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Body Armour To Better Protect Our Corrections And Prison Officers

Written by: Robert Kaiser

I think the day I became extremely passionate about the personal safety and body armour for prison officers was the day I met Craig Wylde.

It is now a few years back that I had the pleasure to meet this proud ex-infantry soldier turned prison officer (and now very close friend of mine and father of my beloved god-daughters) for the first time, a short while following the horrific assault on him by full time criminal and triple murderer Kevan Thakrar. This well documented attack took place on 13th March 2010 at Frankland High Security Prison in Durham, UK, and left Craig fighting for his life.  Craig was left with a severed artery in his left arm after the incident, which has turned his life completely upside down.  I have spent enough time with him and his family to witness what an enormous impact this assault and subsequent injury had on this gorgeous young family’s day to day life.  It seems to be unbelievable, but an ‘arm injury’ of this type can cause such immense level of distress, constant intense pain and test the strength of a family right to its core.

Many colleagues of Craig have since been assaulted, hospitalised, severely injured or even killed doing an extremely demanding and equally dangerous job. Following these vicious attacks, what has happened and what needs to happen to reduce violence related injuries and deaths at work? What difference can operationally sensible body armour for prison officers make to these men and women?

We must understand, and remind ourselves that we cannot change the aggressive behaviour of some prisoners. There is simply no doubt that a prisoner consuming drugs, illegal substances or self-made alcohol can become hostile and violent within a split second, regardless of the prison or correctional officers excellent communication skill, calm personality and willingness to empathise with the prisoner.

At the end of the story an officer in such institution can be, and often is, the bearer of bad news. He might be required to inform the prisoner of any disciplinary, restriction of privileges, bad family news, cancellation of visits, or of the news that his/her cell will be searched, all of which can of course create all sorts of physical reactions.

We also need to remind ourselves that prisoners have got plenty of time on hand to develop tools and vicious weapon to carry out acts of aggression.  The ideas to create make shift weapons, e.g. sharpened table and bed frame legs, shanks made out of plastic, shanks made our of porcelain, sharpened wood or pieces of mirror, and the idea of melting razor blades into tooth brushes and turning pens, pencils and nails into ‘spike weapon’ (see below image) have not been developed out of five minutes of simple boredom.  These ideas have been developed following hours and sometimes days, weeks and months of malicious thought processes, and even the very best prison or correctional officer can one day be on the receiving end of such malicious thought process.

Body armour for prison officers - prison shanks weapons

Unfortunately it is a matter of fact that the personal safety and well-being of police officers is much more in the public eye, than the important service our prison officers provide and the dangers these professionals face every single day.  Somehow this is a little understandable (but wrong), as the public is certainly more keen to see police officers patrolling their neighbourhood and giving them a certain sense of security.  Prison officers on the other hand are much more ‘out of sight’ end hence they do get forgotten a lot.  I don’t know, but can you see the general public discussing the safety of prison officers, can you?  But, don’t prison officers deserve at least the same support, attention and respect like other frontline public services?

If one would ask 1,000 members of the public, who would they rather offer a salary increase, their local police officer or prison officer? I am most certain that in excess of 90% would select the police officer.  Why?  Because most people are selfish.  Those 90% wouldn’t believe the police officer deserve that increase, it is more that they would expect a better service and performance which would positively effect their lives. They would expect a safer home, faster response time when in distress, less anti-social behaviour and their properties and belongings being better guarded. Because they cannot see a direct ‘return on such investment’ prison officers needs and well being is and will be overlooked too many times.

So let me come to the key message of my article, the issuing of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment).

Body armour for prison officers in general is not about eliminating the risk of workplace violence related injuries, but about effectively reducing the risk within an environment where a risk has been identified.

So let’s ask ourselves the question, is there a realistic risk of assaults on officers within corrections facilities and prisons, especially those classed as ‘high security’?  The answer is a ‘loud and clear’ YES!

