Use of Force (Part One)

Prison Service Order on use of force against prisoners is a restricted document, meaning that only authorised staff are permitted to access it. However, there is a redacted version available to prisoners and the public. Over the next three days I’ll be taking a look at the rules surrounding this topic.

All staff (including civilian staff) are trained in what are known as Personal Safety Techniques (i.e. self defence) and all officers are trained in Control and Restraint techniques including the use of batons. New officers are required to undertake at least 32 hours of such training from C&R instructors who themselves have to undergo refresher training every year.

During training there are four mandatory course units which every staff member must complete. These are ‘Guidelines on the use of force‘ (i.e. they must know when use of force is lawful and when it is unlawful either because it is unnecessary or because it is excessive), ‘Communication‘ (i.e. how to attempt to calm and resolve the situation without resorting to force), ‘Medical Considerations‘ (i.e. how to restrain someone without killing them), and ‘Use of Force Report writing‘ (i.e. how to cover your tracks. I jest, this is actually meant to be how to write the incident up so that the use of force can be reviewed by internal and external bodies to ensure that no wrong doing occurred on the part of staff). Additionally, in an officer’s initial training they will cover all areas of the training manual including the use of a baton. Anyone who fails the training is given a second chance to complete it but if they continue to fail then their employment is terminated.

Some officers will be trained in ‘C&R Advanced‘ which includes a five day course followed by a second two day course. This enables them to become part of a specialised control and restraint unit which is responsible for dealing with non-immediate disturbances. In other words, if a prisoner punches an officer, the use of force will be dealt with by all staff present in the first instance. However, if a group of prisoners barricade themselves in a cell, it is the C&R unit’s job to get them out.

On the job this PSO requires staff not just to avoid potential violence but to prevent it wherever possible. It states that “When faced with a conflict situation we should have one of three objectives, these are: Avoid danger, Defuse the situation, or Control the situation.” One might wonder why you can only choose one of these when all three would be far better. To avoid danger it is recommended that staff maintain awareness both of any threats and of their surroundings such as exits, alarms, colleagues or prisoners, as this “buys time”. To defuse the situation it is recommended that staff adopt effective verbal and non-verbal communication strategies. And to control the situation it is recommended that staff adopt a positive, assertive and confident approach generally, and use force only where a situation develops and escalates beyond verbal reasoning.

It is expected that staff make all available attempts to de-escalate any confrontational situation before using force wherever this is possible. The signs of aggression are explained as well as some of the reasons prisoners may become aggressive including unfairness, immaturity, learned behaviour (it gets results), reputation, a means to an end, and as a decoy. Those faced with aggression should consider if the prisoner is facing a high level of stress, if they seem drunk or on drugs, if they have a history of verbally abusing staff, threatening them with violence, or using violence in the past or of psychiatric illness. Staff should then use language appropriate to the prisoner, in their own language if possible, taking time to check they are understood and minimising barriers to communication such as noise, emotive language, perception and prejudice, and intrusion of personal space.

The PSO states that “A prisoner who is out of control will be under the influence of the adrenal cocktail.” Staff should seek to appear confident, display calmness, create some space, speak slowly, gently, and clearly, lower their voice, avoid staring, avoid arguing and confrontation, show they are listening, calm the prisoner before trying to solve the problem, use a calm, open posture, reduce direct eye contact, allow the prisoner adequate personal space, keep both hands visible, avoid sudden movements, avoid audiences, and-above all, NEVER THREATEN as this ceases all negotiations.

Recommended de-escalation techniques include explaining your purpose or intention, encouraging reasoning for the prisoner’s behaviour using open questions about the facts rather than about feelings, and ensuring that your non-verbal communication is non-threatening.

Only if no alternative is available should use of force be considered. There is a whole section of the PSO dedicated to defining the theory and law surrounding the use of force and it sets out that such force is only lawful if it is reasonable in the circumstances (which is open to interpretation but considerations should include the size, age and sex of both the prisoner and the member of staff concerned and whether any weapons are present), if it is necessary (in order to prevent harm in the form of risk to life, limb, property or good order of the establishment), if no more force than necessary is used (so, for example, a prisoner who is under restraint and is not resisting should not be punched since this is not necessary), and if it is proportionate to the seriousness of the circumstances (which should be measured by asking if a less injurious, but equally effective alternative exists). Only if all other avenues have been exhausted and these four criteria have been met should force be used. However, when use of force is genuinely necessary there are clear guidelines on how it should be employed. It is this that I will be focusing on tomorrow.

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