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25 January 2021

Questions remain over PAVA spray usage in prisons

We have today written to the prisons minister requesting more information about PAVA use in prisons. As we reported last year, we gave expert evidence in support of litigation brought by an individual prisoner and also supported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. This produced some important outcomes putting on record commitments from the ministry. Our letter to the minister asks for evidence that those commitments are now being met. But it also repeats the request for other data which will allow for proper external scrutiny, and makes proposals to strengthen the central and local governance of use of force more generally.

There has been some progress. Data is now made available that shows how often PAVA has been deployed, with some information about the protected characteristics of those involved. But our letter makes clear that what is currently disclosed raises as many questions as it answers, and that there is critically important information which is still kept secret.

It is worrying, to put it mildly, that PAVA is ever being used at the moment when almost all prisoners are spending almost all their time locked in cell. But as prison regimes eventually start to relax when lockdown finally comes to an end, the potential for increased use is obvious. So it is crucial that steps are taken now to meet the multiple promises that have been made about ensuring that the use of PAVA is an absolute last resort. The decision to secretly extend PAVA deployment to all adult prisons in the middle of the pandemic means that it is available in prisons where all the promised rollout safeguards simply hadn’t been completed.

We will continue to argue that the decision to issue PAVA to all officers was a strategic mistake and should be reversed. But until that happens, we will hold the prison service and ministers to the standards they have set themselves. Securing public access to the information which will show whether or not they are doing so is the crucial tool for achieving that.