The youth's name isn't Johnny, but that's what the former juvenile offender wants to be called as he describes what it's like to be shot in the face with pepper spray.
In San Diego's East Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility, where he spent a year on charges of assault with a deadly weapon in 2010 and 2011, the spray is called simply “OC.”
“On your skin, it's not so bad,” Johnny, now 19, says. “But once that gets into your face, your eyes just, like, close up; and they swell up and it's very watery, and the mucus is just pouring out of your nose, and it's hard to breathe.
“It pretty much restrains you from doing anything other than focusing on what's going on with you after you've gotten sprayed with the OC.”
In corrections terminology, OC spray is considered a “chemical restraint,” because a face-full of oleoresin capsicum—which is derived from the resin of red peppers—can be as debilitating as a pair of shackles. Under California law, it's classified as a form of tear gas.
“Some people tend to build a tolerance for it,” Johnny says. “So, it might hurt some people more than others.”
And there are plenty of opportunities for youths to enhance that tolerance in the five juvenile facilities run by the San Diego County Probation Department (two juvenile halls, three secure rehabilitation centers). Records obtained by San Diego CityBeat through the California Public Records Act reveal some of the highest levels of pepper-spray usage in the country.
In 2011, the only year for which records were available, Probation recorded 461 incidents involving pepper spray. The East Mesa facility averaged more than five sprayings per week.
According to the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators (CJCA), only 14 states allow the use of pepper spray in juvenile facilities; but in most cases, it's a last-resort measure, limited to riot-level emergencies.
Only five of those states, including California, allow staff to carry it on their person, as is the case in San Diego. CJCA notes in its 2011 report on the issue that no studies have been conducted on the safety of using pepper spray on juveniles, and that most juvenile correctional agencies shun its use “because of the harm it causes to youths and the negative impact on staff-youth relationships.”
Not in New York
Gladys Carrión, commissioner of the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, which oversees 49 youth-detention programs, says that's why New York has never used it.
“It's dangerous,” Carrión says. “I think it doesn't teach the young person a thing about how to manage their behavior. It really doesn't teach staff any skills to be able to engage with young people. I don't see it as an effective tool.”
It recent years, many states have voluntarily traded OC spray for new interpersonal techniques designed to de-escalate conflicts. For other jurisdictions, it's taken lawsuits, federal investigations and court orders.
In 2006, San Diego County Probation told The San Diego Union-Tribune that it was weighing sweeping revisions to its pepper-spray policies after a prisoner-rights group threatened legal action.
Today, San Diego County continues to embrace OC spray, even as nearby Los Angeles County’s three juvenile halls have reduced usage from 1,431 OC incidents in 2001 to just 91 incidents in 2011 in the wake of an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice. San Diego’s two juvenile halls experienced 378 incidents in 2011, four times as many for a population half the size. [See writer’s note.]
There's an OC incident in a San Diego juvenile facility every 20 hours.
'Routine' Behavior Management?
“You should not be using this as a routine behavior-management tool,” says Barry Krisberg, director of research and policy for the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at UC Berkeley.
“Those numbers look way too high.”
Krisberg is currently the court-appointed monitor for the California Division of Juvenile Justice, which recently accepted a court order to bring down its number of OC incidents. Krisberg compares the two jurisdictions:
The state-level juvenile system houses roughly 1,000 youths per day and records roughly 45 OC incidents per month. San Diego County, which houses 824 youths per day, averages 38 incidents per month.
“What we're looking at is a county detention system that is handling less-serious, less-violent youth than the state—the state has much more murderers, more armed robbers, more violent offenders—but, yet, the chemical use looks to be comparable,” Krisberg says.
Last May, OC incidents peaked in San Diego County's juvenile facilities with 60 incidents, or two per day. Two-thirds of those occurred at the East Mesa facility.
“That's a very high number,” John Rhoads, a former top-level juvenile-detention official in both Sacramento and Santa Cruz counties, says of East Mesa's 272 incidents in 2011. “I would be concerned that having that many incidents of use of pepper spray, that it appears to be something they move to too quickly.”
Rhoads is currently a Reno-based consultant for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which developed the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, a set of standards aimed at reforming juvenile-justice systems to reduce overcrowding and recidivism, as well as the strain on government budgets.
Banning the Spray
Currently, 150 jurisdictions in 32 states are implementing the standards, which also call for banning the use of OC spray.
“Those places spend a lot more time building better relationships with kids,” Rhoads says. “They have a less-repressive atmosphere and are working on good programming so behavior is incentivized so they don't get into these extreme situations where there has to be restraint used.”
County probation officials declined multiple interview requests and would answer only questions submitted via email. The responses signal the department has no intention of reducing the use of OC.
“The number of times OC spray is used in SD Probation's juvenile institutions is dictated by the number of incidents staff respond to where there is an immediate risk of injury to youth or staff and other options have been attempted and failed or the circumstances do not allow for other options,” the department says via email.
In one sense, the policy has worked: In 2011, Probation recorded only two staff injuries that required medical treatment. No similar numbers were available for youth.
But the sheer number of OC incidents may indicate that pepper spray is not the when-all-else-fails tool that the county claims. Of the 461 incidents, 67 were classified as “non-fight,” which covers situations such as escape attempts, suicidal behavior or a youth “instigating others to fight,” as well as accidental discharges.
Pepper spray is also routinely used when a juvenile refuses to leave his cell. Probation's “room extraction” policies dictate staff may fog the room with pepper spray, wait a few minutes, then enter and handcuff a ward.
The county's policies acknowledge that pepper spray can be especially dangerous when used on certain individuals, such as youth who suffer from asthma or are taking psychotropic medication.
Probation confirms to CityBeat that OC spray has been used on some “OC Sensitive” wards, but “medical staff noted no lasting adverse effects.”
Don Cipriani, a guest teacher who worked in San Diego's juvenile facilities in 2009, describes a “culture of maintaining control,” in which he saw staff use the threat of pepper spray regularly to regulate day-to-day obedience, from preventing fights to enforcing how close a ward could stand to another. Juveniles were conditioned to hit the deck when they heard a guard call out “OC.”
Cipriani, now a senior program officer who works on school-discipline issues for Public Interest Projects, a New York-based nonprofit, notes that pepper spray had a direct impact on education. Classes were regularly cancelled due to OC incidents, and education staff would often return to the teachers' lounge coughing and with irritated eyes because they had been too close to a spraying.
Critics of OC argue that it runs counter to the real goal of juvenile facilities, rehabilitating youth. “You can't give a motivational interview with a tear-gas canister on your belt,” Krisberg says.
Probation, on the other hand, doesn't see the two as mutually exclusive.
“Probation achieves its rehabilitative goals through rapport building with youth and a variety of programs and services focused on addressing delinquency risk factors for youth in custody,” the department says via email.
“Case plans are developed for all youth who remain on probation upon release, and work on those case plans continues with probation officers in the community.”
Forget rapport, says one former juvenile-hall officer. Pepper spray leaves a residue of enmity.
“Once you have sprayed a kid, you have not made a friend; you have made an enemy for life,” says G.R. Dean, who retired in 2003 after 25 years with the San Diego County Probation Department.
“He associates you with serious pain. Worse than his parents have ever done to him. Worse than his gang rivals have ever done. You have exceeded that.”
Dave Maass is a reporter for San Diego City Beat and a 2012 John Jay/Tow Foundation Reporting Fellow. This story, which was part of Maass' Fellowship Reporting project, originally appeared on May 2, 2012 in San Diego CityBeat. Please read it HERE. Reactions to his piece were widespread. Maass welcomes further comments from readers.