AP Legal Affairs Writer
COLUMBUS — The pepper spraying of juvenile inmates in September broke numerous state rules and was without exception unwarranted, a court-appointed monitor concluded in a report. The state has argued a violent gang outbreak justified the spraying.
The analysis of several incidents in which gang members were pepper sprayed as they were transferred between units sheds more light on Ohio’s evolving youth prison system, which is both shrinking but also growing more violent as only serious offenders remain in state custody.
A member of a court-appointed monitoring team who reviewed 11 pepper spray cases found “not a single incident” where the use was justified, according to the 16-page report filed Monday in federal court in Columbus.
“None of the youth were armed; none were barricaded; none were physically violent; none were engaged in targeted aggressive movement toward staff; and none were engaged in striking, grabbing, pushing or punching of staff,” according to the report by team member Steve Martin.
Martin cited three cases where guards sprayed pepper spray into their hands, then swiped it on the faces of juveniles already being held down.
Applying pepper spray “in this fashion is extraordinarily dangerous and greatly increases the risk of asphyxia during a prone restraint,” the report said. Martin noted that “the ‘facial swipe’ tactic is unprecedented in my many years of experience reviewing and investigating hundreds of use of force incidents” involving pepper spray.
The monitoring team reviewed incidents in September in which the Department of Youth Services asked adult prison guards to help move youth identified as gang leaders. Seven youths from Scioto Juvenile Correctional Facility in Delaware and 12 from Circleville Correctional Facility were moved to a separate unit at the Scioto facility.
A Youth Services spokeswoman declined comment because the incident involves an ongoing lawsuit. But the state painted a dire picture in a Nov. 18 court filing justifying its use of the pepper spray.
In August and September, gang-related violence had exploded, with 11 large-scale incidents involving multiple youths. Teens were breaking out of their cells for fights, and numerous guards and juvenile inmates suffered injuries. By the end of September, 20 staff members were on leave due to injuries from assaults, the filing said.
Teens not involved in the violence were refusing to go to school or therapy sessions out of fear for their safety, according to the filing.
“The outright ban of pepper spray could make it impossible for DYS to restore order during extraordinary circumstances without resorting to more risky physical intervention techniques, making injury to youths and staff much more likely,” the state said, noting that no youth who was sprayed needed anything more than basic first aid afterward.
A court-ordered monitor continues to oversee Ohio’s attempts to make youth prisons safer following a 2004 lawsuit that alleged a culture of violence.
Last month, U.S. District Court Judge Algenon Marbley ordered the state to ensure pepper spray is not used to quell disturbances in state youth detention facilities. He plans a hearing next month.
Marbley’s order also required the state to film forceful restraints of juveniles and to provide immediate explanations when outside guards are called in.
The monitoring team’s report said Youth Services failed several times to videotape pepper sprayings.
“Although ten of the eleven applications of … spray were planned uses of force, DYS personnel failed to properly record all but two of those incidents with handheld cameras,” the report said.
An increasing number of state juvenile inmates are violent because less serious offenders are now housed at the county level to keep them close to family and away from more hard-core offenders. The average age has also risen to just under 18 years, meaning many of the offenders are at or close to adulthood.
The state houses only about 820 youths in four facilities, down from more than 2,200 a decade ago.
A lawyer representing juvenile inmates said Wednesday he recognizes the state’s need to control violent prisoners. But Al Garhardstein said he believes even those inmates can be restrained without pepper spray.