Ask any formerly incarcerated youth to describe being hit with chemical spray, and you’ll receive a flood of vivid details and emotions: the burning sensation in their eyes, lungs and skin; coughing fits or asthma attacks; rejected pleas for medical attention and futile efforts to stop the pain (including flushing their bodies with toilet water); and their confusion about why they were sprayed.
This year, California juvenile justice officials have the chance to expand protections and opportunities for incarcerated youth. They should prioritize humane and effective treatment while also emphasizing that incarceration should be a last resort.
A Board of State and Community Corrections panel meets this week to discuss recommended revisions to regulations that apply to 124 county-run youth lock-ups. The recommendations are partly based on a January survey of youths and their real-life experiences – voices historically left out of the debate. They expressed the urgent need for many changes – including the use of pepper spray and poor staff relationships – that make it difficult to heal and get back on track.
The regulations cover all aspects of a youth’s life in detention – clothing, family visits, exercise and education. Thus far, the subcommittee has given youths a little more dignity by requiring new underwear instead of just “substantially stain-free” underwear and by allowing visits with their own children, in addition to parents or guardians.
On Wednesday, the subcommittee will discuss the use of pepper spray and staffing ratios.
The use of chemical spray in California’s juvenile facilities is out of line with national practices. Forty-five states either ban its use or prohibit staff from carrying it. However, in California, pepper spray is used as a basic behavioral management tool, putting youth and staff at risk and deteriorating trust between them. The chemicals are hazardous to the health of the person being sprayed, as well as those around them.
What is frequently overlooked is the harm to the emotional health of detained youth. Young women have told me that months after their skin was burned, they tried to find ointments or make-up to treat and mask their embarrassing skin discolorations.
Perhaps juvenile corrections staff would rely less on punitive actions such as chemical spray if staffing ratios were improved. One adult staff to eight youths during the day and 1 to 16 at night are accepted standards throughout the country. Yet, California only requires one adult for every 10 youths during the day and one for every 30 at night.
The board updates regulations every two to four years, an opportunity to incorporate modern research and practices and improve outcomes for incarcerated youth and ultimately our communities. It is imperative that California’s regulations reflect the voices of our youth, their families and communities.
Dominique D. Nong is a senior policy associate for Children’s Defense Fund-California. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.