Skip Content

PAVA spray Q & A

Learn more about PAVA spray and its use in prisons.

What is PAVA spray?

PAVA is a chemical irritant spray that can cause severe pain. It is classified as a prohibited weapon under the Firearms Act 1968, but staff have been given power to use it in prisons holding men. According to prison operational guidance, it is “to be directed towards the eyes and can disable and/or incapacitate most subjects”.

Guidance for people in prison who have been sprayed states: “You have been subjected to the effects of PAVA spray. PAVA primarily affects the eyes causing closure and severe pain. You may also feel a burning sensation on your skin. PAVA may also produce uncontrollable coughing; this is the body’s protective measure. These effects are a normal response to this type of PAVA spray.”

A training video on the Lincolnshire Police website describes the spray more succinctly. “The best way I can describe it,” the instructor says, “is it’s like wet fire.”

How has PAVA spray been used in prisons?

In 2018, the use of PAVA spray was piloted for six months in four men’s prisons in England – Hull, Wealstun, Preston and Risley. An evaluation of the project found that it did not reduce violence overall, and it was recognised – by staff as well as people living in prison – that the spray’s introduction had undermined relationships.

The evaluation report provided details of 50 cases in which PAVA spray had been used during the pilot. Analysis by the Prison Reform Trust showed that almost a quarter of the cases involved PAVA spray being used unsafely, including deployment in confined spaces, at height, at point-blank range and, in some cases, at the wrong target.

PAVA spray is supposed to be used as a last resort, but this was not the case in about a quarter of the cases detailed in the evaluation. In about one in three cases, the spray had been used without appropriate justification. Sometimes it had been used to enforce orders rather than to prevent serious harm. On other occasions, it had been used in an attempt to prevent people harming themselves.

More than 90 prisons have been equipped with PAVA spray

In spite of these concerns, the government announced plans to roll out PAVA spray to other prisons. There were significant delays, but in May 2023, the then prisons minister, Damian Hinds, confirmed that PAVA spray was available to staff in all adult male prisons in the public estate. Privately managed prisons holding men have the option to roll out PAVA spray to their staff. In total, more than 90 prisons have been equipped with PAVA spray.

Unfortunately, the serious concerns that arose from the pilot evaluation have been borne out since PAVA spray was rolled out across the adult prison estate.

The situation in prisons holding young adults is particularly worrying. In September 2023, a damning report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) of one prison described PAVA spray being used “recklessly and freely” and without any scrutiny by prison leaders. The Howard League has heard from young adults in a prison where PAVA spray is drawn and used multiple times each week.

Across the estate, HMIP reports have revealed a multitude of problems, such as: people being targeted inappropriately, including some who were threatening to self-harm; a lack of training; incorrect use of body-worn cameras; and, in at least one prison, no routine enquiry into the use of PAVA spray to make sure it was justified or to ensure that any lessons could be learned.

Use of PAVA spray that is not strictly necessary will constitute a breach of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which provides that no one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Who is on the receiving end of PAVA spray in prisons?

The use of PAVA spray raises serious questions about racial disparities in the prison system. As the Prison Reform Trust (PRT) has observed, in its ‘Equality incapacitated’ briefing, the decision to roll out to all men’s prisons after the pilot “was taken in the full knowledge that officers were likely to use force disproportionately on people from Black, Black/British, and Muslim backgrounds”.

An equality analysis, undertaken in 2017 for the introduction of PAVA spray, found disproportionately high rates of use of force against people from racialised minorities, especially young Black men. Meanwhile, evidence gathered at one prison, as part of a government-commissioned study by the Runnymede Trust and the University of Greenwich, showed disproportionate use of force by ethnicity and religion, and that the scale of disproportionality was increasing.

In 2019, an equality analysis of the use of force by HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) found that PAVA spray had been drawn or used more against people from racialised minorities. It added: “The evidence from wider use of force would suggest that this trend will continue as rollout progresses.”

The response from justice minister Lord Bellamy KC, to a parliamentary question asked by Lord Bradley

Statistics provided by justice minister Lord Bellamy KC, in response to a written question by Lord Bradley, show that, in the period from April 2019 to September 2023, PAVA spray was deployed against 1,213 people in prison. A breakdown of the figures by recorded ethnicity suggests that a Black/Black British man is significantly more likely to be sprayed than a White man.

In March 2024, prisons minister Edward Argar provided statistics showing that use of PAVA spray was concentrated in prisons holding young men. The figures, offered in response to a written question by the MP for Mitcham and Morden, Siobhain McDonough, revealed that, of the 876 people in prison who were impacted by PAVA spray being drawn and used in 2023, more than one-third were in either Brinsford, Feltham or Swinfen Hall.

Responses to parliamentary questions indicate that the use of PAVA spray has become steadily more disproportionate over the years since its introduction. PRT’s briefing states that, while Black/Black British men make up about 13% of the adult male prison population, they accounted for 39% of all individuals on whom PAVA spray had been deployed by November 2021 and 41% by September 2023.

