Pepper spray and body restraints are being used to control youth in state facilities, a change of direction that some say dilutes decades-old groundbreaking reforms in juvenile corrections.
Thirty years ago, a court settlement forced juvenile corrections in Oklahoma to eliminate excessive restraint use and extended isolation. The agency that handles delinquent youth amended the settlement in 2012 to loosen the restrictions on how youth are treated.
Staff used pepper spray on youth at Central Oklahoma Juvenile Center in Tecumseh 19 times in 2012 and 2013. The state is in the minority to allow its use. Nationwide, 12 percent of juvenile facilities authorize staff to carry pepper spray, which incapacitates a person with a burning sensation of the skin and burning, tearing and swelling of the eyes, according to a 2011 report by the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators. The chemical agent is very painful and has, in some circumstances, caused death.
Among states that allow it, Oklahoma has some of the strictest limitations on isolation, another technique used to control youth in juvenile detention facilities—with a maximum of three hours a juvenile can spend in isolation for each offense. However, staff commonly exceed the limit at the Tecumseh facility, according to an analysis of restraint logs provided to The Oklahoman.
Keith Wilson, executive director of the Office of Juvenile Affairs, said isolation can exceed three hours if a mental health professional assesses the child and approves its continuation.
Solitary confinement is described as “a serious and extreme measure to be imposed only in emergency situations” in the Terry D. settlement agreement. It is allowed to be used on a juvenile who is a physical danger to himself or others, and only after less restrictive methods of control failed, the document states.
Other restraints the agency has been using include a humane blanket wrap, which constricts the juvenile’s body movement and allows staff to carry him to another location, and a spit sock, a transparent mesh head covering that prevents the youth from biting or spitting on others.
Overreliance on restraints of all types compromise relationships between staff and youth—a critical feature of safe facilities, the Council of Juvenile Correction Administrators states in a 2011 report.
Because incarcerated youth will reenter the community, the challenge is to reroute them from a likely path to adult corrections, said juvenile justice advocate Jon Trzcinski.
“Kids are salvageable, and you have an opportunity to intervene in whatever it is they’ve been doing and help them right the ship, so to speak, and live a happy and productive life,” he said.
Court orders techniques to change
Some of the sweeping reforms made decades ago in the Terry D. class-action lawsuit have been loosened at the request of the agency that handles juvenile corrections, the Office of Juvenile Affairs.
In 1978, a group of youth filed a class action lawsuit against the state of Oklahoma on behalf of Terry D., a boy who described deplorable conditions in the state’s juvenile facilities, including abusive use of restraints, days of solitary confinement and staff using tranquilizing drugs to control kids rather than treat them.
A settlement was approved in 1984, which banned the abusive practices and closed many facilities.
In 1995, the Office of Juvenile Affairs was created and the responsibility of juvenile corrections was transferred from the Department of Human Services. At that time, the newly created agency pushed for an end to the consent decree, said attorney Steven Novick, who filed the lawsuit.
The case closed in 1996 with an order of dismissal outlining guidelines for treatment, called the “legacy order.” OJA operated under those guidelines for many years.
Then in 2011, the state closed its only maximum security juvenile facility, the L.E. Rader Center in Sand Springs. Without a plan in place to handle the youth, they were dispersed to the remaining facilities, Central Oklahoma Juvenile Center in Tecumseh and Southwest Oklahoma Juvenile Center in Manitou.
The influx of violent offenders wreaked havoc at the facilities. A boy at COJC suffered a brain injury in a nighttime assault in August 2011, and two riot-like disturbances within a week spurred change. OJA asked to loosen the restrictions on restraints and solitary confinement. It also wanted the ability to use Tasers and pepper spray, neither of which had been addressed in the legacy order.
Eventually, pepper spray was approved but Tasers were not.
The legacy order was dissolved and, in 2012, a private settlement agreement was put in place. It is set to sunset after three years.
