Use of Force ‘should be a last resort in Jails’ says Ombudsman

useofforceStaff face enormous challenges in keeping order and control in prisons, and the use of force must always be an option, but it should be a measure of last resort, said Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) Nigel Newcomen. Today he published a bulletin on further lessons that can be learned from investigations into complaints about the use of force.

Prison Service policy on the use of force is set out in Prison Service Order (PSO) 1600 which says that “the use of force is justified and therefore lawful, only if: it is reasonable in the circumstances, it is necessary, no more force than necessary is used and it is proportionate to the seriousness of the circumstances.” PSO 1600 makes clear that the type of harm the member of staff is trying to prevent should be considered. This may cover risk to life or limb, risk to property or risk to the good order of the establishment. The PSO also states that staff should always try to prevent a conflict where possible and that control and restraint (C&R) “must only be used as a last resort after all other means of de-escalating the incident, not involving the use of force, have been repeatedly tried and failed.”

A previous bulletin on this subject, published in 2014, highlighted learning for prisons from investigations into complaints about the use of force. Additional lessons have been identified from more recent investigations. A number of these cases involved ‘planned removals’ where a decision has been taken to move a prisoner from their cell to another location and a C&R team of three staff wearing helmets and carrying a shield are assembled to carry out the removal.

The report found that:

  • in a number of cases, there had been no attempts to de-escalate the situation once the C&R team has arrived at the cell;
  • in some cases the team were told at a briefing that they should only give the prisoner “one more chance” to comply and then use force, which pre-disposed the team to use force;
  • there were some occasions where the Supervising Officer deferred to the lead (“Number One”) officer rather than taking a supervisory role throughout the incident;
  • sometimes officers find it difficult when prisoners blatantly disregard their orders and may use one-on-one force rather than alternative disciplinary methods;
  • some prisoners don’t get a proper healthcare examination immediately after an incident involving force, because they are too worked up; and
  • in some cases there have been suspicious similarities of language in Use of Force statements provided by different officers.

The lessons from the bulletin are that:

  • the arrival of the C&R team in a planned removal should be treated as a new situation;
  • briefings prior to a planned removal should cover the likely risks rather than being prescriptive about when force should be used;
  • the roles of the Supervising Officer and the Number One Officer in the C&R team are different;
  • a one-on-one use of force is very risky and should be used only if there is immediate risk to life or limb;
  • a brief view by a nurse through the hatch of a cell door will not meet the requirement for a prisoner to be examined by a healthcare practitioner following a use of force; and
  • staff must write their Annex A Use of Force statements independently.

Nigel Newcomen said:

“In some ways it is reassuring that there are relatively few complaints to my office about alleged physical abuse of detainees by custodial staff. In 2014-15, of 2,303 complaints eligible for investigation, only 50 involved such allegations.

“They are, however, among the most serious and important complaints that I receive as they go to the heart of the humanity and legitimacy of the prison system. Ensuring independent investigations into allegations of physical abuse is, therefore, essential to maintaining safety and giving assurance of the proper treatment of those in custody. My investigations also ensure that staff are held to account for misbehaviour and I have had to recommend disciplinary action on a number of occasions. Equally, in other cases, my investigations have provided assurance that use of force by staff was appropriate and their behaviour exemplary in difficult circumstances.

“Prisons can be violent places and recorded levels of prisoner-on-prisoner and prisoner-on-staff assaults are at an all time high. Staff face enormous challenges in keeping order, so use of force must always be an option. However, it is only lawful if it is reasonable, necessary and proportionate. Use of force should always be a measure of last resort.”

Mark Leech, editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales said it was concerning that the bulletin ‘had to state the obvious.’

Mr Leech said: “Of course use of force should be a last resort, this bulletin however is concerning as that it finds it necessary to state the obvious.

“Violent incidents in our prisons have rocketed recently, and so this timely reminder of the rules is welcome, although it seems even basic lessons and Use of Force rules have been forgotten.”



  1. A copy of the report can be found on our website from 17 May 2016. Visit
  2. The PPO investigates deaths that occur in prison, immigration detention or among the residents of probation approved premises. The PPO also investigates complaints from prisoners, those on probation and those held in immigration removal centres.
  3. Prisons and Probation Ombudsman Learning Lessons Bulletin: Use of Force, published in 2014, is available online:
  4. Please contact Jane Parsons, PPO Press Office, on 020 3681 2775 or 07880 787452 if you would like more information. Alternatively please send requests or feedback to Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, PO Box 70769, London, SE1P 4XY.

