Fresno County uses pepper spray on detained teens. A new report calls it 'dangerous'

The entrance to the Fresno County Juvenile Justice Campus south of Fresno.
The entrance to the Fresno County Juvenile Justice Campus south of Fresno. Fresno Bee file

Fresno County should stop using pepper spray on children and teenagers serving time at the Juvenile Justice Campus and address other issues that affect their physical and mental health, a report from Disability Rights California recommends.

The group says its review of the campus and public records over the last year found that officers rely on pepper spray to control behavior and break up fights, sometimes emptying a can if a fight doesn't immediately cease. Officers then take the detainees to the yard to hose them off with water, which the report says is an inadequate method of decontamination, as water spreads oil-based chemicals and "young people continue feeling the effects."

The use of pepper spray in the Fresno detention center is higher than in other detention centers in the state, DRC says it found through public records searches.

"During the inspection, supervisors stated that pepper spray is used only as a last resort, and that other means of de-escalation are attempted first. However, Probation staff did not document the use of alternatives in the records provided to us," the report says. "The records confirm that staff continue to use pepper spray on a regular basis."

Chief Probation Officer Kirk Haynes said the use of pepper spray is for the safety and security of the officers. He said he does not anticipate the use of it changing anytime soon.

California is one of six states to allow the unrestricted use of pepper spray in juvenile halls like the one in Fresno, which is home to minors from 12 to 18 who might be there for days, months or years.

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In a July 2005 photograph, Rick Chavez shows one of the housing pods at the Fresno County Juvenile Justice Center. John Walker Fresno Bee file

A bill to limit the use of pepper spray in juvenile facilities stalled in the California Assembly in April.

The commitment side of the Fresno campus, where minors serve out sentences, relies on pepper spray at a frequency that "appears to be regularly lower than other California juvenile commitment centers," according to the report. But both sides of the facility had a higher rate of use than the national average.

The DRC report cites the detrimental effects of pepper spray on physical and mental health, especially for youth with disabilities and those who have a history of being abused.

"What activates their PTSD is feeling unsafe," said Melinda Bird of DRC, who was present for the organization's tour of the Fresno campus for two days last May. Pepper spray can also exacerbate issues like asthma and heart conditions.

A response to the report from the county said officers are within regulations for using pepper spray.

"All officers are trained in the use of pepper spray prior to it being issued and working in the unit with youth," the county's response says.

The fact that the county tracks its use of pepper spray is a promising sign that it could eliminate the practice entirely, according to Bird, and shift to other methods of behavior management.

"The majority of juvenile facilities nationwide operate without pepper spray," Bird said. "But Fresno County is better than some counties in California."

The 22-page report released publicly Tuesday also says inspectors found defects in the campus' food service, with detainees reporting that they were hungry "because they were not being served enough food and were not able to receive seconds at meals."

Food, phones, hygiene

Other complaints included the tasteless and visually unappealing nature of the food.

"Some youth reported finding foreign objects in their food, such as hairs or rocks, and others reported sometimes receiving food that was still frozen," the report says.

Bird said if the county's priority is safety and security, providing adequate nutrition would contribute to a safer environment overall.

"You feel less cranky when you're not hungry," she said.

The county's response says the food vendor, Trinity Services, is meeting its Title 15 requirements.

"FCSS is currently providing youth with snacks during the school day," the response says. "Further, JJC Administration is considering options to augment snacks for the youth."

Snacks could include fruit or granola bars, for example, Haynes said.

The report documents other issues at the campus, as well, including a practice of restricting phone access as a form of discipline.

Haynes said the use of the phone is allowed on an incentive basis: everyone gets one phone call per week, and more can be earned through good behavior.

The facility uses a points-based behavior system that disproportionately affects minors with ADHD and other special needs, according to the report. Detainees with mental health issues struggle with this system due to outbursts that may stem from their underlying conditions, Bird said, and the report finds that mental health issues were under-identified at the facility.

"Kids with disabilities may not be able to conform," Bird said. "The kids who are serving the longest sentences — some up to two years — they were put in six-month programs initially, and then failed, and then had to repeat them. They initially come in with some of the most minor infractions."

Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, speaks at a press conference on March 20, 2017, to introduce a package of juvenile justice reform bills in the California Legislature. Video courtesy of California Senate

The county's response says points are not lost, but rather not given, in six "Pillars of Character" that include "respect, responsibility, trustworthiness, caring, fairness, and citizenship."

Additionally, the county says youth detained in substance abuse and treatment pods may take longer to rehabilitate, and those minors are evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

The report says the county also fails to provide culturally appropriate personal hygiene products. The available products have caused rashes and "scalp irritation for Black youth," according to the report, and have led some detainees to "feel unclean and embarrassed."

The report recommends that the county stock hygiene products that are sensitive to ethnicity and gender. In its response, the county says it provides Luster's Pink Oil Moisturizer Hair Lotion for female youth, and Blue Magic hair grease to all youth. Haynes said researchers spoke to kids who did not know those products were available.

"JJC administration will continue to research for the availability of culturally appropriate products," the county's response says.

School program a plus

The county wins praise in the report for its Court School Program, which "offers a positive curriculum and classroom experience," and proactively transitions students from the Alice Worsley School to local school districts.

"We observed a wide range of subject offerings, the ability to access online credit recovery tools, impressive audio-visual support and extracurricular programming," the report says.

Students who are about to be released attend reentry meetings with representatives from probation, a local school district and the County Superintendent of Schools.

Bird said she wants to give the county its credit for developing a good school program. The review team did not identify any minors on the autism spectrum at the campus, which further points to coordination between the justice and education systems in identifying special needs students and diverting them away from detainment, she said.

"But there is lots room for improvement," Bird said. "There are initiatives underway elsewhere to reform the system entirely and focus on rehabilitation, and that's what we want."

Aleksandra Appleton, @aleksappleton, 559-341-3747
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