Acting Department of Correction Commissioner Angel Quiros told a legislative committee Thursday that he would try to find a way to stop the use of pepper spray on incarcerated youth following a state Child Advocate’s report which found the practice “deeply concerning.”
“For some of these kids an arrest does not stop the violent behavior,” Quiros told the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Commission. “But I’m hoping I can make that call that we’re not using chemical agents.”
DOC employees used the chemical agent on some young inmates as a way of stopping them from self harm, according to Sarah Eagan, the state Child Advocate, in a report on the state’s incarcerated youth issued earlier this week.
“That is a practice you would never see in a mental health program,” Eagan said. She alerted the DOC that the use of the chemical agent on young inmates ages 15 to 21 in Manson Youth Institution and York Correctional Institution was “alarming.”
Eagan’s 75-page report examined a wide variety of issues regarding youth imprisonment. She gathered information from young males being held at Manson and young women at York from January to July 2019 and then followed their cases through the rest of the year.
The findings nearly mirror the report Eagan issued in early 2019 that sparked legislative changes including the use of “best practices” when dealing with youth and chemical agents, prone restraints and solitary confinement.
Eagan found that in 2018, the DOC used pepper spray on 19 males who were minors as a way of breaking up fights. From February to November 2019, DOC employees used pepper spray on 18 minor males, 12 of whom were Black, Eagan said.
The agency has used pepper spray four times on minors in 2020, Quiros said. “We’re headed in the right direction,” he added.
But it won’t be easy, he conceded. “About a month and a half ago, I had two kids brutally attack another kid,” Quiros said. “We had to use chemical agents.”
The victim of the assault was so badly injured he remained under medical care for two or three weeks after returning to the prison from the hospital, Quiros said.
He also wants to change the layout of Manson, which originally was designed to house 700 incarcerated young males ages 15 to 21. He would like to open up spaces as dormitories and utilize apartments on the property to make the setting more communal and allow the youth to spend less time in cells.
Quiros contended that he didn’t view Eagan’s report as negative, even as she pointed out dramatic inadequacies in the way the DOC handles incarcerated youth. “I didn’t see this report as the OCA versus the DOC,” he said. “I see this report as the OCA trying to guide us in improving.”
He promised swift training for staff in several areas including goals to get youth out of their cells on a more regular basis. “I have a responsibility to switch the culture at MYI,” he said.
The agency is already working on providing more mental health programming “off shift” and improving technology so that incarcerated youth can use the internet for school, he said.
Eagan found that few of the young men at Manson were classified as having mental health needs even though the majority came from families with repeated state Department of Children and Families involvement due to concerns of child abuse or neglect.
Those who were classified as needing mental health treatment could only attend programming during the first shift for employees which conflicts with school, she said. Many of the kids attended a full day of school only 50% of the time. Most were working at a level of grade 4 to grade 5.9.
The agency also still uses segregation as a discipline tool which is a form of solitary confinement, Eagan said. Her goal is to get the state to end the placement of minors in the adult prison system, she said.
“The adult prison system is not designed to provide children with the programming and treatment services necessary so they can rehabilitate and safely return to the community,” Eagan said. “The state lacks standards for meeting the treatment and educational needs of incarcerated youth.”
The totality of findings in Eagan’s report was “pretty alarming,” said Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven. The commission is responsible for recommending legislation regarding juveniles and the criminal justice system.
“I think the report gives us a good snapshot of what we need to address,” Walker said.