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Monday, Jul 28, 2014 - 95 days ago Last Blog on Earth | News

What prompted advocates for juvenile detainees to file a complaint against San Diego County

Summaries of more than a dozen disturbing incidents

By Kelly Davis
pepperspraysign Signs posted at San Diego County juvenile detention facilities show detainees how to take the cover position.
Dave Maass contributed to this post.

Earlier today, the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center (YLC) and a coalition of nine civil-rights groups announced that they'd filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice over pepper-spray abuses in San Diego County juvenile-detention facilities. The 34-page complaint, which follows CityBeat's reporting on the excessive use of pepper spray in county juvenile facilities, highlights dozens of troubling examples of the chemicalalso referred to as OC (oleoresin capsicum)—being used indiscriminately on kids who posed no physical threat to staff.

More than 70 percent of juvenile-detention facilities in the U.S. forbid the use of pepper spray on detainees. But, as we reported in a longer story on the complaint, "... probation staff sprayed youth at risk for suicide; youth who simply were disobedient; youth with respiratory, cardiovascular and skin problems; and youth being treated with psychotropic medication." The complaint highlights, too, probation's use of solitary confinement as a form of punishment—a practice that's been widely condemned by experts—as well as cases where suicidal female detainees were ordered to strip naked in front of male staff, a violation of the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act. 

The complaint asks the DOJ to conduct its own investigation of the probation department's policies and procedures governing the use of OC spray and require probation to "adopt policies that eliminate the use of OC spray in its juvenile facilities."

Through a public-records request, Youth Law Center obtained two years' worth of incident reports from county probation. Below, we've included, verbatim from the complaint, summaries of some of the more troubling incidents.


* A minor stated that she felt suicidal to her attorney, who then informed detention staff. Staff explained to the minor the suicide watch procedure, which, regardless of the circumstances, involves removing a minor's clothing, a strip search, and donning a suicide smock. Four staff were present at the time, one of whom was male. The girl, who was in her cell and seated on her bunk, twice refused to take off her clothes. Based on this refusal alone, staff determined that the use of OC spray was warranted. After calling out "cover, cover OC," staff sprayed a burst of OC toward the minor's face and closed the door to the minor's cell. After two minutes, staff asked the minor if she would cooperate. When the minor refused, staff sprayed her in the face again and closed the door. As the minor remained seated on her bunk, her face covered by her sweatshirt, staff again asked her to cooperate. When she refused, staff opened the door again, sprayed the minor's face with OC spray, and closed the door. The girl then vomited. Nevertheless, "cover, cover OC" was called again, and staff sprayed the girl for a fourth time. After she had been sprayed four times, the girl assumed the cover position. Staff opened the door and instructed her to crawl out of her room and lie on her stomach and she complied. According to the incident report, throughout the entire process "the minor remained seated on her bunk in a non-threatening manner," and "did not display any physically aggressive behaviors nor did she use any aggressive verbage [sic] other than stating that she was not going to remove her cloth[e]s." The minor was cuffed. Staff removed her clothes, her bra and shirt were cut off, she was strip-searched, and she was dressed in a suicide prevention gown. As a result of refusing to voluntarily remove her clothes, the minor was also given forty-eight hours of room confinement.

A minor was placed on suicide watch after indicating that she wanted to hurt herself. She was strip-searched, dressed in a suicide gown, and placed in a different room. The minor began ripping the Velcro off of the suicide gown and wrapping it around her neck. At that point, five staff members entered the room, handcuffed the minor, took the gown, and left the girl with a suicide prevention blanket. When the girl began to rip up the blanket, staff entered the room and took it, leaving her naked and without any form of covering. The girl then began peeling paint from the wall and using it to cover the window and scratch her arms. Staff decided to move her to a different room and ordered her to cover. When she did not comply, they sprayed her in the face and closed the door. The door was opened when the minor agreed to cover; she was handcuffed. After being handcuffed, she began to resist, yelling and spitting. She was taken to an isolation room, where she was allowed to hit herself for about fifteen minutes. The minor was given forty-eight hours of room confinement as discipline for this incident.

A minor became agitated in the evening and began to jump on the sink in her room and cover the window with paper. The minor was instructed to go into the cover position and complied. She attempted to hide some paper under her legs, and staff handcuffed her and moved her out of her room. When she was placed in a different room and staff removed her handcuffs, the minor disrobed, began crying, and threatened to kill herself. Staff told the minor to go into the cover position and stated that if she was not in the cover position when the door was opened, staff would spray her. When staff opened the door, the minor popped up from the cover position and grabbed a sweatshirt to protect her face from the OC spray. Staff sprayed her twice in the back of the neck. The minor went to the cover position and staff closed the door to the room for about five minutes. The minor was given forty-eight hours of room confinement for this incident.

A minor was upset because she received markdowns. A staff member talked to her, and the minor responded belligerently toward the staff member. The girl stated that she would hurt or kill herself and began to scratch her arm and pre-existing cuts. Five additional staff members responded, including one male staff member. The staff member continued to speak with her, but the minor continued to verbally threaten the staff member and refused to comply with the suicide watch procedure. The minor stated that she would stay seated in the hallway. A staff member called "cover" twice. When the minor raised her arms, another staff member sprayed her in the face with OC, apparently without warning. Staff directed the minor to lie down and, when the minor did not comply, staff "placed" her in the prone position, holding down her arms and legs and handcuffing her. When the minor began spitting, staff held down her head and placed a "spit sock" on her head. The incident report notes that the minor had a history of cutting herself and had been placed on suicide watch in the past. The incident report also notes that "[a]Ithough the minor did not comply with the cover command as directed, she did not pose an immediate threat."