I see the question about body armour for prison officers is being very similar to us wearing a seat belt in our car.  We don’t use a seat belt today because we know for sure we have an accident today. Neither do we use a seat belt because we are scared, paranoid, or worried that we might have a crash today.  No, not at all, the reason why we wear a seat belt is that we do understand that we have a much higher chance of survival in case someone is drunk, plays on his mobile phone or is otherwise distracted and crashes into our car, despite our own exceptional and advanced driving skills we might be able to claim.

Another question worthwhile answering when exploring the potential need/use of concealable body armour within correction facilities and prisons is how much do we actually really care about those guys ‘behind the wall’? Using my above analogy, if my child would be sitting on the back seat of my car I will make sure it is wearing a seat belt.  If the woman I love very much is sitting right next to me in my car I will also make sure she is wearing a seat belt.  But then having said that, some decision makers ‘do not allow’ their colleagues to wear a ‘seat belt’ or in this case any type of PPE, ignoring their concerns, fears and anxieties. For me this is absolutely outrageous!

So, how much do we care about the personal safety of prison and correctional officers? Are we actually willing to make a real difference to their risks and threats? Only YOU can answer this question yourself. More and more officers are raising their voices, yet their voices are not being heard.

Let’s talk about facts and figures. I do love my facts and figures and spreadsheets.  I love gathering and analysing intelligence, drilling down right to the very core of it and establish how it can help me to progress and reduce further or upcoming risks. So, here are a very few recent ‘headlines’ from 2015/16 from just a small selection of countries, as well as some statistics and numbers to help us understand the true significance of this global problem:

According to an article released by the POA (UK Prison Officers Association) titled: “PRISON VIOLENCE – How Serious Dies It Have To Get”, on page 1 we are able to read the following:

“Prisoner-on-Staff assaults continue at a rate of over 8 per day every day of the year. It is unacceptable that within a modern society, serious physical violence in the workplace is deemed as an occupational hazard. It is equally unacceptable workers do not enjoy the full protection of the law offered to colleagues in the Police Force or indeed the general public”.

Well, I have also asked myself the following many times, is it not really questionable that police officers who deal with dangerous criminal individuals for only a very few minutes every day, usually during the arrest or approach of a dangerous member of the public (and often with a solid backup team) are by law required to wear body armour in most countries, but most corrections or prison officers charged with supervising the very same dangerous and brutal individuals, potentially for a number of years, are not being issued with any type of protective clothing at all? Do we really believe ‘that guy’ becomes a better human being when imprisonment?

Anyway, another fairly recent report suggest the total number of assaults in UK prisons where weapons are used are extremely high, and more detailed analysis on the types of weapons used shows that since the year 2000 there has been an 85% increase in the number of assaults where a knife or blade of some type as used.

Looking briefly at our friends in the U.S. and based on information released by the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health in December 2013 there are approximately half a million correctional officers in the U.S. responsible for supervising more than two million inmates, and in 2011 correctional officers experienced 254 work-related injuries per 10,000 due to assaults and violent acts. This is considerably higher than the rate of injuries from assault and violent acts for all workers in the U.S. (seven per 10,000).

The above report also states the following:

According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, 7 probation and correctional officers have been fatally wounded since 2011.

Approximately 45 have been intentionally killed between 1999-2008, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics.

According to the 2013 Correctional Officer Wellness and Safety Literature Review, correctional officers are involved in the highest amount of non-fatal violent encounters than any other occupation.

A study by the National Institute of Justice in 2007, discovered there are approximately 2,000 correctional staff member injuries annually due to violence against officers by inmates.

The BBC in the UK reported on 16th April 2014 that the number of serious attacks on prison officers by inmates increased by 45% in two years, figures released by Labour have revealed. In 2012, a total of 543 assaults on prison officers were referred to the police – up from 374 in 2010.

A 2015 study in the U.S. concluded that for every 10,000 full-time Corrections Officers, there were 254 workplace assaults and violent injuries reported in 2011 that’s 36 times the rate for all American workers. In 2013, 15 workplace fatalities of correctional workers were reported nationwide, in a workforce of nearly 470,000 people.

