SD City Beat: Pepper Spray Use Rampant At San Diego Juvenile Lock-Ups
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. California is one of only five states in the nation that allowed staff at juvenile detention facilities to carry around pepper spray. Now, a new report by San Diego City beat suggests the staff may be using that pepper spray too often. I'd like to welcome lie guests, reporter David Maass of San Diego City beat. Welcome to the show. MAASS: Always great to be here. CAVANAUGH: And author and photo journalist, Susan Madden Lankford. Welcome back to the program. LANKFORD: Thank you, Maureen. Hi Dave. MAASS: Good to talk to you again. CAVANAUGH: Let me start out with some basics. How many juvenile facilities are there in San Diego? MAASS: There are two that are considered juvenile hall, and then there are three that are considered -- probation considers them rehabilitation centers, but they're juvenile camps and secure facilities. CAVANAUGH: Are they different for boys and girls? MAASS: Yes. Girls are a facility called girls rehabilitation facility. And the other two. CAVANAUGH: Is there one for maybe low level offenders, and one for more violent juveniles? MAASS: East mesa juvenile facility tends to be for the longer term, more violent detainees, whereas Kearny Mesa facility seems to be more of an intake facility. There's a variety. And the statistics I have indicate that all of them are violent in some capacity. CAVANAUGH: Whose responsibility is it to run these facilities? MAASS: San Diego County Probation Department handles juvenile corrections in San Diego County. There's a board called the juvenile justice commission that is designed to oversee it as well. CAVANAUGH: You're overseen by a correctional officer. Who oversees the actual children being detained? MAASS: They're probation officers. CAVANAUGH: Okay. Now you kind of stumbled onto this story. MAASS: For a while now, I've been trying to look into the juvenile hall in San Diego County, and one of the things I looked into was what kind of reports the county probation has to file with the juvenile justice commission. It was a series of subsequent public records requests trying to find out what actual data, a lot of it was rejected, but in the end, I was given this list of serious incidents as they're qualified. And there were two line items, one that was listed as OC nonfight, and OC nonfights. And I wasn't sure, and it stands for oleoresin capsicum. I'm not sure if that's how it's pronounced. CAVANAUGH: I have to tell you that -- that I have to break into your explanation here. We do have breaking news about Junior Seau's death. And his mother is now giving a press conference. Here is Louisa Seau. NEW SPEAKER: I say today thank you, I appreciate you guys show your love to my son. I don't understand who do this to my son. But I pray to God, please, take me! Take me, leave my son! But it's too late! Too late. That's all I say. Thank you, thank you so much! God bless you. For everybody's going home, drive carefully. Drive safely. But I don't know what I'm going to do. My son! God, give me the power! Give me the strength. Monday, Tuesday, me and my husband, come over and visit him, but he out of town. He talking to me, he's joking to me. CAVANAUGH: The heartbreak of Louisa Seau, talking about the death of her son, Junior Seau. We did our first segment on the reports. Now confirmation that Chargers great Junior Seau has died 67 it's still unconfirmed, whether or not he committed suicide, although all news agencies are reporting that fact. Louisa, now almost completely inconsolable. We're going to go back to this when Oceanside police have their news conference to give us some confirmed reports about what has gone in on Oceanside home this morning. It's just tragic, and I almost hate to make you done under these circumstances, Dave Maass. But this story is very powerful. That's out today in CityBeat as well, and it's about the use of pepper pray in San Diego juvenile detention hall, and you were telling us how you discovered how pepper spray is used in these detention facilities, and you also -- what did you find out about the number of times the pepper spray is used at these facilities. MAASS: Well, totaled up over the course of the year at the five facility, and actually we should say four, because one of them had no use. Over the course of the year, there were over 450 uses of pepper spray, and 67 of them -- oh, we got to break again. CAVANAUGH: I am so sorry, the press conference is happening now in Oceanside. This is a press conference of the Oceanside police. NEW SPEAKER: Residents, find Mr. SeU unconscious, suffering from a gunshot wound to the chest. Oceanside police department and fire department responded to this residence where we located Mr. Seau in one of the bedrooms. Life saving efforts were performed on Mr. Seau, however they were not successful. And Mr. Seau has deceased. This case at this point is being investigated as a suicide. Will a handgun was found near the body. As you can see, this is still a very fluid situation, and our investigators are continuing their investigation in this matter. Our hearts and prayers as a city go out to the Seau family. I will not be answering any questions at this point, however lieutenant Matta will be back in about 15 minutes to answer any other questions that you may have. Thank you very much. CAVANAUGH: Well, there you have it. A confirmation from Oceanside police. That was chief frank McCoy, that Junior seU's death is being investigated as a suicide. Of a handgun