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Category: Prison staff

Report reveals “perfect storm” of staffing and funding crises affecting people in detention

Healthy relationships between staff and prisoners key to delivering government ambitions for prisons

PRT comment: the experiences of adult black male prisoners and black prison staff

New figures spark fears of a perfect storm in prisons

New figures reveal exodus of prison staff

Prison Reform Trust calls on government to reverse PAVA spray roll out

Trust highlights urgent concerns over impact of PAVA spray on BAME prisoners and potential spread of Covid-19

The Prison Reform Trust has issued an urgent call for the government to reverse its decision to roll out PAVA spray to all staff trained in its use in prisons on the adult male closed estate.

The government’s unexpected decision, which was made public in a letter to stakeholders on 18 May, goes against a previous commitment made in April to pause the roll out of the controversial weapon in prisons for three months as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a letter to the prisons minister Lucy Frazer published today (Saturday 13 June), the Trust highlights concerns regarding the disproportionate impact of the roll out on the 27% of prisoners from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, and the potential risk of contributing to the spread of Covid-19 in prisons.

Evidence over many years has consistently shown that people in prison from BAME backgrounds are more likely to have force used against them than white prisoners.

The government’s own equality assessment of the roll out found that the weapon “has been drawn or used more against BAME prisoners. The evidence from wider use of force would suggest that this trend will continue as roll out progresses.”

Despite these concerns, the external advice and scrutiny panel, set up by the government to support the implementation of the recommendations of David Lammy’s review of racial disproportionality in the criminal justice system, was not even given notice of, still less consulted about, the decision to roll out the spray.

In its letter to the minister, the Trust also warns that the use of the incapacitant spray, which causes people affected to cough, is untested in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, and risks contributing to the spread of the disease in prisons.

It also highlights the risk to people suffering any health condition affecting their breathing, of which Covid-19 is one. Last week a black prisoner reported as suffering from asthma died after being pepper sprayed in a New York prison.

The Trust asks the minister “to confirm that medical advice was sought about the specific risks associated with PAVA use in prison during the pandemic”.

The letter also highlights concerns that the manner of the roll out “appears to breach undertakings given in public documents and…promises made in private on the government’s behalf to the Divisional Court”.

In its equality assessment of the roll out and in confidential assurances given to the courts in order to settle litigation supported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the government made a series of undertakings to introduce safeguards before PAVA was issued in more prisons.

Officials also gave undertakings in response to concerns raised by the Prison Reform Trust and many others. In total, the Trust has counted 31 commitments. To the best of its knowledge, 25 remain unmet wholly or in part.

In its evidence to the Justice Committee published yesterday, the Independent Monitoring Board said it was “highly regrettable that the Prison Service authorised the wider use of PAVA spray, without the previously agreed safeguards, and without informing scrutiny bodies or stakeholders of the change in policy, having previously stated that the roll-out had been suspended.”

Concluding the letter, Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, says:

“It would be hard to imagine a more important issue in terms of demonstrating your department’s commitment to the equitable treatment of people with protected characteristics under the law. As events in America have shown, the abuse of force epitomises and symbolises a much wider pattern of discrimination, and that is true in our prisons too. I strongly urge you to reverse the decision that has been taken, and instead to keep the many promises that have been broken.”

Find out more about our work on PAVA over the last two years by clicking here.

Give prisoners a sense of hope for the future

Prisons need to promote personal growth as an end in itself, not just a means to reduced reoffending, according to a new report published by the Prison Reform Trust today (9 July 2019).

The report, ‘What do you need to make best use of your time in prison?’ is the result of an extensive consultation exercise with over 1,250 people with experience of prison.

The report is the second of the Prison Reform Trust’s Prisoner Policy Network—a group of current serving prisoners, ex-prisoners and connected organisations who want to share their expertise and experience with policy makers.

Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Rt Hon David Gauke MP, has described the Prisoner Policy Network as “a very welcome initiative”. “No-one is likely to understand the issues [in prison] more clearly than the people who live and work in them,” he said.

Prisoners who responded to our call for evidence told us overwhelmingly that they need to feel a sense of hope for the future and to be given meaningful opportunities which allow them to develop and thrive.

One woman quoted in the report said:

“Prisons could be a place to help us find ourselves, find out what we are good at, and for.

For most respondents, imprisonment was transient rather than life long, although sentence lengths varied considerably. Many wanted a chance to ‘get on’, to ‘live a better life’ or to ‘change’.

