Twenty-five-year-old Lonnie Wright grew up in East Oakland, an area well known for its high levels of crime. “We were just in the heart of drugs, violence and guns and death,” says Wright of his childhood. Growing up, his involvement in his school’s football team kept Wright out of trouble; when he lost his spot on the high school team, that began to change. Wright lost interest in school and began getting into trouble. The first time he ended up in juvenile hall for stealing a car, he was just sixteen, and it didn’t take long for Wright to find that pepper spray was used with alarming frequency when the inmates didn’t listen to instructions, or when fights broke out.
“You don’t even have to get touched by any pepper spray. You just have to be in the same room and it’s over for you,” Wright recalls. “You can’t breathe. You get to sweating. Your eyes get to watering. It’s pretty horrific.”
Across the nation, the use of pepper spray in detention facilities has been a hotly debated topic for many years. Pepper spray, also called OC spray, is derived from a chemical found in hot peppers called capsaicinoids. In a report published by the National Institute of Justice, they describe the effects of pepper spray as such: “[pepper spray] incapacitates subjects by inducing an almost immediate burning sensation of the skin and burning, tearing, and swelling of the eyes. When it is inhaled, the respiratory tract is inflamed, resulting in a swelling of the mucous membranes...and temporarily restricting breathing to short, shallow breaths.”
Each year, The Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators (CJCA) conducts a survey on every state juvenile corrections agency in the U.S. In the 2018 survey, 12 percent of state agencies allowed staff to carry chemical sprays in secure facilities, and 29 percent allowed chemical restraints in the facility not carried on a staff’s person. That amounts to a total of 14 states that allow the use of pepper spray, with five allowing its use with absolutely no restrictions on when staff can carry and use it. In eight of the fourteen facilities, the use of pepper spray is only allowed to prevent serious injuries to staff or inmates. A common denominator that CJCA finds between facilities that allow pepper spray to be used on juveniles is a tendency toward more punitive measures being taken against inmates. Tactics such as the use of segregation units and confinement in these facilities tend to be more common, and allowable for longer periods of time than in facilities that have banned the use of pepper spray.
The Negative Effects of Pepper Spray
“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). In years of following the topic, Szanyi has found that a lack of staff training leads to an increased use of pepper spray, as staff are unable to appropriately de-escalate behavioral issues. This is especially true in cases where a juvenile has a mental health issue. In discussing reasons for banning the use of pepper spray, Szanyi points to the fact that there are no studies on the effect it may have on juveniles, though studies on adults have shown it to be capable of causing respiratory arrest, acute hypertension, and permanent nerve and eye damage. What they also know is that the painful and often dehumanizing effect pepper spray can have is only amplified in incarcerated youth, who have often already been subjected to trauma and abuse in their lifetimes.
“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,” says Mark Soler, the Executive Director of the CCLP. Soler believes that pepper spray goes against the rehabilitative intentions of the juvenile justice system, instead teaching inmates that “whoever controls the most force is the one who resolves the dispute.” With the CCLP, Soler has helped to set national standards for juvenile facilities that include a strict ban on the use of pepper spray. So far, 300 counties across the U.S. have signed on. Soler says that juvenile facilities in the U.S. that rely on pepper spray have become the exception rather than the rule, and that the CCLP continues to campaign for the total elimination across the U.S.
Safe Alternatives to Prevent Use of Pepper Spray
The use of pepper spray will not stop in facilities unless it is explicitly banned, says Soler, with some counties in the U.S. still stating that they find pepper spray necessary to de-escalate dangerous situations. “I don’t really give much credence to the argument that kids in some states are so out of control that the staff have to use this kind of chemical restraint,” Soler says. “It’s just not true.” What Soler and the CCLP states instead is that training is the key to getting rid of pepper spray in juvenile facilities once and for all. “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.” Current and new staff will need better, more thorough training on techniques they can use to de-escalate situations with inmates without using force. The addition of more mental health resources in facilities would also be key in order to ensure inmates with mental health issues receive treatment for their problems, which would reduce the chances of them being involved in a behavioral incident.
In February, L.A. County became the latest county to ban the use of pepper spray, after months of reports of excessive use of it in their facilities. It was an important victory for the CCLP, and Solis hopes that, with such a large county signing on to meet their national standards, other counties in California, where pepper spray in juvenile facilities isn’t banned, will soon follow suit.
Multisystemic Therapy is an alternative treatment for youth at risk of becoming incarcerated or involved in the juvenile justice system. Therapists are trained to deal with trauma and antisocial behaviors by using tailored interventions for youth and their families. For more information, click here.