California is one of just five states that allows staff in juvenile detention facilities to carry pepper spray on their person. A group of California youth justice advocates and a lawmaker are working to reduce that number to four.
On Thursday, the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) will vote on recommended changes to the state’s Juvenile Title 15 and Title 24 regulations, which lay out the minimum standards of care for youth housed in state and local juvenile detention facilities.
So far, during the revision process, which was launched back in November 2016, the BSCC has approved increasing kids’ visitation rights, which includes a provision that youth be able to visit with their own children. The recommended changes also require facilities to offer vegetarian or vegan dietary options, and to provide youth with new, non-disposable underwear that will “remain with the youth throughout their stay” (kids will also be able to bring their own undergarments to wear while they’re locked up, too, if they choose). Deodorant, shampoo, and lotion were also added to the list of personal care items provided to youth.
The recommendations, however, do not include a ban on pepper spray in juvenile facilities, despite a growing chorus of voices calling for its removal. The revisions would, however, limit the use of chemical spray, which could “only be used when there is an imminent threat to the youth’s safety or the safety of others and only when de-escalation efforts have been unsuccessful or are not reasonably possible.”
In a letter dated February 1, a coalition of 24 youth justice advocates, attorneys, and community groups said the compromise was not good enough.
“The recommended revisions concerning the use of chemical spray in juvenile facilities remain out of step with national norms and best practices and should be modified further,” the letter states.
A total of 36 states have “prohibited completely the use of chemical agents in juvenile facilities, and only 5 states-California, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Texas-permitted staff to carry it on their person,” according to the coalition. “Chemical spray as a behavioral management and safety tool has been widely rejected by juvenile facilities across the country because of the harm not only to youth, but also to staff-youth relationships that are essential to effective rehabilitative programming.”
Francisco Martines, now 24, told WitnessLA that when he was locked up in Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey, at age 17, he had an asthma attack after another boy was pepper sprayed nearby.
“I was in class, and a student got agitated and aggressive” because his requests to go to the bathroom were being denied, Francisco said.
“I don’t know if the teacher was having a bad day, but [the teacher] just wouldn’t let him” use the restroom, which made the teen frustrated and angry, Francisco said.
“The probation officer came in and gave him a warning,” Francisco said. “He didn’t try to calm him down. He just warned him, and then sprayed him, which affected the whole room.”
Francisco was not the direct target of the pepper spray. He didn’t get it in his eyes, yet the chemical spray in the room made trying to breathe difficult and painful. It feels like “being punched,” Francisco said. It “takes the air out of you. You’re gasping for air.”
Francisco said he felt like “a fish out of water, especially because I have asthma attacks. It’s horrible. It’s really hard on the lungs.”
According to Francisco, even though he was having an asthma attack, he didn’t receive medical attention until hours later.
“They had medicine for me because of my condition, but at that moment, they just took us back to our rooms,” the young man said.
Francisco said he didn’t believe that chemical spray was the best way to handle a student who had become agitated over a denied restroom break.
Instead, the officer could have successfully calmed the student down with words instead of pepper spray, according to Francisco. “These are just kids,” Francisco said.
The threat of chemical spray puts kids unnecessarily into “fight or flight mode,” and breaks down relations between staff and the youth in their care. Correctional officers need “better training,” Francisco said. “They don’t know how to talk to kids.”
The group of youth advocates agreed, calling on officials “to implement greater use of alternative safety and behavioral measures such as training on crisis intervention and de-escalation and improved classification of, and programming for, youth.”
A bill introduced this week by Assemblymember Ed Chau, AB 2010, seeks to ban juvenile correctional staff from carrying chemical spray on their persons. Staff would, however, still be able to the spray “as a last resort when necessary to suppress a riot when authorized by a juvenile facility administrator.” The bill would also require officers to document each use of pepper spray in juvenile facilities, including the reason chemical spray was deployed against youth, the decontamination measures taken, and medical care given to those affected.
“The use of OC spray on young people not only produces physical and mental health effects, but it also interferes with their rehabilitation, because it can have serious effects on the relationship between youth and staff,” said Assemblymember Ed Chau. “By limiting the use of chemical sprays in juvenile detention facilities, we are adopting accepted professional practices that will provide a safe and supportive environment for rehabilitation.”
In 2011, only 12 percent of correctional agencies allowed staff to carry pepper spray in juvenile lockups, according to a national survey by the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators. Approximately 71 percent of agencies surveyed said they did not allow chemical spray in their facilities at all.
Both Chau and the coalition of advocates cited the physical dangers of chemical spray to staff and youth, especially when youth have asthma.
“Studies indicate that individuals with compromised respiratory systems, such as those suffering from asthma or bronchitis, may be at particular risk for respiratory arrest resulting from chemical spray exposure, and chronic exposure to chemical spray may result in chronic respiratory ailments,” according to Chau’s office. “These risks may be exacerbated by mental illness, insufficient air circulation, and repeated exposure – all conditions that exist in juvenile facilities.”
In their letter, the coalition also urges the BSCC to come into compliance with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which says that staff-to-youth ratios should be 1:8 during the day and 1:16 overnight to reduce the risks of sexual assault. Currently, the state mandates a 1:10 daytime ratio and a 1:30 nighttime ratio. “These minimum staffing guidelines are critical to ensuring both youth and staff are safe in juvenile facilities, and that youth are not subject to sexual assault,” the letter reads. “Smaller staffing ratios not only reduce the likelihood of youth-on-youth violence, but also have shown to be influential in the development of healthy personal relationships between youth and adults. A smaller staff to youth ratio can also increase a staff member’s ability to engage more fully in trauma-informed approaches.”
The BSCC will gather public comments for 45 days after the meeting on Feb. 8, after which, the board will meet again to approve the final changes.
Image by U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Michael Cossaboom.