was found near the body. Again, 43 year-old southern seU has been confirmed dead in his Oceanside home today. We will bring you more on this breaking story as it occurs. As you heard, about 15 minutes from now, they're expecting another Oceanside official to speak about this and give more information to reporters gathered at the scene in Oceanside. &%F0 back to our story about pepper spray, and Dave Maass, I am so sorry that this important story is being sort of interrupted. But you of all people understand how these things works. MAASS: News breaks! CAVANAUGH: You were telling us about the number of times pepper spray has been used in San Diego juvenile halls. MAASS: That would be 461 times in 2011. And at one of the facilities, east mesa, it was 272 times, and do the math, that is more than five times a week. So Monday through Friday, somebody is getting sprayed in the facility. CAVANAUGH: One of the most interesting things in your article is the contrast between the number of times the pepper spray is used in San Diego's juvenile facilities as opposed to how often it's used in Los Angeles. Tell us about that. MAASS: Well, what you see across the country in places that do do pepper spray is that once it reaches a certain level, it instigates lawsuits and investigations. In LA County, in 2001, they were using it at extremely high levels. The Department of Justice came in and came to an agreement to bring it down. In over ten years, they've got it down to 91 times in 2011 at their three juvenile halls, which that's significantly less than San Diego County. CAVANAUGH: And they have more kids incarcerated. MAASS: Yeah, they have a bit more. I think it was about 15% more. CAVANAUGH: Susan Lang Ford, I. To go do you. You spent a lot of times in juvenile halls for your book, born not raised. Tell us what you encountered. What kind of level of violence did you encounter there? LANKFORD: We really didn't encounter violence when we were doing our documentary film. Our book is based on the Kearny Mesa facility, primarily. But the documentary film shows two years ago the setup which is in that type of facility which is entirely different than the networking going on in these other facilities. And camp Barrett and campo, and GOS are benign compared to the type of incarceration that they have to have at east mesa. These kids are 16-18 year-olds, some of them are older than that, now with DJJ, we're going to have even more of them down here, and they're serious felons for the most part. And these kids are in units and in individual cells within the unit, and they matriculate within the classrooms and the unit, that's a lot of organization, a lot of structure. But when there is a breaking out of these kid who is have rival gang members, they have no problem having oppositional conduct disorders, it's a lot for staff to handle. And before having any major outbreak taking place, after the youth are starting to pile on one another, there really is little recourse, unless we're going to use physical trauma. CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know that we did tact the San Diego Probation Department to be on this show. They declined, but they did send us a statement. Let me read a part of that statement. "Pepper spray is a tool that staff can use in situations such as fight or assault where this there is an immediate risk to the safety of youth or staff. Staff is trained to use it only when necessary." And we have the entire statement on our website from chief probation officer, Mack Jenkins. And I'm wondering, Dave, what were you able to learn about under what circumstances this pepper spray, this OC, is officially sanctioned for use within these facilities? MAASS: Well, a lot of it is for fights. But something that's interesting is that it is sanctioned for use when people are "passively resisting orders. " And one of the things that was most notable in the policies the county has, it's used for cell extractions. When a kid refuses to come out of his cell, the policy allows them to spray inside the room, wait two minutes, and then go in and get the kid, and then haul him off to the showers. So it's used in situation where is there isn't necessarily this immediate violence. It's used just when people are refusing instructions. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, you give in this article a pretty good description of the effects of pepper spray. Can you describe those effects to us? MAASS: I actually spoke to a former juvenile offender, he is 19 now, he had been in there in 2010, and he said that it's not that bad when it's just on your skin. But when it gets in your eyes, your eyes cell up, you're tearing, mucous is pouring out of your nose. You're incapacitated. You can only focus on this pain that you're feeling. And it's called chemical restraints in correctional speak because it is the chemical equivalent of shackling somebody. CAVANAUGH: Now, you spoke with some former employees of juvenile detention facilities here in San Diego, especially a teacher who used to come in and work at the facility. What effect does it have, this use of pepper spray on the kids themselves? And I don't mean physically. I mean on morale, a sense of cohesion when they're going into their classes. MAASS: Well, it creates an environment where there is always the threat of pepper spray. Pepper spray is not just brought up when there's a riot. When you refuse instruction, that's the thing they go to. They say OC, and then the kids have to hit the deck. And that seemed to be a regular occurrence