Wisc. COs equipped with pepper spray in response to assaults

Some state corrections supervisors getting TASERs

By Patrick Marley
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

MADISON, Wisc. — State correctional officers are being outfitted with pepper spray and supervisors with Tasers in hopes of cutting back on prison assaults and injuries.

The plan is being rolled out as the state releases a first-of-its-kind report that shows there were 351 assaults, attempted assaults and assault-related injuries for staff from mid-2012 to mid-2013. For years, data on assaults has been poorly tracked, and Department of Corrections officials say the new reporting process will help spot trends and curb assaults.

Officers in Wisconsin prisons are not armed, primarily to avoid the risk of inmates getting their hands on guns. But Corrections Secretary Ed Wall said in an interview he was equipping officers with 3-ounce cans of pepper spray to help prevent and break up assaults.

"It stops the assault so they can get their hands on people," Wall said.

The threat of using pepper spray can defuse situations, thereby preventing assaults, he said. Its deterrent effect increases once inmates have seen it in use, he said.

"You known once you get sprayed with it, you don't want to get sprayed again," Wall said.

Wall is reviewing whether to also equip civilian staff, such as nurses and teachers, with pepper spray.

Pepper spray was put on the belts of officers as part of a pilot program this year at the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility and the Green Bay Correctional Institution. That went smoothly and the spray is now being rolled out to officers at all minimum-, medium- and maximum-security institutions, said Wall and Deputy Secretary Deirdre Morgan.

Meanwhile, supervisors who have contact with inmates are being outfitted with Tasers. The prisons already have some Tasers, but in general they had been kept locked up, rather than worn on supervisors' belts. Equipping officers with Tasers will happen more slowly than providing officers with pepper spray because additional Tasers cost about $400 each.

Unions respond

Daniel Meehan, a sergeant at the Waupun Correctional Institution, welcomed the plan to give officers pepper spray.

"It should have been done a long time ago. You stop stuff before anything happens," said Meehan, who is local president of the Wisconsin Association for Correctional Law Enforcement, an officers union.

Marty Beil, executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, said he was concerned inmates could steal pepper spray and use it against officers.

"That's a two-edged sword," Beil said. "That pepper spray can be taken off an officer as quickly as it can be used by an officer."

Beil credited the Department of Corrections for improving how it tracks assaults but said the best way to reduce assaults would be to have the administration work more closely with officers on the issue. That happened more frequently before Gov. Scott Walker eliminated most collective bargaining for most public workers in 2011, he contended.

"Pepper spray and stun guns, that's window dressing," Beil said.

Wall said he did not see the union limits affecting the number of assaults, noting staffing levels at prisons remain the same. He said he was not worried about inmates managing to get ahold of pepper spray or Tasers, pointing out they could be deployed well before an inmate was within arm's reach of an officer.

Neither weapon is lethal and a Taser has just one shot, giving an officer a chance to render a Taser useless by shooting it into the ground if there were the danger of an inmate getting control of it, Wall said.

The new report found there were 252 assaults on staff and 40 attempted assaults from July 2012 to June 2013. Also, there were 59 additional instances of staff being injured that were related to assaults; that figure counts situations when an officer slips and falls while running to respond to an assault or when one officer accidentally elbows another as they are breaking up an assault between inmates.

Nearly half the assaults — 47% — were committed by inmates with serious mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or severe depression.

The report showed 59% of assaults and 70% of attempted assaults occurred at maximum-security facilities. Around 70% of assaults and attempted assaults occurred in segregation areas, where offenders with the worst conduct are housed.

Changes in meal delivery

In response to that finding, the Department of Corrections has made boxes that can be installed on the doors of segregation units that are similar to the devices used at bank drive-through windows. Officers place meals or other material they need to pass to the inmate in the box and close the door to the box before the inmate can open the door to the box on his or her side of the cell. That way, there is never an opening through which inmates can throw objects at officers.

Reporting on assaults on officers has been patchy in the past, with inconsistent standards from one institution to the next. That has made it nearly impossible to compare incidents from year to year and identify trends. The new reporting system will make it possible to do that, Wall said.

Last year, then-Corrections Secretary Gary Hamblin conducted a comprehensive review of assaults that determined there likely had been a significant increase in assaults. He said then he could not definitively determine that because reports were so inconsistent from one institution to the next. He also said he could not determine the cause of any increase in assaults.

One major issue was that assaults were not defined the same way at all of the state's institutions.

For instance, if an inmate spit at an officer and missed, it was not recorded at all institutions. Now, such an incident is being counted as an attempted assault, and other definitions have been put in place to make reporting the same.

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