UK: prison officers punching compliant inmates, report says

Human rights delegation finds ‘reprehensible practice’ in three male prisons

Prison officers are allegedly punching compliant inmates who they suspect might misbehave in the future in a practice known as “preventive strikes”, a European human rights watchdog has said in a damning report on the state of jails in England.

A delegation from the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT), part of the human rights organisation the Council of Europe, inspected three local male prisons – Liverpool, Wormwood Scrubs in west London and Doncaster – in May last year.

In its report, the committee highlights a “new and deeply concerning” finding of unjustified violence by staff on prisoners – particularly in Liverpool and Wormwood Scrubs – in the form of preventive strikes, described as “preventively punching compliant prisoners whom staff perceived might, at some point in the future, become a threat”.

The committee has called on UK authorities to ban the “reprehensible practice” immediately and undertake an investigation into all allegations of ill-treatment.

More broadly, the committee said that despite some progress since its last inspection in 2016, the prison system in England was in “deep crisis”, finding the jails visited to be “violent, unsafe and overcrowded”, echoing the repeated findings of the chief inspector of prisons in England and Wales, Peter Clarke.

The Ministry of Justice said it was lawful for staff to use reasonable force to defend themselves against imminent threats to their personal safety but any inappropriate use of force would be subject to disciplinary proceedings and potentially criminal investigation.

The delegation said use-of-force paperwork at Liverpool prison produced by prison staff could be inaccurate and misleading, and identified multiple cases, in which there could have been instances of unprovoked attacks by prison staff on inmates being qualified as “preventive / protective strikes”.

These included cases in which prisoners had apparently sustained injuries after direct contact with prison officers and had made complaints about ill-treatment, the report said.

The committee interviewed the use-of-force coordinator at Liverpool prison who confirmed that, in his view, it was legitimate for staff to use “preventive” strikes against a compliant prisoner if, based on previous knowledge of the inmate, they anticipated that he might pose a threat.

At Liverpool prison, the committee noted a case in which a prison officer was contesting his sacking for launching an unprovoked attack on a prisoner on the grounds that his actions constituted a legitimate “preventive strike”.

It emerged that staff at Liverpool prison were following official 2015 guidance on “pre-emptive strikes” that states: “There is no rule in law to say that a person must wait to be attacked before they can defend themselves.”

However, further inquiries established the guidance was ultimately derived from Crown Prosecution Service general guidance, which leans upon a case decided in 1909.

The report said: “In the view of the CPT, the guidance currently provided to prison officers is inadequate and leaves the impression that an entirely subjective apprehension might provide a justification for making an otherwise entirely unprovoked attack on a prisoner.

“The CPT notes that the 2015 guidance is due to expire in early November 2019 and recommends that it be replaced with new guidance that makes clear to prison officers that engaging in so-called ‘preventive strikes’ on prisoners is unlawful and that any officer who is found to have engaged in this practice will be subject to appropriate disciplinary and/or criminal sanctions.”

Across the prisons, the committee found that prisoner-on-prisoner violence, prisoner-on-staff assaults and staff-on-prisoner violence had reached “record highs” and found that none of the establishments could be considered safe.

The report raised concerns over “alarmingly high levels” of drug use in the prisons, as well as high numbers of prisoners suffering from mental health disorders.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “This government has made its commitment to safe, secure and decent prisons very clear.

“That’s why we are creating 10,000 new places and investing in new security measures to tackle the drugs and contraband that undermine safety.

“Our hard-working staff receive world-class training and are held to high professional standards of behaviour, including the need to justify any use of physical force.”