In May 2012, CityBeat's Dave Maass obtained public documents that revealed staff at San Diego County's juvenile-detention facilities were using pepper spray on youth at an alarming rate. Only five states allow juvenile-detention officers to carry pepper spray, and facilities using it with comparable frequency have faced serious legal consequences. Officials from the county Probation Department, which operates the facilities, were defiant in response to our findings. Pepper spray was being used when it was needed, they argued, and no changes to policy would be made.
Maass' reporting caught the attention of the San Francisco-based legal-advocacy nonprofit Youth Law Center and numerous other civil-rights groups, a coalition that launched its own investigation and met with probation officials to discuss the matter. As is detailed here, the coalition's probe, which netted far more documents than we were given, revealed the problem to be far more severe than we could have imagined.
As a result, the groups announced this week that they've filed a formal civil-rights complaint against the San Diego County Probation Department with the U.S. Department of Justice and requested an official investigation.
The number of pepper-spray incidents in youth facilities has actually declined from 461 in 2011—1.26 incidents per day, on average—to 320 in 2013. The reduction could be partially explained by a decrease in the facilities' population, but the decline is more than offset by the brutal and counterproductive nature of the chemical's use.
Some 70 percent of youth-detention facilities bar the use of pepper spray entirely. Fourteen states allow its use, but most of them limit it to emergencies such as riots. The reason is because it's considered unnecessary force and counterproductive to the mission of juvenile corrections, which is to rehabilitate kids who've run afoul of society.
Judging from its own reports of incidents, the Probation Department doesn't see things that way. Far from limiting pepper spray to life-and-death emergencies, or even to protect staff or other detainees from a violent outburst, the Probation Department uses it as a behavior-management tool and a form of intimidation. It's used on minors who are simply disobedient—for example, when they refuse to leave their cells. It's used on kids with respiratory, cardiovascular and skin problems and who are being treated with psychotropic medication. It's used on children as young as 12 years old. The Youth Law Center's investigation turned up 147 detainees who were exposed to pepper spray just because they were too close to whomever was the primary target and were doing nothing wrong.
In the most egregious cases, it's used on detainees who've been deemed to be at risk of suicide, as well as girls who refused to submit to a strip search in the presence of male staff. At worst, the Probation Department's behavior is borderline sadistic, and, particularly when it involves girls who won't strip in front of male guards, torturous.
This is serious business. Not only are detainees' civil rights likely being violated; the climate being created in these facilities is hardening these youthful transgressors even more, making it much more likely that they'll be in and out of jails and prisons for the rest of their lives. If you don't care about them getting sprayed in the face and eyes with burning-hot chemicals because they refuse to comply with orders, maybe you can care about the increased long-term cost to society.
Maybe now that other media are finally picking up on the story, the county Board of Supervisors will begin to give a damn. At least two members— Dave Roberts and Dianne Jacob—now say they welcome a federal investigation. Obviously, we do, too. And we appreciate state Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez immediately expressing interest in addressing the problem through statewide legislation.
But we've seen enough to call for supervisors to act now, by relieving Chief Probation Officer Mack Jenkins of his job as head of the department. There are indications that the use of pepper spray against minors in custody has continued to decline in 2014, but only after it was obvious the heat was coming down—nearly all of the incidents detailed in the Youth Law Center's complaint occurred after our story ran in 2012. And civil-rights advocates were less than confident during their meetings with department officials that they understand their mission.
A change now would allow the department to dramatically alter the culture of youth corrections in San Diego County.
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