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.
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