One important question that remains unanswered is the extent to which PAVA spray is used disproportionately against people with disabilities. This is because HMPPS is yet to produce a reliable measure of the prevalence of disabilities in the prison estate, despite promising to do so for several years. In 2019, the Equality and Human Rights Commission funded legal action by a person in prison with disabilities, concerned that “disabled people with mental health conditions and learning disabilities could be particularly at risk” of PAVA use. The case was settled in 2020 with the government undertaking to introduce better monitoring and safeguards against disproportionate use of force; however, the lack of centralised data continues to be a significant obstacle to assessing disproportionalities.

What is the government planning to do now?

Ministers are considering the introduction of PAVA spray in prisons holding children.

Wait…there are prisons holding children?

Yes. In January 2024, there were 397 children living in what the Ministry of Justice calls the children and young person secure estate. Most of these children were being held in prisons known as young offender institutions (YOIs), and the others were in a secure training centre or secure children’s homes.

The government has confirmed that it is considering the rollout of PAVA spray to YOIs, but not to the secure training centre and secure children’s homes.

Because of an overcrowding crisis in prisons holding adults, a number of young people aged 18 and over have been placed in prisons holding children. In January 2024, the total number of children and young people held in YOIs stood at 387.

More than half of the children and young people in custody are from racialised minorities – a disproportionality that the Howard League is investigating through its programme to address racial disparities in youth justice.

When inspectors surveyed children in custody in 2022-23, they found that two in three had been in local authority care, almost half reported having health problems, and three in 10 said that they had a disability.

About two in five children and young people in custody are being held on remand, which means that they are either awaiting trial or sentence. Almost three quarters of children who are remanded to custody do not end up receiving a custodial sentence.

Prison is no place for a child. And children’s experiences in prison are blighted by “years of failings in children’s custody”, in the words of HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, with HMPPS “unable to guarantee basic services for children”. These concerns are echoed in the calls that the Howard League receives through its advice line for children and young people in custody.

We have heard from children being unable take part in education or exercise, or even at times to access showers or get fresh air. In April 2023, the government was ordered to respond with an urgent improvement plan for Cookham Wood prison in Kent, after an unannounced inspection found that the “solitary confinement of children had become normalised”. By November 2023, children at Cookham Wood were still only allowed out of their cells for an average of two hours and 45 minutes a day. In March 2024, the Ministry of Justice announced that children would be moved out of Cookham Wood and the prison repurposed to accommodate adults.

Children have told us that they do not feel safe and have raised concerns about inappropriate use of force by staff. When asked by inspectors, less than half of children in prison reported feeling cared for by staff, and almost one-third did not have a single member of staff they trusted to help them if they had a problem.

Why does the Howard League oppose the rollout of PAVA spray to prisons holding children?

The Howard League has a principled objection to any approach that inflicts pain on someone deliberately, and this includes the use of PAVA spray. What does it say about a system when its leaders feel they need the power to spray chemicals in the eyes of children? It reflects a profound failure on the part of those responsible for children in custody that they would consider introducing weapons in the name of safety, and it only underlines the fact that prison is no place for a child.

When PAVA spray was piloted in prisons holding adults, the evaluation findings indicated that it did nothing to reduce violence and in fact had a detrimental effect on relationships between staff and the people living there. This would be particularly damaging in prisons holding children, where positive relationships are essential to ensure that children are safeguarded and supported.

The findings from the pilot project also showed that, on several occasions, PAVA spray had not been used properly or safely. This would be catastrophic in prisons holding children, where staff already use force and pain-inducing restraint techniques. YOIs recorded more than 3,300 use of force incidents in the year from April 2022 to March 2023.

In March 2024, HM Inspectorate of Prisons published a distressing report on Wetherby, a prison holding boys and girls as young as 15. Inspectors found that children had been forcibly stripped and subjected to pain-inducing restraint by staff without adequate oversight or accountability. Twenty-four children had been strip searched in the 12 months leading up to the inspection, with 12 of those incidents occurring under restraint. Pain-inducing restraint techniques had been applied nine times in the 12 months before the inspection and on every occasion had been deemed inappropriate by the Independent Review of Restraint Panel. Footage of use of force incidents was not being reviewed consistently, and inspectors found that one restraint, which resulted in a child being injured, had not been referred to senior managers.

Official statistics for the deployment of PAVA spray in adult prisons indicate that a Black person is significantly more likely to be sprayed than a White person. This is an alarming finding that ought to be addressed. It raises serious questions about any plan to extend the use of PAVA spray to YOIs, which already hold disproportionately large numbers of children from racialised minorities and where force is already used disproportionately against Black children and young people in custody. There are significant concerns, too, about the likelihood of disproportionate use of PAVA spray on people with disabilities, although the government’s failure to provide data prevents adequate scrutiny of this.

Prisons are totally unsuitable for children. The way to reduce violence is to close them and ensure that children are accommodated in more appropriate settings – such as secure children’s homes – where they can be given the care and support they need.

How can I help?

If you use social media, you can post about the campaign to show your support and tell others what we are doing. Click here for posts you can share on X, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Threads.

Please consider joining the Howard League as a member. This is the best way to help – enabling us not only to challenge the rollout of PAVA spray, but also to do further work to build a more humane and effective response to crime.






  • Join the Howard League

    We are the world's oldest prison charity, bringing people together to advocate for change.

    Join us and make your voice heard
  • Support our work

    We safeguard our independence and do not accept any funding from government.

    Make a donation