A minor was placed on suicide watch after yelling that he wanted to kill himself. A female staff member asked the minor to comply with a strip search. The minor repeatedly refused to comply with a strip search and refused to cover when ordered to. Staff gave the "cover, cover, OC" command twice. When the minor refused to comply, staff sprayed his face with OC. The minor continued to refuse to cover, and staff physically intervened to get him on the ground and handcuffed. The minor resisted, biting and kicking. Eventually, the minor began to spit blood on the floor and staff applied a spit sock. The minor was sent to a suicide prevention room, and when he calmed down, staff cut off his clothes and dressed him in a suicide prevention gown. The minor received two days of room confinement for "health and safety violations and for not following instructions."

Staff decided to remove a minor from his room. Staff informed the minor that he would be sprayed with OC spray if he was not in the cover position when the door to his room was opened. When staff opened the door, staff observed that the minor "was responding to the directive very slowly," so staff sprayed the minor in the face and closed the door. A staff review found the use of OC inappropriate because the minor was sprayed even after he was fully in the cover position. 

* Staff sprayed a minor because the minor "hesitated going to the cover position." A staff review found the use of OC appropriate because the minor had a history of violence and, according to the reviewer, staff reasonably believed that the minor was not going to cover. The minor received forty-eight hours of room confinement. 

* Staff sprayed a minor who sat up from the cover position and swung his arms. Staff did not give a "cover OC" warning prior to spraying. The minor received seventy-two hours of room confinement. Two youth who were not involved were oversprayed.

Three staff members simultaneously sprayed a minor in the face. The minor stood up after being in the cover position for two minutes with her fists clenched by her shoulders and refused to return to cover. The minor was later placed on suicide watch and given medication and seventy-two hours of room confinement.

A minor performed calisthenics "in an inappropriate manner by swaying her hips sexually." The minor was instructed to stop, and eventually, to sit down. The minor refused requests to sit down where she was asked to, instead sitting in a different area of the quad. When staff ordered her to cover, she lay on her side with her hands on her face and then went into a push-up position. Staff sprayed her using a large MK-9 canister. A staff review found that the spraying staff member should have handled the situation better by calling for backup earlier and using a smaller can of OC. The review stated that the minor was not a threat when she lay down on the ground, especially as the minor was small in stature and young, and the staff member was six feet away.

* A minor took more grievance forms than was permitted. She went to cover outside her door without being instructed to, then stood up and began running down the hall. Staff sprayed her without warning as she ran by. The minor was given forty-eight hours of room confinement. A staff review found the use of spray appropriate because the minor was "unpredictable" and her intentions were "unknown." 

* A minor was upset after a difficult visit with her mother. She began throwing soap bottles and shower mats at staff, but did not actually hit staff. The minor was sprayed in the face and received seventy-two hours of room confinement.

* A minor became upset, mistakenly believing that he was going to be penalized for sitting out recreation. The minor began to stand up and did not follow a command to assume the cover position. Staff sprayed him in the face. The minor received seventy- two hours of room confinement. 

* A minor walked to the water cooler without permission. When staff threatened to spray the minor if he did not sit down, the minor sat down. After sitting for a while, the minor stood up and began walking toward a group playing handball. Staff gave the command to cover. When the minor did not go to the cover position, staff sprayed him. As the minor stood and rubbed his face, he was ordered again to go to cover. When he did not respond, staff grabbed him by the shoulder and "took him to the ground." The minor received seventy-two hours of room confinement The staff reviewing the incident report observed that there was no indication that the minor was threatening during the incident; the report apparently was forwarded up the chain of command. 

* A minor covered his window completely with wet pieces of paper in the morning and refused to remove it. At the beginning of the afternoon shift, staff asked the minor if there was anything they could do to help him; the minor replied that there was not. Staff told the minor that he should comply with the cover command, which he refused to do. Staff opened the door flap and sprayed OC "to gain compliance." The "extraction team" then opened the door, pulled the minor out, placed him on his stomach, and handcuffed him. 

* A minor refused to leave his room to go to recreation. The minor remained in his room, reading his rule book, despite being asked multiple times to leave. Staff called for the minor to cover, but he refused to. After staff called "cover OC" twice, staff sprayed the minor's face with OC and closed the door for two minutes. The minor was handcuffed and removed from the room. Nothing in the report indicates that the minor was violent or threatening at any point during the incident. 

* A minor apparently attempted to booby-trap her room and refused to take "cover" when staff ordered her to. Staff sprayed the minor and closed the door to her room. Staff sprayed again two minutes later, and then again two minutes after that, closing the door after each spray. The minor sat under her desk and covered herself with a blanket; staff again sprayed into the room and closed the door. Staff then entered the room and pulled the minor out from under the desk, pinned her shoulders, legs, and head to the floor, and slid her out of the room. When the minor refused to remove her alms from her clothing to be handcuffed, staff applied pressure to her "mandibular pressure point" twice to gain compliance and cut sections out of both of the minor's sleeves. The minor was handcuffed and decontaminated while being held in shoulder control. The Watch Commander decided to place the minor in a suicide gown. Staff held the minor down and cut her clothing off. Staff covered the minor with a suicide gown before removing her underwear and strip searching her. The minor received seventy-two hours of room confinement. 


 
 
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