PRISON officers are to be given canisters of synthetic pepper spray in a bid to combat violence in jails, prisons minister Rory Stewart has said.

The news comes after reports earlier this year that HMP Hewell saw a dramatic rise of 253 per cent in assault and self-harm.

The Tardebigge prison saw 681 assaults recorded in 2017 compared to 193 in 2012.

Figures released by the Ministry of Justice revealed 176 of the assaults were on prison staff and 107 assaults were defined as ‘serious’ which includes sexual assaults and those where victims required hospital in-patient treatment.

The numbers also reveal that 635 cases of self-harm were recorded at Hewell last year, compared to just 196 in 2012.

The incapacitant PAVA spray has been trialled in four prisons and will now be rolled out at all jails which house male prisoners, the prison minister said.

Mr Stewart has told the national press that trials of the PAVA spray had already shown positive results, without the officer needing to use the spray.

"The mere fact that an officer is wearing the canister on their belt acts as a deterrent and can prevent incidents getting out of hand," he said.

However John Podmore, a former governor at the high-security Belmarsh Prison in London, said prisons were best run on co-operation and that the pepper spray would worsen the current "culture of conflict".

Asked by the BBC whether officers should be able to defend themselves against violent prisoners, he said: "Good luck with one can of pepper spray against half a dozen prisoners."

In September national industrial action was taken by prison officers in response to a report by Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke who raised the alarm over the potential for a "complete breakdown" in order and discipline at HMP Bedford.

The Prison Officers' Association trade union has also previously hit out at levels of violence against prison officers, overcrowding and safety issues in the prison system.