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SD City Beat: Pepper Spray Use Rampant At San Diego Juvenile Lock-Ups

San Diego City Beat reporter Dave Maass talks to KPBS about a new report that suggests California juvenile detention staff are using pepper spray too often.

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Statement; Chief Probation Officer Mack Jenkins

Statement; Chief Probation Officer Mack Jenkins

Statement in response to CityBeat story

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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.

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