General Secretary

Spring 2019 | 10.04.2019

POA members need protection


As we enter 2019 to understand the scale of the health and safety crisis engulfing our prisons in England and Wales, there is only one number you need to remember – 27 per cent

That is the rise in violence against POA members in England and Wales over the past year – and it follows a 25 per cent increase from the year before.

Officers face record levels of kicking, punching, spitting and biting – plus “potting” where excrement and urine are thrown over their heads and into faces and mouths. This disgraceful and disgusting practise has increased 15- fold since 2010.

There were 9,485 recorded assaults on staff in the 12 months to June 2018 – over one every hour – but the true figure is likely to be much higher due to inaccurate reporting which the Ministry of Justice has admitted.


We are also seeing an increase in violent attacks against our female members with some gang members seeing it as a badge of honour. Female members are also being sexually assaulted by some prisoners where many years ago this was practically unheard of. It seems there are no boundaries and all our members are fair game.

Slashing Officer and OSG numbers by over 7,000 between 2010 and 2013 led to a huge increase in violence – and even although the Government admits it made a mistake and is now desperately recruiting again, there are still 3,000 less Officers than before.

New recruits are welcome but it is unfair to expect to much too soon as they need experience around them to mentor them in the difficult work that they do. At least 70,000 years of Officer experience have been lost from the Prison Service since 2010, according to research by the Labour party – and in some areas that experience is still dwindling.

Staff feel less and less protected, which is why the POA has campaigned for the roll-out of synthetic pepper spray “PAVA”. The Prisons Minister Rory Stewart has listened and recognised our concerns and has not only backed the pilot of “PAVA” but its roll -out as well.

I have always been on record stating that when necessary irrespective of political party I will criticise politicians when they get it wrong but equally praise them when they get it right and the Prisons Minister has got this one right and the POA fully support him in taking the measures of introducing “PAVA” not just to protect our members but also prisoners in our care.

Currently, Officers only have extendible batons to protect themselves from attack, but batons can break bones – or worse – even if deployed correctly against an out of control prisoner.

PAVA is an incapacitant and of course can cause pain for up to half an hour but leaves no lasting damage and will be a deterrent. Police Officers are issued it as standard and that is accepted as a necessity by the general public and I am sure the vast majority of the public accept that POA members should be properly equipped to protect their health and safety whilst at work.

The POA have continually applied pressure on the employer and indeed Ministers and Rory Stewart announced in October 2018 that PAVA would be rolled out to all public adult male jails from the start of this year.


The government ran a six-month pilot in four prisons – HMP Hull, HMP Preston, HMP Risley and HMP Wealstun – with positive results. The official evaluation report pointed out that “a significant proportion of prisoners and the majority of staff expressed the view that PAVA was necessary”.

However, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) immediately warned that “making PAVA spray available to every prison officer increases the risk that it might be used inappropriately” – another way of saying that Officers cannot be trusted with new powers the POA completely reject.

This is disappointing from the EHRC because Officers deserve better support than this, especially from the UK’s official human rights watchdog. Workers have human rights too – including the right to proper health and safety conditions at work and protection against violence. When the POA were banned from their basic human rights of taking industrial action under section 127 of the Criminal Justice Public Order Act 1994 since amended the ECHR were conspicuous by their absence and indeed failed to comment more recently when the government won a permanent injunction in the High Court in an attempt to silence the POA from taking effective action to protect health and safety of its members.

Then the Prison Reform Trust (PRT) also tried to derail the roll – out, declaring PAVA was “likely to do more harm than good and undermine the safety of prisoners and prison officers”

Incredibly the charity seems to be accusing officers of pushing a policy that puts their own security at risk.

During the pilot, Officers drew PAVA on 50 occasions – actually spraying it 33 times – while official data shows there were 562 recorded violent assaults at the four prisons during the same time period, which means that PAVA was drawn less than 10 per cent of the time.

And although the pilot “was unable to conclusively demonstrate that PAVA had any direct impact on levels of prison violence,” according to the report, its important to remember that staffing cuts took months to translate into increased violence – and its logical to support there will be a similar time lag before PAVA has a significant effect.

The report provides a brief description of each occasion PAVA was deployed – “case studies” based on statements from staff and prisoners.