Australian news network ABC reported in 2015 that Victoria has the most violent prisons in Australia, with a prison officer assaulted every three days. The Department of Justice data also showed inmate fights were a daily occurrence!

On 27th February 2016 the UK based Mirror Newspaper claimed that prisoners have assaulted more than 1,000 prison officers in just two months. These include 95 of the highest category ‘serious’ assaults on staff, such as being slashed with homemade weapons. The two monthly totals is equivalent to more than 16 prison officers being attacked each day. The figures show that 905 officers were victims of the lesser ‘assault’ during this period. This represented a surge of 15 per cent.

The very same newspaper reported on 30th July 2016 overall there were 14,262 offences of violence ion prisons in 2015 – up by 10 per cent on the previous year. The report continued to highlight that assaults directed at struggling prison staff soared by 36 per cent to 5,500.

The digital/online platform of ‘Heute’ stated that 109 prison officer were attacked by inmates in the small and beautiful country Austria is.

What type of body armour for prison officers could make a real difference to their safety?

For a number of professional reasons I have been part of many security related discussions with prison and correctional institutions in several countries around the world and please be assured I do 100% understand all operational risks and threats, as well as all concerns raised in reference to body armour.

In many of these meetings the ‘non-confrontational ‘, ‘non-aggressive’ or ‘non-threating’ design issue has always been the centre point of these sometimes very passionate discussion. Many governments want to ensure their officers don’t look like ‘Robocop’ and hence many manufacturers have worked hard on more ‘approachable’ designs.

However, the ultimate body armour doesn’t exist yet. The idea of a body armour which is cosy and comfortable, weighs only a few grams and is a couple of millimetres thin, but offers unlimited protection from blunt force trauma, edged weapon and hypodermic needles and slash attacks simply doesn’t exist and may well not be available for many many years to come.

So we need to decide what is the most realistic risk within our facility, department or specific operations, or indeed can we use a combination of different types of body armour to create the ultimate protection we desire?

Please allow me to explain the only two types of PPE or body protection I would suggest. First of all let me share my thoughts on concealable, thin and lightweight blunt trauma stab vests, and then I will highlight a more recent development,  high performance slash resistant clothing.

Stab Resistant Vests

Based on my in depth understanding of this subject we all need to understand that an assault resulting in blunt force trauma injuries is the most likely type of assault a prison officer will suffer. The second and third most likely assault will involve edged weapons or hypodermic needles.

ppss-blunt-trauma-injuryBlunt trauma, blunt injury, non-penetrating trauma or blunt force trauma all refers to a type of physical trauma caused to a body part, either by impact, injury or physical attack via a kick, punch or blow using a blunt object.  How often will prison officers throw objects at a prison officer as an act of violence during ‘normal disturbances’, never mind serious riots? Assaults which lead to blunt force trauma injuries are exactly the type of assaults our prison officer face around the world, and I strongly believe the prevention of such injuries deserves our full attention.

Here is the first ‘problem’. The correct type of stab resistant vests offering substantial levels of protection from blunt force trauma will not be soft, flexible and ‘cosy’. Such body armour would be made out of a body moulded rigid material, such as a high performance polycarbonate, the same material that is used for motorbike helmets and baby bottles. Such material would also offer exceptional levels of protection from all types of edged weapons and very importantly also from hypodermic needles.

PPSS Body Armour for Prison Officers
PPSS Body Armour | COVERT Stab Resistant Vest Model

The comfort level of any body armour for prison officers is absolutely acceptable, but above all this type of body armour offer the precise protection from all three key threats corrections and prison officers are facing in today’s society.

The second main advantage of polycarbonate based body armour is that it is very light, thin and reasonably concealable.  However, another massive unique advantage is they also offer an unlimited lifespan, as no physical, chemical or biological evidence even suggests that they will degrade. Their performance and protection levels will always remain the same.  This is of great financial importance as all other e.g. Kevlar® based body armour should/need replacing after five years due to a reduction of performance.  I certainly would throw mine away after such period of time.

