A trial of two types of pepper spray has been launched in prisons in a bid to improve staff safety.
More than 300 staff in 10 prisons across New Zealand were armed with the sprays on November 18 for a 12-month trial.
The initiative is a response to a Department of Corrections staff safety project which aims to determine whether additional training or personal protective equipment would improve the safety of prison officers.
The project has also led to staff in high risk situations being equipped with batons, spit hoods and stab-resistant body armour.
Prison Services general manager Dr Brendan Anstiss said serious assaults against staff were rare - there were two in 2009/10.
"However, we need to ensure that we provide staff with the necessary skills and tools to be able to manage prisoners safely. The trial will examine whether access to pepper spray reduces the need for physical force when managing non-compliant prisoners."
One type of spray can be deployed without having to enter the cell - it could be sprayed under the door, through windows or vents. It does not require accuracy to affect the prisoner within the cell as it acts like a fog dispersed within an enclosed space.
The spray targets the respiratory tract and causes the prisoner to cough excessively, Anstiss said.
"The other type being trialled can be used for cell extractions or in an open air environment, for example a recreation yard. It is sprayed directly into the face and causes [the] eyes to shut."
The sprays are being trialled at Mt Eden, Waikeria, Hawke's Bay, Wanganui, Rimutaka, Christchurch Men's and Christchurch Women's prisons and the Northland Regional, Spring Hill and Otago Corrections Facilities.
Anstiss said all staff participating in the trial had been given comprehensive training in the use of the sprays.
"The use of pepper spray during the trial period will be strictly controlled. The safety of prisoners and staff is key during the trial."
Approval to issue the spray can only be made by senior managers and can only be issued to staff certified to use it. It can be used when there is a serious threat to prison security, staff or prisoners, when it will reduce or eliminate a serious threat and when other means of reducing or eliminating serious threats have been, or are likely to be, ineffective.
The spray will not be used against pregnant prisoners, prisoners on a roof or "at height", those who cannot be continually observed or those who are restrained.
Prisoners will be monitored once sprayed and medical assistance sought if symptoms persist.By Anna Leask