From these case studies, the PRT claimed that Officers used PAVA correctly on just 18 occasions. The other 32 incidents were either unsafe, had available alternatives or were not appropriately justified. But how is the PRT making these judgements? First, the charity assumes that three or more Officers are always enough to incapacitate a prisoner without PAVA.

The case studies are very interesting in the report. Consider case study 11 in the evaluation report. While the Prison Reform Trust criticises this use of PAVA as “not in line with instructions”, the report states: “The prisoner was trained in martial arts and ended up putting prison officer A on the floor and punched him several times in the face.” Despite more Officers attempting to assist, “there was little success in gaining compliancy from the prisoner” and so “as a result, Prison Officer B decided to draw and deploy PAVA.” This would seem to be a textbook example of the correct use of PAVA, but for the Prison Reform Trust it was unnecessary because more than two officers were present – taking no account of the prisoner’s martial arts training.

Now take case study 41, in which a prisoner “became extremely irate and attempted to assault” an Officer, before another Officer “drew and deployed PAVA after giving a clear warning.” The PRT because the prisoner managed to use the first Officer “to block the spray”, judged this intervention not to be in line with instructions. But the prisoner still felt the primary effects of the spray and was “then restrained and placed in cuffs.” Even the PRT’s own analysis of this incident agrees that the use of PAVA was justified, but the charity still marked it as illegitimate because it apparently had the “opposite of [the] impact sought.”

As a final example of missing the point entirely, take case study 7 – one of two uses of PAVA to stop self-harm. A prisoner had previously made “superficial cuts” to himself, before “he began to self-harm again.” Then “once healthcare had left the scene, the prisoner proceeded to cut deeper and deeper.” An officer entered the cell and told the prisoner to stop. He refused and so the officer drew her PAVA, at which point the prisoner dropped the blade. The PRT objects to the officer threatening to use PAVA in this situation, but it seems a perfect example of the “Velcro effect” – using the threat of force to de-escalate a dangerous situation. Interestingly, the Officer in question “stated that she would not have drawn her baton in this incident but was inclined to draw PAVA” according to the report. This makes sense if you realise that, unlike a baton, PAVA is an incapacitant – it is designed to stop a prisoner in their tracks.


The POA believe that the official guidance is clear and adequate safeguards are in place that PAVA should only be used if it is reasonable, necessary and proportionate – and if all other methods are “considered unsafe” or “unlikely to be sufficient in resolving the conflict” In the case study above, a baton attack with a loose blade could well have made things worse, yet the Prison Reform Trust considers the threat of PAVA not to be in line with instructions – and even the report authors raise concerns about this kind of intervention. And that is the problem. Superficially, you might think threatening a self-harming prisoner with PAVA is unreasonable – but direct action like this is more likely to prevent serious harm to the prisoner than waving a baton around. The fact of the matter is in that live incident the officer’s quick thinking prevented further self- harm or indeed something far worse. The judgement in that incident was wholly justified. It is all very well in hindsight judging Officers from the comfort of an office. But my members are dealing with life or death situations and have to make judgements at the time and do so very effectively.


If the Prison Reform Trust or the Equality and Human Rights Commission still do not understand why Prison Officer’s need PAVA now, then they should spend time walking in the shoes of a Prison Officer and understanding the violence that my members face on a daily basis before lecturing about what tools POA members need to be safe at work. In an ideal world there should be no need for PAVA in our prisons but it isn’t an ideal world and I live in the real world where my members don’t know if they are going home in one piece or not to their loved ones. Not many occupations have that threat and all reasonable minded members of the public and indeed in the trade union movement will realise that POA members along with those in our care need to be protected. Whilst PAVA isn’t the answer to the Prison crisis it is a step in the right direction to deter and prevent violence not just against prison officers but prisoners as well. That is why the POA reject the criticism from the Prison Reform Trust and the EHRC and fully support the Prison Minister Rory Stewart in the roll out of PAVA.

The POA will continue to campaign for proper protective equipment so that our members can carry out the vital role of rehabilitating those in our care in a safe and decent manner. The POA are calling for solidarity from across the trade union movement with our demands for proper protective equipment so POA members can do their job safely.