in there. Am every time there was a pepper spray, it would disrupt other services in the facility, including classes. This teacher talked about regularly seeing classes canceled because you drop pepper spray, it's like propping a bomb. Everyone is affected by it want CAVANAUGH: Susan, you mentioned in your first answer and also when you were on the program before for the release of your book, one of your concerns is how prison realignment is actually affecting juvenile facilities here in San Diego, that the state is going to be -- that more serious offenders are going to be housed in our juvenile detention facilities. Is that your concern? LANKFORD: Yes, it is. It's a big concern because the kids who are at DJR presently which used to be CYA, California youth authority, and you would have youths who were doing serving two years or more, going to California youth authority. And that was closed down several years ago. And then the worst of the worst were sent to DJJ. Now, you're talking about sexual offender, kid who is have done serious assaults, attempted murder and murder. They're being returned to the department of probation to house. And these individual, depending on how probation sets this up, will most likely be at an east mesa facility. CAVANAUGH: Now, I wonder, did you do any exploration about how DJJ uses pepper spray? MAASS: Yeah, I actually spoke to the Court-appointed monitor who oversees the reform at DJJ. And one of the things he pointed out is that the levels that we're using pepper spray in San Diego County are pretty close to what they're using in DJJ. And DJJ is actually part of a court order right now to bring down their levels. CAVANAUGH: What does San Diego Probation Department say about the use of pepper supra I? MAASS: They say they use it as a last resort. CAVANAUGH: This is what they say in the part of the statement that I read too. Did anyone actually talk to you though for your report? MAASS: No, no. And they haven't talked to me for previous reports either. It's always written questions. Sometimes interesting which they don't point out is that the statistics do show that only two probation officers were injured in 2011 or at least injured enough to require medical treatment. So that is an argument in the favor that it reduces workman comps claims, less staff are injured, and it's a balance between staff over juveniles. CAVANAUGH: Which is sort of a number of reports that you've done on juvenile detention facilities in San Diego. One was about unreported sexual abuse in these facilities. I'm wondering what if any investigations perhaps might be underway to -- by the ACLU or other disorganizations? Anything? MAASS: Doesn't seem like there's a lot right now, no. I wish there was. And hopeful flee, you know, pieces like the one I just published will instigate to look a little bit deeper. CAVANAUGH: Well, are I want to thank my guest, and again I apologize about the interruptions that we have had. But I think this is it a very important subject and very interesting.
California is one of only five states in the nation that allow staff at juvenile detention facilities to carry around pepper spray.
A new report by San Diego City Beat suggests the staff may be using that pepper spray on youthful offenders too often.
The report contrasts pepper spray use between San Diego and L.A. juvenile halls and interviews with former staff members.
Dave Maass of San Diego City Beat investigated the story. He spoke to KPBS reporter Amita Sharma about the new report.
Maass said there are five facilities in San Diego: two juvenile halls and two rehabilitation centers, and one all-girls center. The San Diego County Probation Department is in charge of the facilities, and the Juvenile Justice Commission serves as the watchdog over these facilities.
"System-wide, there are more than 461 incidents of pepper spray being used in these facilities. At one of the facilities, East Mesa, we found that it was being used five times a week on average," said Maass.
He said it's used in San Diego primarily to prevent or stop fights, but also to force unwilling detainees to leave their rooms.
"Pepper spray is considered a chemical restraint, that is the the chemical equivalent of, say, shackles. You spray it into a kids face, his eyes swell up, mucus starts pouring out of his nose, they double over in pain," said Maass.
In a statement, Chief Probation Officer Mack Jenkins wrote, "Pepper spray is a tool staff can use in situations such as a fight or an assault where there is an immediate risk to the safety of youth or staff. Staff is trained to use it only when necessary, when other options such as giving directions and counseling have been attempted and failed, or when the urgency of the situation does not allow for them. We also regularly use the assistance of juvenile forensic staff when possible to help us deal with upset, angry or out-of-control youth. In every use of OC Spray, affected youth are seen and examined by medical staff. OC Spray is used as an alternative to physical force by staff to stop fights, assaults on other youth, or attempted assaults on staff."
Maass said that in 2011, San Diego County's two juvenile halls used pepper spray 371 times. It was used 91 times in Los Angeles County's three facilities in 2011. After an investigation, Los Angeles signed agreements with the Department of Justice, pledging to decrease their use of pepper spray.
One former staffer told Maass that using pepper spray makes an enemy for life, rather than the good rapport that can lead to rehabilitation.