The report highlights the valuable role that peer-led initiatives play in developing skills for prisoners to alleviate problems amongst the wider prison community, instilling a sense of purpose and pride.

One man quoted in the report said:

“Taking on the role of a buddy has given me the opportunity to develop myself and be more caring, considerate and thoughtful of others.”

Prisoners explained that they want the breadth of the education, employment and training offer to be increased, and to make better use of technology so that prisoners can access educational materials, maintain family contact, and find information about outside agencies on which they will rely in future. This means education that stretches the mind; training that secures industry recognised qualifications; the opportunity to use existing skills to benefit the wider prison community, and work experience that makes them attractive to future employers.

However, people were clear that hope for the future needs to be built on a strong foundation of safety, with prisons meeting prisoners’ basic needs now. Respondents told us that they need to feel safe, and that alarming rates of violence and unrest are “exhausting” and that “the main task is to stay alive”. Failing to meet these needs can hinder wider efforts to help people to spend their time constructively whilst in custody and limit their ability to plan for the future.

Many people highlighted the critical role that staff play in supporting them to achieve this, and a clear will to banish barriers between prisoners and officers. One man quoted in the report said:

“Someone believing in you, this is transformative for people in prison.”

Another said:

“There are some amazing staff…they conduct themselves with dignity and honesty, which in turn commands respect. They are firm, fair and compassionate. You know what to expect from them and you know what’s expected of you.”

Many contributors highlighted the specific importance of healthcare, both physical and mental, in helping to provide hope and allow people to plan and work towards their future. This includes continuity of healthcare between the community and custody, and between prisons. Too often prisoners told us of access to long term prescription medication being stopped due to security concerns; anxiety that health conditions and concerns were being ignored; that mental health services were not available or extensive enough; appointments being missed due to prisons being unable to supply escort staff; and difficulty accessing substance or gambling addiction support.

Commenting, Paula Harriott, Head of Prisoner Engagement at the Prison Reform Trust said:

“Giving people the tools to help themselves not only benefits individuals, it benefits the wider prison community. Prisons need to become places where people have the opportunity to begin to earn back trust. The belief from others that you can put your mistakes behind you, and develop the skills to contribute to society in a positive way, is lifechanging.”

Click here to download a copy of the report.

Picture credit: Erika Flowers

PRT comment: Record levels of self-harm and assaults and a rise in deaths

Commenting on the Ministry of Justice’s safety in custody statistics, published today, Mark Day, Head of Policy and Communications at the Prison Reform Trust, said:

“These disturbing figures show every indicator of prison safety to be pointing the wrong way, with a rise in numbers of natural and self-inflicted deaths and record levels of self-harm and assaults. The measures the government have put in place to improve prison safety, including increasing staff numbers and the roll out of a new key worker model, have not yet succeeded in reversing this rising trend. Plans to roll out PAVA spray to all prison staff on the closed adult male estate risk making a volatile situation even worse.”

Prison Reform Trust calls for urgent moratorium on PAVA spray roll out

The Prison Reform Trust has called for an urgent moratorium on the planned roll out of PAVA spray to prison officers in the adult male estate.

It warns that the roll out, which is due to begin in the New Year, is likely to do more harm than good and undermine the safety of prisoners and prison officers.

After the decision to roll out PAVA was announced in early October, the Prison Minister Rory Stewart said that PAVA would only be used in “exceptional circumstances” to protect staff from the threat or perceived threat of serious violence.

However, a new analysis of the pilot evaluation by PRT’s Director Peter Dawson, who is a former prison governor, shows that nearly two thirds (64%) of incidents in which PAVA spray was deployed by prison staff may have contravened the guidance for its use.

PAVA was deployed 50 times during the course of the pilot which took place in four prisons between January and June 2018.

PRT’s analysis reveals that in 34% of cases an inappropriate justification was used to authorise its use; in 24% of cases its use was unsafe; and in 24% of cases an alternative was available. In several cases the use of PAVA was outside the guidance for more than one reason.

In one case, PAVA was deployed against a prisoner who was self-harming and where there was no indication of a threat to the officer.

In another, PAVA was sprayed at the same prisoner three times in ten minutes, including at point blank range through the cell flap. The prisoner against whom it was deployed had clear, known and obvious mental health issues.