“That would be the complete end. If you ever wanted to do anything again regarding juvenile institutions, you were going to have to start over from scratch,” Novick said. The state is in year two.
Advocates say the agency is moving in the wrong direction by increasing its use of restraints and isolation—and it’s opposite of what most agencies nationwide are doing.
“The pendulum at one time had swung very much toward making juvenile facilities a lot like adult facilities. That nationally, I think, has begun to swing back. Except here,” said Trzcinski, who works as a monitor for juvenile justice facilities and was tasked with setting up alternatives to incarceration after the Terry D. settlement. “They’re doing things that were not allowed a few years ago. The change in the legacy order from Terry D. really loosened things up.”
Mark Soler, director of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy in Washington, D.C., said restraint use damages relationships between youth and staff and creates an atmosphere similar to an adult prison.
“Many children in juvenile facilities have been physically, sexually or emotionally abused before they get to the facilities, and often these kinds of restraint techniques push children into flashbacks of the abuse that they suffered,” Soler said.
Anything that covers their face can constrict breathing, and there have been instances when restraints that cover the face resulted in death, he said. Devices such as the blanket wrap put children in an extremely vulnerable and traumatic position, and psychologists working with the agency recommend against it.
Instead, staff should be trained to handle confrontational situations and deescalate by walking youth to a separate area until they calm down.
Wilson, the OJA director, said they are working to revise the agency’s training procedures and write walk and talk back in. It is already being use more often, leading to a reduction in restraint use, he added.
Hurdles exist to functioning in an ideal way in Oklahoma, however. The agency is operating on a budget that Wilson says is inadequate, and they struggle to hire and retain staff.
Once employing 1,100, the agency now has 700 on its payroll.
“Unfortunately, when you do that kind of a reduction, some of the people you lose are people you really needed,” Wilson said. “We’ve been in the process of rebuilding the training department.”
Walking across the sprawling campus that is COJC, the pride Superintendent Jerry Fry has for the kids there is evident. A native resident of Tecumseh, where the center is located, he was hired in 2011—a tumultuous time.
“It was very chaotic,” he says. “Dysfunctional. Difficult.”
During a recent visit with The Oklahoman, he switched on a video showing a team of boys from COJC playing a March Madness style basketball tournament against a team of boys from SWOJC in Manitou—much like a biological father would show visitors a home video of his kids.
This type of organized activity wasn’t possible several years ago. There would have been fights, assaults, gang rivalry. “Look at how well they are getting along,” Fry marveled.
To deal with a population of some of the state’s most violent and troubled teens, Fry said he has introduced a family-type structure where juveniles earn privileges such as board games, their own room and later bedtimes.
And he’s tried to expose the teens to life experiences they may have been deprived of, such as a Halloween carnival the facility held in October, complete with hayrides. One juvenile saw a horse for the first time ever.
Changing videos, Fry then shows visitors to the center a Christmas concert, in which “hard core” gang members sang—comically off-key, at times—alongside one another.
“The last thing I want is for this to be prison like,” Fry said.
Youth at COJC are led from school, which is held in secure classrooms above the facility’s gym, to mealtimes and other programming in single-file lines by youth guidance specialists. They aren’t cuffed, and they wear different colored T-shirts to depict which unit they are housed in.
Not every youth decides to comply with the programming, and there are still fights among youth, as well as assaults on staff.
But, Fry says since he arrived in 2011, there have been no major incidents and no need to call police. There have, however, been numerous calls for paramedics following assaults, seizures and other medical issues, according to emergency call logs.
In August, OJA contracted with a private facility in Norman to house female juveniles and the girls were removed from COJC—which greatly improved conditions there, said Paula Christiansen, a spokeswoman for the agency.
Still, restraints are used regularly to keep the peace. The law prohibits the agency from using restraints or isolation as punishment.
The agency’s policy is to first allow out-of-control youth the opportunity to voluntarily walk to a place of separation or confinement without restraints. The restraints are to be removed as soon as the child has calmed.