UK: prison pepper spray plan risks inmate safety, rights body says

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 serious 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.”

He said the EHRC wrote to and met the Prison Service last month to express its reservations about the rollout, and was disappointed there had been no further debate before the announcement.

“Making Pava spray available to every prison officer increases the risk that it might be used inappropriately,” Isaac said, adding that the EHRC would be asking the Prison Service again for information about the trial “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 Scrubsin London, had 40 officers in charge of about 1,200 inmates.

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