‘Tornado’ Prison Officers Allege Oakwood Riot Cover-up


Britain’s biggest privately-run jail downplayed a ‘full scale riot’ which saw inmates take over an entire wing and booby-trap the doorways, a prison officer has claimed – causing one commentator to say that if true G4S should lose all their prison contracts.

Prisoners were in a nine-hour stand-off with guards earlier this month at the £150 million HMP Oakwood near Wolverhampton, run by G4S and nicknamed ‘Jokewood’ for its alleged lax security.

But while the firm insisted just ’15 to 20′ were involved, an officer who dealt with the incident has said it was a ‘full-scale riot’ with many more.

Speaking to the BBC, the specially-trained officer said he was part of a ‘tornado team’ drafted in to tackle the prisoners.

The anonymous man told Hannah Barnes of The Report, to be aired tonight on BBC Radio 4: ‘Our briefing was that the prisoners were armed and dangerous and that it was a very large number of prisoners and they had completely taken over an entire wing of the prison.

They’d interfered with locks to try and prevent staff getting into the wing and they were destroying everything they could get their hands on. I did hear prisoners shouting threats, saying, “We’re ready for you, come on – we’re gonna get you” and words to that effect.”

He said debris and iron bars had been thrown to the floor in Cedar Wing and tripwires had been strung up at neck, chest and leg height.

He added: ‘I would sum it up as a full-scale prison riot and we were very lucky that it only took place on one unit and didn’t spread.’

G4S has firmly denied the allegations.

Another officer, who also remained anonymous, told the BBC staffing at the prison was so low it put suicidal inmates at risk – and sometimes suicide watch records were falsified due to a lack of time.

G4S told the BBC any allegation of falsified records would be fully investigated.

One of Britain’s largest with 1,600 inmates, Oakwood Prison was described as a model for future prisons by the government yet has been beset by controversy.

In October inspectors gave it the lowest possible rating – quoting one prisoner who said drugs were easier to get hold of than basics like soap.

Staff were passive and ‘compliant almost to the point of complicity’, they said, and they found hard core pornography on cell walls despite the jail holding some 300 sex offenders.

Responding to the prison officer’s claims, a G4S spokesman told the BBC the incident was still under investigation but it was a case of ‘concerted indiscipline’ confined to one wing, and the jail is improving.

‘The incident was brought under control just after 2am without injury to any prison officers, although one prisoner has been treated for minor injuries.

‘Reports of prison staff being taken hostage are completely untrue. The safety of our personnel and those prisoners in our care is our top priority, and we are grateful to our colleagues who were able to help us bring the incident to a close safely, and effectively.

‘Established incident procedures were followed correctly and worked as they were meant to.

‘An investigation has now commenced into the reasons for this disruption, as well as a criminal investigation.’

Speaking to the Today programme, Jerry Petherick, managing director for custodial and detention services at G4S, said it was more difficult because Oakwood was being treated as a test case by politicians and the public.

He said: ‘I think it would be useful for people to acknowledge the very good work my staff are doing at Oakwood.

‘There was an instance of concerted indiscipline that was dealt with. For a period of time that wing was occupied by prisoners. It was a number of hours as we accumulated the necessary resources to contain the incident.

‘I would like to see Oakwood come out of the media spotlight to give people the opportunity to develop the work. If you’re operating in the media spotlight everything becomes magnified.’

Mark Leech editor of Converse the national newspaper for prisoners in England and Wales said if the cover up claims proved to be true it was time for G4S to lose its prison contracts.

Mr Leech said: “I absolutely get why Jerry Petherick wants to see Oakwood come out of the spotlight, G4S has shareholders for whom this constant criticism must be deeply concerning coming as it does on top of the tagging fraud scandal, devastating criticism of Oakwood from the Chief Inspector of prisons, not to mention the Olympics debacle – the solution however is not to blame the media, but for G4S to get a grip on the prison’s management.

