Ian Acheson Ian Acheson

The Dartmoor prison hostage taking could have been far worse

Dartmoor prison (Credit: Getty images)

Taking my son for a walk yesterday, we passed HMP Dartmoor, where I served as a prison governor. Unknown to us, a dramatic and serious incident was unfolding just behind its austere walls. A prisoner had taken an officer hostage in the establishment’s segregation unit. I understand that the officer was overpowered while letting the perpetrator out into the unit’s exercise yard. I’m told that this prisoner was armed with a bladed weapon and that the officer was overpowered with his own handcuffs.

We won’t know whether all these details are accurate from the Ministry of Justice because they were only forced to reveal the scantest of details after the event was broadcast on social media. I’m told the incident was being followed by prisoners in possession of illicit mobile phones within the prison, adding another grim dimension to this ordeal.

As a former hostage negotiator trainer in the Prison Service, I am well acquainted with the dynamics of such incidents. The statistics on prison hostage taking show that these incidents are in decline. Many of the recorded ‘hostages’ are prisoners who are actually colluding with their ‘perpetrators’ for reasons that include boredom, excitement, manipulation and very occasionally are authentic, resulting in serious injury or death.

Offenders who want to take hostages have all day, every day to observe patterns and weaknesses

Taking a prison officer hostage is therefore relatively rare and obviously extremely serious. Officers carry PPE (personal protective equipment) such as batons, cuffs and Pava irritant spray. All these necessary tools can potentially be used against them. But they also carry keys – and that potentially gives a perpetrator ‘on the move’ access all the way to the front gate.

Hostage doctrine is built around isolating the incident and negotiating to a peaceful surrender without concessions.

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