In a number of incidents there was no indication of a threat of harm and PAVA was used to enforce an order, in direct contravention of the guidance. In some cases, PAVA was deployed against the wrong prisoner, and in others officers mistakenly sprayed themselves and other colleagues.

The £2m roll out to prison officers on the closed adult male estate was announced in October. At the time of the announcement, the evaluation of the pilot was not published or even summarised but was subsequently revealed through a freedom of information request.

In a letter to PRT in November, Rory Stewart said that PAVA “will be used in exceptional circumstances where a member of staff or is faced with serious violence, or the perceived threat of serious violence.”

Announcing the roll out, the government claimed that PAVA would be “a crucial step to help reduce serious harm”. It assured that PAVA would “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”. The evidence from the pilot is that none of those tests were met.

The author of the analysis, PRT’s Director Peter Dawson, has 12 years’ experience of dealing with and authorising use of force in custody as a former prison governor. On the back of the analysis, Dawson has written to the Prisons Minister calling for an urgent moratorium on the planned roll out.

In his letter, Dawson warns that “the availability of such a potent weapon has immediately created a norm for its use which is different from what you intended, and which the safeguards in place – even in a closely monitored pilot – failed to control. Perhaps as a consequence, there is clear evidence from the pilot that deployment of PAVA undermined the trust that prisoners had in officers and in the legitimacy of the authority those officers hold.”

The evaluation reveals that violence levels in the four prisons continued to rise during the period of the pilot. According to the Trust, this shows “conclusively that there was no objective basis for the increase in staff confidence” which was used as the main justification for the roll out. “PAVA did not reduce violence, whatever staff felt, but did undermine the trust prisoners felt in staff.”

Violence also continued to rise in the four “control” prisons in the pilot, where PAVA was not deployed. But in those prisons, relationships between prisoners and staff appeared to be slowly improving as a result of the introduction of keyworking – dedicated time for officers to spend helping prisoners cope with their sentence and prepare for release.

Far from being a tool that gave confidence to inexperienced staff, the evaluation shows that PAVA was used predominantly by experienced staff and predominantly in situations where the ability to use existing control and restraint methods (with three or more staff present) was available.

PRT’s paper also criticises the poor quality of the equality analysis conducted as part of the pilot evaluation, which was disclosed to the charity through correspondence with the Minister. Furthermore, there has been no equality impact assessment of the decision to proceed with a national roll out. This is despite clear evidence that current disciplinary and use of force measures are disproportionate and discriminatory, and casts doubt on whether the department is meeting its statutory duties under equalities legislation.

PRT’s analysis acknowledges that the decision to roll out PAVA was made in the context of “an apparently inexorable rise in violence across much of the prison estate. That rise includes an increase in severity as well as volume of violent incidents, with both prisoners and staff as victims. It coincides with many prisons absorbing a very significant loss of experienced staff and an influx of newly trained staff, with an associated loss of confidence overall. PRT realises that the rollout of PAVA spray was only ever contemplated because of the risk to life that violence in prison represents, and that the policy has been subject to lengthy debate within the prison service.”

But the analysis concludes that, “Unfortunately, that debate has not taken place outside the service or the Ministry of Justice to any significant degree, and the evidence to inform it has been kept secret until after the decision to roll out was announced. That cannot be acceptable in a matter of such long-term significance to the welfare of all those who live and work in prisons. Perhaps the only uncontroversial aspect of the debate is that its outcome will have a profound and enduring impact on the ethos and culture of prisons – it is too important to be concluded behind closed doors.”

Click here to download a copy of our position paper on the introduction of PAVA, which includes a copy of the evaluation report.

Addressing overcrowding must be at the heart of government plans for prison reform

Sir, Your leader hits a whole series of nails on their heads. Setting arbitrary limits on the prison population is not the issue. Eliminating overcrowding is. It represents the corrosion at the heart of our prisons, undermining decency, safety and rehabilitation. And no government in living memory has made a dent in it, probably because none has thought it worth having a strategy to do so.

Among all the many aspirations to emerge since the crisis in our prisons was finally acknowledged by Michael Gove and now Liz Truss, there is an echoing void where a timetabled plan to eliminate overcrowding should be. In the short term, the pressure can eased by not sending people to prison who need help not punishment, preventing the recall of people to prison on technical grounds, and by reversing the decline in early release on electronic tags. Longer term, we need to rethink how we punish more serious crime, restoring discretion to the courts and hope to the prisoners whose lives we seek to change.