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Calif. weighs limits to pepper spray in juvenile jails

A state lawmaker and reform groups are pushing to bar officers from carrying pepper spray in juvenile jails in California


In this Feb. 21, 2013, file photo, an inmate at the Madera County, Calif., Jail is taken to an inmate housing unit in Madera, Calif.

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File

By Don Thompson
Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A state lawmaker and reform groups are pushing to bar officers from carrying pepper spray in juvenile jails in California, one of six states that still allow employees to patrol with the caustic chemicals in youth detention facilities.

Their calls come as the Board of State and Community Corrections prepares to consider regulatory changes Thursday that would limit using pepper spray to times when there is an imminent threat and would require officers to document its use. Officers could still carry it at all times.

A bill by Democratic Assemblyman Ed Chau of Monterey Park would not allow it to be carried but would keep it available to be retrieved to help quell a riot or subdue an offender if other calming tactics aren’t working.

“One of the objectives of sending our young people to juvenile detention centers is to help rehabilitate them,” Chau said. “One of the things we want to do is create a bond or a trust factor with the young person, and carrying the pepper spray on the employee’s person may deter that bond from being established.”

Reggie Hola, a youth advocate for Sacramento ACT, or Area Congregations Together, argues chemical and physical restraints are dehumanizing.

“The shackles, the pepper spray, really are there for punishment. It’s more pressure for the youth to just explode,” said Hola, 27, who said he was pepper-sprayed at least three times, sometimes inadvertently, while serving time in Sacramento and Yolo county lockups.

“It causes a person, an individual, to start thinking they’re animals, they’re beasts; they’re monsters,” he said.

Jim Salio, president of Chief Probation Officers of California, said pepper spray is most often used to prevent fighting. His organization is seeking alternative legislation that would call for studying whether using pepper spray is better than alternatives such as physical force.

“Having pepper spray not available, not available on the individual officers, would make it difficult to deter a violent attack, a violent attack that’s taking place right in front of you,” said Salio, who is San Luis Obispo County’s chief probation officer.

Critics say pepper spray is particularly harmful to those with respiratory problems and repeated exposure can cause illness.

Thirty-five states no longer allow pepper spray in juvenile detention halls, while only California, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, South Carolina and Texas allow employees to routinely carry canisters, according to the advocates and state officials. The remaining states allow its use in some capacity, but employees do not routinely carry it.

The issue has been hotly debated nationwide in recent months.

South Carolina began allowing police to carry pepper spray in its main youth prison after a 2016 riot.

But Rhode Island officials rejected union officials’ request to let detention center employees carry pepper spray in July. Oklahoma is phasing out its use, while Wisconsin juvenile prisons are under federal court order to reduce disciplinary methods including pepper spray and shackles.

Reform groups filed a federal complaint in 2014 alleging that pepper spray was used so frequently in San Diego County juvenile facilities that employees seemed to view it “as an all-purpose behavioral management tool.”

Nothing came of the complaint, but its use was declining in San Diego County lockups a year later, said Youth Law Center staff attorney Virginia Corrigan, who is among those seeking statewide limits.

Aside from county facilities, pepper spray also is allowed in the California Division of Juvenile Justice, which houses offenders up to age 25 who generally have committed the most serious or violent felonies. The division says it has cut its use by more than half since 2010.