaths at the hands of the authorities across the UK, including that of Alan Hay in 2016 who died a day after being sprayed with the substance during his arrest by police in Scotland.
Likewise, former chief inspector of prisons Nick Hardwick argued at the recent annual conference of the Prison Governors' Association that the prisons minister's decision stands as an "admission of failure," going on to say that there is no comparison between the use of this coercive weapon and "enough experienced staff creating relationships."
It is unclear how increasing violence in prisons such as with PAVA spray will work to protect either prisoners or prison officers, or show prisoners that adverse situations should not be resolved with the use of violence. Compounding this is the concerning ratios of prison officers to prisoners - and although more officers have been recruited recently, huge numbers of more experienced staff have walked away due to unsustainable conditions. It seems reasonable to argue that the contemporary challenges prisons face from cuts and staff shortages are being addressed with a cosmetic and reactionary change. One anonymous prison officer recently told a leading newspaper that more weaponry in prisons will simply not solve the real problems facing the prison system. With vast numbers of prisoners facing severe mental health and drug related problems that frequently go untreated, inadequate nutrition and frequent violence, it is questionable whether the government or prison service are taking the correct steps to improve conditions and safety in prisons.
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If you or a loved one have experienced what you feel to be unacceptable treatment with weapons inside a prison or another crimianl defence matter, contact our experienced Civil Liberties team today on 020 3553 3114 or make an enquiry here on our website.