IN DEFENCE OF VIOLENCE
280 characters won’t do justice to any considered reaction to the issue of PAVA incapacitant spray to prison staff. I’ve decided to make a lengthier and, I hope, more measured response to the release of the pilot study findings that have been used by the Ministry of Justice in support of the national roll out of this controversial weapon.
Having read the report, my view hasn’t changed. PAVA, if used correctly and lawfully is a justified defensive response to the wholly exceptional conditions that prevail inside our profoundly disordered prison system.
I am probably one of the few commentators on this issue who has carried both PAVA and the only other defensive weapon issued to most front-line staff, the extendable baton – as a volunteer police officer. Does this fact make my views any more persuasive than the majority I have come across in the Twittersphere? Maybe not. But that experience certainly informs my thinking on the causes and consequences of spontaneous violence as it illuminates the benefits – and the risks – of equipping prison officers with the same tactical options.
I’ve also been rather depressed by a form of confirmation bias on the issue I have observed in people who would otherwise condemn that sort of lazy thinking. This has been apparent in the selective use of a report to confirm to them that PAVA has no observable effect in reducing violence and worse, represents a descent into authoritarianism. The draft report itself bears some responsibility for these easy conclusions, curious formatting aside. Almost every benefit – and there are many reported both by staff and prisoners – has been artfully obscured by a countervailing risk of almost the same value. Senior managers have also weighed in – although the weight we should give to the opinions of this largely discredited cadre of mandarins, many of whom with either nil or very distant operational experience – is questionable. Take this learned contribution:
‘Senior leaders have expressed concern that PAVA is incongruent with our relational management style and rehabilitative aspirations and their impact could be mitigated through the introduction of this tool.’
It’s hard to take any of this corporate worthiness seriously, set against the current prison world of endemic brutality, squalor and broken regimes. One of the reasons ‘rehabilitative aspirations’ remain aspirations is because of rampant, record breaking normalised violence across a prison system these people are accountable for running. ‘Relational management style’ probably means what an officer could do to build rapport with offenders, using the hole in their face, if only there were sufficient numbers of them to create safety, authority and order on the landing and prisoners weren’t off their faces on Spice.
Another factor in the deployment of PAVA that has stricken many commentators is that it might actually hurt. This may be down to a simple misunderstanding about the dynamics of violence seldom encountered, to be fair, in the Senior Common Rooms of academia. In any situation where force is applied, primarily to defend yourself or others from being attacked, the proportionality of the response is fundamental to safely and legally achieving the aim. This principle isn’t just about curtailing excessive force, however. While you shouldn’t bring a baton to a verbal argument, equally, you don’t bring a water pistol to a knife fight. Unless it’s filled with something that you’re bloody sure will make the assailant drop his blade. Of course PAVA hurts, that’s precisely its purpose – to overcome a threat that can’t be countered by other means and in the case of prison staff to sit in the midst of interpersonal communications, control and restraint and a potentially lethal steel baton with enough kinetic energy potential in its tip to put you in a coma for life or worse. The effects of PAVA are well understood, short-lived and have no long-term adverse physical consequences. It is a deeply unpleasant experience – I’ve had a face full of the similar CS gas – but it is patently not like getting stabbed or strangled or even dying through positional asphyxia brought on by badly applied C&R.
I’ve also noticed that some of my fellow commentators have seized on the reports ‘evidence’ that merely drawing PAVA – far from controlling a situation was in fact making things worse. Yes, that’s true. In nearly 6% of reported incidents across the four pilot sites. Meaning that in 94% of cases it helped to control the violence or if you want to be super-pedantic it had a neutral impact. That’s decent odds when other options have been exhausted (while still leaving you the option to actually deploy it). Ah, but have those options really been exhausted? The report also suggests that there is a concern that equipping staff with PAVA will make them rely on it for conflict resolution sooner than existing force options would otherwise be applied. The evidence from the test sites – not noticeably referred to by those on the other side of the argument – was different. This response from this officer was typical.
“I feel a lot more safe, just because, if you’re on your own and words aren’t working with them, it’s a big lad who could overpower you, it makes you a lot more confident going into a confrontation”
It also exposes some of the criticism of PAVA as being driven more by ideology or sectional interest than an understanding of the prison world as it is. That world is fearful, outnumbered staff working in conditions where aggressive confrontation is the norm – an oppositional culture, fuelled by an absence of authority and firm control, aggravated by indecent conditions and the presence of a drugs economy as buoyant as it is destructive.
Inevitably, those few and often very inexperienced staff are also completely unable to protect the weak and the vulnerable as they are too busy looking after themselves. In my operational experience on the landings, confidence was the currency in what is, was and ever more shall be a predatory environment. We might all wish it different. We might all wish for Unicorns. Confident staff, however, can mitigate much of this malign predation. Confident staff can restore and maintain a culture of safety which is absolutely vital for anything else hopeful to flourish. Confidence works and the overwhelming response of staff in the trials was that carrying PAVA allowed them to feel more in control of their environment. Every little helps.
