Juvenile Justice Juvenile Justice: Healing Not Punishment Juvenile Probation

Fresno’s Juvenile Justice Campus Has a Pepper Spray Problem, Says Report

Taylor Walker
Written by Taylor Walker

The Fresno County Probation Department’s reliance on using pepper spray to control the behavior of kids held at the Juvenile Justice Campus is “dangerous and traumatizing” for youth, according to a report from Disability Rights California, a nonprofit established by federal law to “protect and advocate for the rights of people with disabilities.”

DRC toured the detention facility with the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center over the course of two days, conducting interviews with youth and staff, and examining the conditions of solitary confinement, education, medical and mental health care, and compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Probation officers “typically” empty a can of chemical spray to break up fighting kids in a single incident, girls housed at the probation camp told DRC and YLC. Both boys and girls reported to the organizations that “anything goes” if emptying a full can on kids does not end an altercation between youth. Probation officers allegedly “drag girls away by pulling on their hair,” the report says.

After pepper spray has been deployed, officers hose kids off in the yard, a practice that DRC says is not an effective tool for decontamination, and just spreads the oil-based pepper spray. This means that kids, hosed off and sent back to their cells, feel the effects of pepper spray for longer than necessary, according to DRC.

Additionally, the juvenile camp corrections officers “do not have a formal process to accommodate or even consider the disability of any particular youth” when evaluating whether a particular use of force was appropriate.

According to the probation department, staff only use pepper spray as a last resort after other methods of de-escalation have been exhausted. “Probation staff did not document the use of alternatives in the records provided to us,” DRC said in its report. “The records confirm that staff continue to use pepper spray on a regular basis.” Fresno responded to the report by saying that the county is compliant with state regulations regarding use of pepper spray.

DRC wasn’t convinced that the facility’s use of chemical agents was within reason, though. “The County’s compliance with state regulations is important, but it does not determine compliance with the United States Constitution or other legal requirements.”

DRC recommends Fresno ban the use of chemical spray in its juvenile facility, or at the very least, “significantly reduce” the use of pepper spray.

California is one of just five states that allows staff in juvenile detention facilities to carry pepper spray on their person. And at least 36 states have totally banned the use of chemical spray in juvenile lockups.

The report also found the camp’s “Positive Behavior Modification” program, which rewards kids with privileges and access to programs based on behavior, to be discriminatory toward kids with disabilities and mental health needs.

“From interviews and record inspection, it appears that the point and level system lacks a method for determining whether a behavior was a manifestation of a disability, chronic stress, or trauma,” says the report. “One young person lost fifteen good behavior points (out of one-hundred) for expressing suicidal ideations,” the report claims. “Suicidal ideation or behavior should never be met with a disciplinary response.”

DRC also found areas for concern within the campus’s mental health system, which is managed by the for-profit prison company, Corizon Correctional Health Care. Just 10 percent of kids incarcerated at the Juvenile Justice Campus have open mental health cases, compared with 49 percent of locked-up youth statewide. The low number of kids identified as having mental health needs may indicate that the county is not accurately assessing kids at intake, according to the report. And the handful of mental health care service providers lacks a system of coordination between the companies. “There are no systems in place to identify discrepancies in treatment
approach, to address problems or to collaborate to resolve any issues,” DRC says.

The report’s findings were not all bad, however. The organization called the county’s special education program for kids in the probation camp “exemplary.” The court school employs “experienced and credentialed staff, impressive audio-visual supports, and engaging course material,” according to the report.

But once kids exit juvenile facilities, they face significant barriers to educational and other reentry-related successes. Just 24 percent of youth in juvenile lockups in CA were re-enrolled in “their local district school” within the first 30 days of their release, according to CA Department of Education data.

The Fresno County Superintendent of Schools addresses this issue through a “proactive” program for ensuring kids have a smooth transition from court school to their local school district, once they return home. The probation department also has a Planned ReEntry Program (PREP) available to kids who are considered to have a high risk of reoffending after their release. While DRC says PREP is “promising,” kids who are not in the program receive “no systematic or coordinated reentry support services [once] released,” according to the department. Young girls and foster youth who do not have a family to return to upon release are also excluded from the county’s reentry services.

“DRC and YLC are concerned about any reentry program that excludes, whether implicitly or explicitly, youth who are the most vulnerable to the deleterious effects of the juvenile justice system when placed back into the community,” the report says. “Such a program discriminates against young people who disproportionately have psychiatric and special education needs. It also places the County at risk of violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits governments from using sex as a determining factor of need for a reentry program.”

The county must now step up their efforts to “protect youth with disabilities from discrimination and custodial practices that place them at risk of harm,” said Tifanei Ressl-Moyer, DRC legal fellow for the Mental Health Practice Group.


Image courtesy of Fresno County.

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