I heard the Panel's report was completed a month ago, but TYC administration disagreed with portions of it and were trying to negotiate parts of its contents. That makes me wonder what the original report said, since this one flat out contradicts TYC's representations to the Lege, including that some juvenile justice experts supported more widespread pepper spray use.
Youth Commission officials in early August approved using pepper spray before physical restraints to subdue juveniles. At the time, and at a subsequent legislative hearing, officials insisted that unnamed national juvenile corrections experts were split on its expanded use.
The report indicates otherwise.
"This task force unequivocally expresses its concern about TYC's new policy allowing the use of chemical control agents such as pepper spray," the report states.
"We understand that the new policy regarding pepper spray was implemented in an effort to decrease injuries to staff and juveniles, however, the ease with which pepper spray can be employed is extremely troubling. This is especially true in an environment that has not yet seen a shift in culture away from punishment and towards a treatment approach."
Though pepper spray could be best in dealing with some crisis situations, the report states, "it is all too easy to employ this technique in dealing with recalcitrant youth who refuse to obey an order or in an effort to extract a juvenile from his or her cell."
The report suggests other options for curbing injuries. It notes that living units of 50 youths or fewer have proved successful in other states. Most of Texas' state-run lockups hold 200 youths or more in living areas larger than that.
In the weeks since the pepper spray policy took effect, Youth Commission officials have reported that injuries to staff and youths have decreased. But a series of pepper-spraying incidents has led to criticism from some lawmakers, advocacy groups and relatives.
In an August incident at the Corsicana Residential Treatment Center, a lockup that houses mentally troubled youths, at least one youth was hospitalized with what might have been an allergic reaction after being sprayed.
The use of Mace and other chemical agents except to contain riots was prohibited in the settlement two decades ago of a federal court lawsuit over conditions in Youth Commission lockups. Critics have said the new policy violates that order, an assertion repeatedly denied by current agency officials.
What are the options for reducing violence at facilities sans pepper spray? The Blue Ribbon Panel said smaller facilities, higher staffing ratios and better training would be a better approach. I agree, but legislators appear willing to stick with the status quo and use OC spray to keep the peace. Rep. Jerry Madden says proposals for smaller facilities don't have political support and also backed TYC's pepper spray policy.
One wonders why they convened the Blue Ribbon Panel and put off so many initiatives waiting for its input if they weren't going to take its recommendations?
The decision to expand pepper spray use may give staff some short-term respite, but creates a mere illusion of control that can only be sustained through staff intimidation toward youth. At the end of the day, that creates an environment that's anathema to rehabilitation goals. I'll leave the final observations on that subject to a regular Grits commenter and TYC field staffer, who goes by the nom de plume "Old Salty." Salty left this noteworthy comment on a post about pepper spray use and how to best maintain control of youth that deserves readers attention:
there are some occasions when using pepper spray is appropriate. Unfortunately, I have seen it used too much as a crutch. ...
The over crowding, 96 bed open bay dorms, cutting back on resources to save money - they have all contributed to the mess we are in today. We also lost a great deal under the leadership of Chester Clay and the "get tough" bunch. Staff who had great skills at de-escalating were called cowards and were run off. Control by intimidation became the rule. Someone here keeps posting the mantra, "Control is an illusion." That is absolutely true when you try to achieve control through intimidation.
Staff who can hold firm, fair and consistent limits on kids, who confront them politely, but firmly, and who follow up with appropriate consequences when the youth do not comply, and recognition and reward when they do comply, tend to maintain control.
We are the adults. We have more control over their lives than we realize. Try something, as an experiment, if you do not believe me - when everything is loud and disruptive, make a point of addressing them at a lower volume. You will probably be surprised at the reaction you get. I've been doing it for years, and 95% of the time they quiet down because they want to hear what I am saying. They are used to staff yelling back at them, they are taken aback when a staff stands in the midst of them and calmly and without showing either fear or aggression, begins addressing them.
I am not afraid to get physical with youth - I have been involved in literally hundreds of restraints over my career. But, 95% or more of them were cases where I went to the aid of someone who had already initiated the restraint. I'd estimate that at least 80% of those restraints could have been avoided. The point is, that too many staff (especially males) feel that they have to prove themselves. You don't have to prove yourself to anybody.
Right now, my biggest concern is that there have been so many conflicting directives coming out of Central Office, that staff do not know what to do. The youth sense the uncertainty and are taking advantage. The predators are terrorizing both other youth and the staff. Kids tell me constantly that they do not feel safe. They want staff to reestablish control.
In conclusion, we, the adults, need to lead. We need to walk the walk. Don't expect much from Central Office, but don't make that an excuse for not doing your best to lead these kids. Don't let the kids gain the upper hand by letting them succeed in pushing your hot buttons.
I have never resorted to the use of pepper spray to get control, but, I have been mightily pissed off when I have been caught in the cross spray of a panicked staff.
I learned an important lesson from an experienced YAS IV early in my career. A kid had been told by staff to go to his room. The kid instead went over to the YAS IV and tried to address him. The YAS IV remained expressionless as he said, "You were told to go to your room." The kid persisted, and each time the YAS IV responded impassively the same way. Finally, after about 5 or six rounds of this, the kid said, "Fxxx you," and went to his room. About 5 minutes later, the YAS IV went to the kid's room and asked him, "Now, what was it you wanted to ask me?" He had control.