My takeaway from the conclusion is a different one from those who seem determined that PAVA is always and in all circumstances a bad idea:
‘We can conclude from this that the implementation of policies which seeks to support officers in addressing violence have a beneficial psychological effect on staff, making them feel more confident. Broadly speaking PAVA is effective as an incapacitant and disabled most prisoners who were sprayed with it’
The PAVA detractors instead seize on the fact that the project ‘was unable to conclusively demonstrate that PAVA had any direct impact on levels of prison violence. Overall violence levels continued to rise across all of the pilot (and comparator) sites during the period, continuing previous trends.’
But PAVA by itself could never achieve this effect and is not intended to do so. That’s far too grandiose an expectation for a smal tin of hurty solvent. It is merely designed to fit into the hole in the officers tactical response options to violence somewhere between talking and a potentially lethal baton strike. The ever-rising rates of assault, self harm and disorder is something we can all agree requires a much more strategic approach. The other initiatives discussed in the report, such as body worn cameras and the case worker initiative, combined with PAVA ought to have an impact on safety over time as part of (but not all of) a full spectrum response to violence reduction. But in the meantime, officers are being assaulted at an unsustainable rate (and consequentially leaving the service at an unsustainable rate) and this presents the Government with a ‘here and now’ problem their own disastrous staff culling policies have largely created.
In order to create a prison system where PAVA spray is unnecessary, we need to take back control of the unsafe, ungoverned spaces that make this addition to the armoury an unfortunate necessity. As I wrote in February this year, “Control in prisons is not – and never has been – maintained by force. Control is the thing that prevents force having to be used much in the first place. As John Podmore, one of the most experienced former prison Governors in the country puts it, ‘if we have to lay hands on, we’ve failed.’ To put it another way, use of force, like PAVA spray is what gets used after a failure of control. Control is formed and held by a complex set of factors that rely primarily on the right number of staff able to do the job with confidence. That job is to operate predictable, purposeful and calm regimes which allow prisoners to be busy tackling their offending behaviour and preparing for release through training, employment and learning.”
Finally, let’s return to confirmation bias. If the cap fits – haven’t I just done what many of the people I’m calling out from the other side of the argument did? I’ve picked out the bits of this unsatisfactory report to fit my case. Maybe. But if anyone cares to read my previous posting on the subject, ‘spraying for peace?’ I hope they might see a more nuanced approach. PAVA is not without risk. Cross contamination, loss of weapon to prisoners, unlawful or disproportionate use, creating a barrier between staff and prisoners, encouraging a more coercive approach to compliance, reducing legitimacy, impact on people under the influence of NPS – I’ve certainly thought about all of these and I think they are valid concerns. But while the study examines them, there is no compelling evidence that any of these detriments have happened to an extent or severity across the pilot sites that would cancel out the very clear benefits. In today’s prison system, every response is risky. But the perils of doing nothing at all to meaningfully and quickly protect the buckling front line are stark and obvious.
@SamuelVimes10 – an operational prison professional with a pithy take on the current corporate culture hit the nail on the head recently when he spoke about senior people ‘shifting their feet uneasily’ when the notion of security, order and control comes up. I see that attitude quite often in the more strident prison commentators who I fear have no real operational understanding of the brute realities of life inside and who often see prison staff (if seen at all) as somewhat two-dimensional bit parts in the theatre of their boundless compassion. Moreover, the vital priorities of safety and security for the upper echelons of the corporate prison service had until very recently been subordinate, almost rendered invisible, by adherence to and association with more ‘fashionable’ virtues. I call this ‘the men’ syndrome. This dereliction has had predictable results – usually resulting in ‘the men’ getting an ever shittier end of the stick in terms of their basic safety and future life chances. If we are in a place where weaponising officers is seen as necessary, this management failure to pay attention to and deal with rising violence is at least as much to blame as anything else. In the absence of the real game-changer – suitable and sufficient staff to run safe and decent regimes – we owe a duty of care to those left holding the line. We can’t spray our way out of the current predicament but used lawfully and properly, PAVA just might help prison staff get back on the front foot, where we need them – helping to turn difficult and damaged offenders back into people with potential.
Still not convinced? Let’s leave the last word to offenders in the most violent prison in the pilot study. People who will see the business end this new instrument of state violence (let’s call a spade a spade, please) up close and personal and who can be counted on for a straight answer. They are recorded as saying that when equipped with PAVA, ‘staff are more prioritising of safety, less punitive, and have increased their visibility on the wings over the course of the pilot period, which has raised their [prisoners] feelings of safety.’