Polycarbonate based body armour are my first suggestion when considering issuing PPE to those men and women.  Having said that, we need to understand that an injury, like the one my friend Craig Wylde has suffered, would have not been prevented.  Why not?  The answer is coming next.

Slash Resistant Clothing

Going back briefly to the brutal assault on Craig Wylde and his injury, we have to admit that no body armour, regardless of its protection level and quality would have made any difference on that day. All body armour for prison officers follow more or less the same design patterns and are made out of more or less very similar and usually commonly available materials.  They are designed to cover and protect your vital organs e.g. your heart, lungs, kidneys and liver. None of currently available body armour designs would have been any good for Craig as the precise location of where he was slashed would be totally exposed by any standard body armour anyway.  Also none of currently material used to produce body armour would allow us to offer effective, wearable, comfortable and operationally sensible protection to the following key areas and arteries:

Cut Tex PRO cut resistant fabric - protective areas - high res

The slashing/cutting of any of the above arteries would lead to rapid blood loss and in most cases death.  The slashing/cutting of the Radial Artery would lead to rapid blood loss but not necessary death, if the injured person has a reasonable understanding of emergency first aid or assistance is available.  The slashing/cutting of the Carotid Artery is unlikely to be survived.

SlashPRO Slash Resistant T-Shirts for Prison Officers
#100108 – SlashPRO Slash Resistant T-Shirts

SlashPRO™ Slash Resistant Clothing has recently been designed to offer concealable and effective protection to those key arteries. Incredible cut resistant fabrics, such as Cut-Tex® PRO have been developed to help improve the personal safety of homeland security professionals. Such fabrics are flexible, comfortable when worn directly against the skin for many hours a day, Latex® free, and do not cause any skin irritation when worn at ‘areas of friction’ e.g. under ones arms or between ones legs.

This type of PPE is also of extreme importance to ‘forced entry teams’ and other units, which raid properties and homes, and often access those through windows at lightning speed. The risk of laceration, especially to the wrists, forearms, throats and thighs is very high when coming in contact with broken glass stuck in window frames etc. Specially designed cut and slash resistant garments to protect those areas are now available via PPSS Group.

It is clear that a garment made out of this type of fabric would have fully prevented the injury suffered by Craig Wylde. Should this fact alone not encourage others to look into this type of PPE, unless we genuinely believe that this was a one off incident unlikely to occur again? I don’t even think this warrants any further commenting.

Conclusion

It is an unfortunate fact that, unless carefully trained to act otherwise, we human beings in general wait for things to happen and then search for solutions. In general we are ‘reactive’ rather than ‘pro-active’. The car seatbelt wasn’t developed, and the wearing of a seat belt wasn’t made compulsory because one guy had the idea that one day a person might get killed. It was designed and the wearing of it was made compulsory following thousands and thousands of traffic deaths, not after one death, after thousands of deaths. We wait till things go badly wrong before we become creative.

So, what are we going to do? Are we believing that some of the assaults and statistics have to be seen as ‘acceptable’ or are we simply not ready yet to make a stand and a real difference to the safety of corrections and prison officers? Would we prefer to wait just a little longer, or can we finally accept that enough is simply enough. If not every, but certainly most injuries and deaths within the corrections and prison sector are ultimately avoidable, based on careful intelligence gathering and sharing of such intelligence, making effective changes to SOPs, potentially stricter rules and regulations, and the issuing of wearable and sensible body armour for prison officers.  The ultimate question is as simple as one question could ever be: “How much do you really want it to happen?”

In case you have any questions in reference to this article or want to express your thoughts on body armour for prison officers, please contact my team via email info@ppss-group.com or call our Headquarter +44 (0) 845 5193 953 or send me a private message or add your comment here.

Website:  www.ppss-group.com

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