“Tornado teams sent to Oakwood to qwell the riot would have been fully briefed on what was known based on what incident commanders on the ground were reporting – that briefing now needs to be published.

“If the cover-up claims prove to be true G4S should lose its prisons contracts – it would be a dishonesty that simply could not be overolooked nor tolerated.”

Reports at the time claimed up to 40 inmates had taken two guards hostage during the riot – before demanding McDonald’s meals were brought to their cells.

Yet G4S and the Ministry of Justice dismissed these claims as ‘completely untrue’.

A joint statement read: ‘The disruption, which was confined to one wing of the Category C prison for male prisoners, began just after 5pm on [January 5] as prisoners were out of their cells on association, and involved around 15-20 prisoners, who threatened officers and caused damage to cells and prison property.

‘A number of prisoners returned to their cells voluntarily. The Ministry of Justice was informed immediately, and standard procedures were initiated to deal with the incident, with rapid response teams deployed. Staffordshire Police were also informed.

‘Owing to damage caused to cells, a number of prisoners were moved to other wings and to other prisons in the area.

Prison Service Riots Teams Call Outs At Record High

Prison Service 'Tornado' Riot Officer
Prison Service ‘Tornado’ Riot Officer

The prisons specialist tactical response ‘Tornado’ team that attends serious incidents was called out more times in the first eight months of this year than in the whole of 2012, prompting Labour to warn of a growing crisis in prisons.

Tornado Teams from the National Tactical Response Group (NTRG) was called out 132 times in the first eight months of 2013, compared with a total of 129 callouts over the whole of last year, official figures showed.

Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan claimed prisons have become more overcrowded and dangerous under the coalition Government and warned that convicts still spend as much time in their cells as they did three years ago and so have less chance of being rehabilitated.

By October 1 the NTRG had been called out 151 times, with 19 callouts in September alone. There have been more callouts in 2013 than in any of the last four years.

Nearly half of all prisons (45%) in England and Wales run by both the private and public sectors have had call-outs since 2010.

Mr Khan, who uncovered the figures using a parliamentary question, said: “The true scale of the growing crisis in our prisons on (Justice Secretary) Chris Grayling’s watch is laid bare in this information which I have uncovered. In the first eight months of this year, there had been more prison disturbances severe enough to call out the specialist response team than in the whole of 2012. And if the number of disturbances continue at this level for the rest of this year, there will have been a doubling over the three years of this Tory-led Government.

“All this Government’s talk of a rehabilitation revolution is but a distant memory. Instead, prisons are more overcrowded and dangerous than in May 2010, with prisoners spending as much time festering in their cells as they did three years ago. This means not working or attending training courses which in turn means less chance of being rehabilitated or paying something back to society.

“The incompetence of the Justice Secretary is breathtaking. Given how bad things are getting on his watch, it really calls into question whether Chris Grayling is fit to even be Justice Secretary”

Justice Minister Jeremy Wright said the “slight rise” in callouts over recent months was “mainly” due to minor incidents such as prisoners protesting.

Mr Wright, who answered Mr Khan’s question, said there had been no rise in the number of serious incidents being attended.

He said: “The number of callouts has been fairly consistent over the period in question, though there has been a slight rise in the number of callouts over recent months. This is mainly due to minor incidents such as prisoners protesting by climbing onto the netting between landings.

“NTRG staff have the specialist skills required to deal with such incidents which accounted for 68% of all the callouts in the past year and they are frequently called to attend as a precautionary measure.

“Not all callouts result in engagement by NTRG staff, with a number of situations being resolved locally. Of the 151 incidents NTRG attended up to September 2013, 75% were resolved by surrender. There has been no rise in the number of serious incidents being attended.”

Prison reform charity the Howard League for Penal Reform warned of a “creeping pressure” on the prison system which could lead to more disturbances and disorder.

Chief executive Frances Crook called for a focus on probation to reduce reoffending and the cost to taxpayers.

She said: “We are concerned that there is creeping pressure on the prison system and that this will create more disturbances and disorder.

“At a time when the number in custody is rising, the Ministry of Justice is facing a dilemma – either use police cells or cram ever more people into combustible prisons. Either approach is a waste of money and risks lives.

“The grown-up choice is to support successful probation programmes which reduce reoffending, reduce the number of victims and cost the taxpayer much less.”