Guards at the state’s youth prison pepper sprayed teen inmates there more than 100 times in the first six months of the year, a new report shows.
One inmate at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls in Irma was pepper sprayed 12 times between January and June, according to a report filed by the state Department of Corrections in federal court on Thursday. But the majority of the 51 inmates sprayed were pepper sprayed four or fewer times.
Overall, 331 inmates were at the juvenile correctional facility in the six months the department counted its use of pepper spray to manage behavior.
The report was ordered by U.S. Judge James Peterson in July as part of a ruling that also required the facility’s staff to drastically reduce or eliminate its use of solitary confinement and restraints in addition to pepper spray.
Peterson’s ruling was made in a lawsuit against DOC officials and administrators at the Irma facility by former inmates over the department’s use of the practices, alleging the guards are violating inmates’ constitutional rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.
During a two-day hearing in the case in June, one juvenile prisons expert called to testify by the plaintiffs said some teen inmates are spending so much time alone in solitary confinement that they purposely behave in ways that will trigger being pepper sprayed so they can receive stimulation and get out of their cells.
Vincent Schiraldi, a former juvenile corrections director in Washington, D.C., who reviewed DOC policies, practices and incident logs, and did interviews with inmates and staff, described an environment that has inmates in solitary confinement for more than a week prompting guards to pepper-spray them.
Peterson ordered the report from DOC “to help identify patterns and trends” in guards’ use of pepper spray.
Lincoln Hills guards used pepper spray spontaneously in reaction to inmates’ behavior 54 percent of the time, and planned to use the spray to manage behavior 46 percent of the time, according to the report.
The guards used the spray most when inmates were physically resisting staff, refusing directives to stop abusing property in an unsafe manner, refusing to comply with orders to move to another room or location within the facility and keeping their arms hanging outside of a cell’s trap door.
The spray was also used when inmates were fighting with each other, physically threatening staff and other inmates, assaulting staff, harming themselves, being aggressive or spitting on staff, according to the report.
The vast majority of inmates being pepper sprayed were being housed in the prison’s solitary confinement cells.
Inmates were pepper sprayed more in January, February and March than the rest of the six-month period, the report shows.
DOC will use the data to “prepare a plan to further reduce or eliminate any remaining use of incapacitating agents,” DOC attorney Sam Hall wrote in the report. The data also suggest a reduction in use of solitary confinement could lead to less use of pepper spray, Hall noted.
Also on Thursday, DOC announced that the facility’s administrator, Wendy Peterson, who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, would be leaving her post and taking on a smaller role as the prison’s education director.
Peterson said she wanted to make the move to be able to spend more time with family.
Peterson during the June hearing said he was ordering DOC to revise its practices, in part, because he didn’t believe Peterson and prison security director Brian Gustke were capable of making effective changes.