The usage and types of equipment in prisons and other places of detention is wide ranging and varies from country to country. In this blog, the Omega Research Foundation reflects on the growth of less lethal weapons available to officers and ongoing efforts for transparency.
In recent years there has been a growth in the range of less lethal weapons available to prison officers in places of detention. However, almost no states provide publicly available information on the weapons and equipment that prison officers are authorised to use. Human rights monitoring bodies, civil society organisations (CS)s and media reports often provide the only source for equipment in use.
In Brazil a wide range of weapons including pepper spray and electric shock weapons are routinely used by prison officers and there have been cases of less lethal weapons being used to carry out torture and other ill-treatment. In the United Kingdom, prison officers now carry pepper spray as a matter of routine in male prisons and there have been calls by officers for projectile electric shock weapons to be made available. The use of ‘special intervention forces’, who use a much wider range of equipment, lethal and less lethal weapons, has increased over the past 10 years and is now common worldwide.
The use of ‘special intervention forces’, who use a much wider range of equipment, lethal and less lethal weapons, has increased over the past 10 years and is now common worldwide.
The prison supply sector has seen a growth in number of manufacturers and traders worldwide, promoting a wider range of products directly to prison authorities. Specialist trade events have been developed, sponsored by manufacturers, to market prison equipment direct to officials, including for example ‘Mock Prison Riot’ in the United States. Cases of manufacturers providing inappropriate training to prison staff, eg on use of restraints to place prisoners in hyper-extended positions (‘hog-tying’) or in the use of batons for neck holds have been discovered. These techniques are similar to those that the Council of Europe’s Committee for Prevention of Torture (amongst others) has recommended be prohibited.
Whilst manufacturers’ product safety and use guidelines may be useful, relevant authorities should conduct their own human rights based, independent and transparent testing before selecting, purchasing or deploying equipment. They must ensure that any equipment is appropriate to the stated tactical use. All users must be trained in each type of equipment, and understand the medical and safety implications of its use. Prison authorities should produce their own policies, procedures and guidelines on use which must comply with international human rights standards and must ensure that any use of force or equipment is proportionate, lawful, accountable and necessary.
At present, only a minority of states regulate any significant part of the trade in either inherently abusive equipment or legitimate law enforcement equipment that is frequently misused. An even smaller number of states publish public information on the licensed trade of relevant controlled law enforcement equipment, and this information is often only partial and infrequent.
At the regional level, only the EU has introduced substantive controls on the trade in ‘tools of torture’. The EU Anti-Torture Regulation came into force in 2006 after sustained lobbying and advocacy by Omega and Amnesty International. It has been updated and consolidated, most recently in 2019, and is directly applicable in all EU Member States. It prohibits the trade in certain inherently abusive equipment and controls (through licensing) the export of other specified equipment that could be misused. The Regulation has been welcomed by the international human rights community and has been recommended as a model for other regions and States to follow; with the Council of Europe in the process of producing a draft recommendation to states to ban the trade in goods used for torture and the death penalty.
Advocacy actions by Omega and Amnesty International for the development of international standards to control the trade in the tools of torture has been particularly effective. In September 2017 the global Alliance for Torture Free Trade was launched by the EU, Mongolia and Argentina, and currently comprises over 60 States committing themselves to “act together to further prevent, restrict and end trade” in goods used for capital punishment, torture and other ill-treatment. In 2019 a resolution was adopted by the UN General Assembly, establishing a UN process to explore “the feasibility and scope of options to establish common international standards for the import, export, and transfer of goods used for capital punishment, torture, and other ill-treatment”. Omega plans to support this process to achieve our strategic aim of global trade controls on these goods, which could have a real and lasting impact on the trade and use of tools of torture.
The Omega Research Foundation (Omega) monitors the manufacture of and trade in less lethal weapons and restraint equipment used by police and prison officers. These ‘tools of torture’ include both inherently abusive equipment that are specifically designed for torture or ill-treatment as well as equipment which are legitimate when used appropriately but are often misused by police and prison officers. Omega investigates cases to uncover the entire supply chain from production of equipment, methods of promotion and supply, as well as the use of equipment in specific human rights violations. Omega works closely with the European Commission, the Council of Europe, and the Alliance for Torture Free Trade providing evidence-based policy options which have been used to develop and strengthen trade policy on this equipment. Omega participates in expert groups setting international human rights guidance pertaining to use of force, most recently on the UN Guidance on Less Lethal Weapons in Law Enforcement.
 Also known as “rapid intervention forces”, “riot squads” or “emergency response teams”, such forces exist in countries including Venezuela, Brazil, USA, UK, Poland, and Romania.
 See for example: CPT, Report to the Slovenian Government on the visit to Slovenia carried out by the CPT from 31 January to 6 February 2012, 19 July 2013, paragraph 67; Report to the Slovenian Government on the visit to Slovenia carried out by the CPT from 31 January to 8 February 2006, 15 February 2008, paragraph 11.
 EU, ‘Regulation (EU) 2019/125 of 16 January 2019 concerning trade in certain goods which could be used for capital punishment, torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (‘Anti-Torture Regulation’).
 Council of Europe, ‘Newsroom: Towards a recommendation to ban the trade in goods used for torture and the death penalty’ Council of Europe, 12 February 2020; Council of Europe ‘CDDH Feasibility study of a legal instrument concerning the trade in goods used for torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and the death penalty’, adopted by the CDDH at its 92nd meeting (26–29 November 2019), CDDH(2019)R92Addendum3.
 UN, General Assembly, Resolution Towards torture-free trade: examining the feasibility, scope and parameters for possible common international standards, 21 June 2019, Seventy-third session, A/73/L.94.