California’s Juvenile Facility Guards Might Have to Turn in Their Pepper Spray Soon

California is one of only five states that allows guards at juvenile facilities free reign to carry chemical spray to restrain youth held there. A coalition of advocates and lawmakers in the state are working on a bilateral effort to bring an end to this long-standing practice.

“It doesn’t support the rehabilitative goal of the juvenile justice system,” said Lucy Carter, a policy advocate with the Youth Law Center (YLC), of chemical restraints. “It has negative effects; negative health effects, but also negative effects on the relationships between probation staff and the youth, and those relationships are fundamental to the rehabilitative goals.”

On Thursday, the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) — a behind-the-scenes state agency that sets standards and provides training for local adult and juvenile corrections and probation officers — is discussing a host of new minimum standards for youth placed in juvenile halls, camps and ranches.

At this meeting, the board will determine whether to change the policies around use of chemical agents like pepper spray, along with several other issues that shape the day-to-day lives of the some 4,300 incarcerated youth in the state.

While advocates are hoping that the BSCC will choose to reverse the policy and implement other de-escalation techniques, they’ve also launched a Plan B in case the board’s decision doesn’t go their way: changing the policy

A Chasm of Controversy

California is among a small minority of states that allows the use of pepper spray in juvenile detention facilities. Only 14 states permit the practice at all, and California is one of just five states without restrictions on when and where guards can carry the weapon, according to the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators.

“The use of pepper spray is often a symptom of bigger problems and bigger concerns within a facility that need to be addressed,” said Jason Szanyi, deputy director of the Center on Children’s Law and Policy (CCLP).

Szanyi said too often, staff lack the training to recognize and appropriately de-escalate behavioral problems caused by underlying mental health issues.

He and other advocates point to a laundry list of adverse health effects linked with exposure to pepper spray, such as respiratory arrest, acute hypertension and permanent nerve and corneal damage. They also cite the lack of specific research around using pepper spray on kids and the detrimental effect such a painful and dehumanizing experience can have on youth likely already struggling with histories of trauma and abuse.

“We don’t want to teach young people in juvenile facilities that the person who has the most force on their side is the person who wins,” said Mark Soler, executive director of CCLP. “We want to teach them that there are better ways than using force.”

Many probation officials in the state believe that pepper spray and other chemical agents are necessary tools to prevent serious injury to youth and staff.

“We see many mentally ill juveniles detained, diagnosed with very serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder,” said Michelle Scray Brown, chief probation officer for San Bernardino County. “Although we work very hard to provide services and programming, violent outbursts can be spontaneous and unpredictable.”

Necessary Use or Abuse?

Those who have been sprayed by pepper spray while incarcerated say that it has left a lasting mark.

“There were a couple times where I literally thought I was going to die because I could not catch my breath,” recalled Israel Villa, who was in and out of juvenile halls throughout his childhood.

Mark Soler with the Center on Children’s Law and Policy says he has never seen a case where the use of pepper spray was necessary.
Mark Soler, Center on Children’s Law and Policy: “I’ve never seen a case where the use of pepper spray was necessary.”

Villa, now the program and policy manager with the Salinas-based nonprofit MILPA, recalled a fast and loose protocol with pepper spray at juvenile halls. Mouthing off, showing attitude, kicking a door, throwing tantrums — “You know, adolescent behavior” — could warrant a spray.

“Most staff in juvenile facilities are trained to show force so that the young person realizes they cannot succeed and so they ought to calm down,” said Soler. “Problem is that adolescents don’t think that way. A major part of adolescence is challenging authority. That’s one of the ways adolescents develop their identities.”

As it stands now in California, there are essentially no restrictions against when and where corrections officers can use pepper spray while guarding juvenile lock up sites. As a result, how often and when pepper spray is used varies widely from county to county. In the counties that do use it, advocates are concerned that it is used too often, and not for the right reasons.

In 2014, YLC sent a letter to the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division complaining about excessive use of pepper spray in San Diego County juvenile facilities. The letter alleged near daily use of pepper spray and said it was used as an all-purpose behavioral management tool.

While the federal government has no policies in place around this issue — juvenile justice policies are generally set at the state and county levels — the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has on multiple occasions found the use of chemical sprays against detained youth to be a violation of their constitutional rights.

“I’ve never seen a case where the use of pepper spray was necessary,” said CCLP’s Soler. “And neither has the DOJ.”

Pursuing Two Paths to Reform

For the past year, the BSCC has been reviewing the policies that govern youth incarcerated at detention facilities, known at Titles 15 and 24 in the state code.

Thursday’s meeting of the board is an opportunity to finalize a list of recommended policy changes generated by a series of work groups.

The proposed changes did not include banning or restricting access to chemical sprays at county facilities, but they do address the circumstances under which the tool can be employed.

The recommendations going before the board Thursday would alter the policy to require that chemical spray “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.”

Before this revision, guards were not explicitly required to attempt to de-escalate before deploying pepper spray. But advocates want a greater investment in de-escalation efforts endorsed by the BSCC.

Legislative Compromise

Assembly Bill 2010, introduced on Feb. 1 by California Assemblyman Ed Chau (D), would prohibit guards or employees of juvenile facilities from carrying pepper spray on their person within the facility. The bill would also require administrative authorization to use the tool, limit the acceptable use of pepper spray to “a last resort when necessary to suppress a riot,” and require thorough documentation around the circumstances of use.

“The people in charge now aren’t going far enough … so this is kind of our version of a last resort,” said Dominique Nong, a senior policy associate with Children’s Defense Fund-California, one of the organizations sponsoring the bill, along with MILPA and the Youth Law Center.

Szanyi said that in Sacramento County, former juvenile hall superintendent John Rhoads used a similar policy to what the bill reflects to change the culture around chemical restraints in his facility.

Rhoads knew that his staff believed they needed pepper spray to protect themselves and the youth. Rather than taking away the tool altogether, Rhoades locked up the pepper spray in his office, so if guards wanted to use pepper spray, they had to come get it from him and explain why they needed it.

“What he found was staff members didn’t want to come to him and say they couldn’t manage,” Szanyi explained. “By the time they did and explained, oftentimes the situation had resolved itself … [It] really significantly reduced its use.”

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Sara Tiano
About Sara Tiano 56 Articles
General assignment reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change