Security officers at R.I. juvenile detention facility push for pepper spray

Security officers at the state's juvenile detention facility say they continue to endure regular assaults as the administration balks at allowing protective tools like pepper spray


By Tom Mooney
The Providence Journal, R.I.

CRANSTON, R.I. — Security officers at the state's juvenile detention facility say they continue to endure regular assaults by residents as the administration balks at allowing such protective tools as pepper spray and body armor.

"We've been talking about this for more than a year but nothing is moving very fast and our guys keep getting hurt in the meantime," Steve Shears, president of Local 314, RI Council 94 AFSCME AFL-CIO, told The Journal on Saturday. The union represents workers at the Rhode Island Training School for Youth, in Cranston.

Administrators at the Department of Children Youth and Families, which runs the training school "pay a lot of lip service to safety, but at the end of the day they are more concerned about appearance; it's always about the philosophical issue."

Kerri White, spokeswoman for DCYF, said Saturday that what's in dispute is not a difference in philosophy, "it is a matter of adhering to best practice standards for juvenile facilities. "

White said that the pepper spray is prohibited by most juvenile facilities around the country "because it is documented that pepper spray is all too often used inappropriately and places both staff and youth at risk. "

Further she said, " to date, there has not been a demonstrated need for other tools used [even] in the adult correctional system such as body armor and chemical munitions."

The issue of pepper spray, or pepper foam, has been debated since at least July 2017 when one of a series of melees at the training school sent four workers and two residents to the hospital and prompted the training school's head to step down.

The violence led Gov. Gina Raimondo to call for a total review of the workings of the juvenile detention facility. While Raimondo said the review would consider the use of pepper spray, as union leaders had asked, she also said "This isn't a prison ... these are still teenagers. Having said that they are teenagers who can, at times, be violent."

DCYF Director Trista Piccola also voiced resistance to using pepper spray for the same reason, during a legislative hearing last year.

But Shears said while the population of the training school has dropped from almost 150 to 50 over a decade, those juveniles who are sent there are often the most violent and many are gang members.

Shears said the department would rather focus on training and "deescalation" techniques as ways to manage unruly residents but that that isn't enough.

Nicole Barnard, a lawyer for the workers union, says "these are not kids sent there because they drank some beer. They have committed serious crimes like first degree sexual assault."

In the last two or three months, Shears said, one staff worker was knocked unconscious in a classroom by a juvenile resident, a second worker had his nose fractured in an intake area assault and a "10-person melee" involving rival gangs broke out in the gym on June 21.

Staff members managed to break up the fight by putting themselves at risk, said Shears.

The training school review did produce some positive changes, Shears said, including new radios for better communication, physical improvements in security areas and uniforms for staff; state police said that when they responded to the July 2017 riot they had a hard time differentiating between staff and residents because workers weren't wearing uniforms.

Shears said he hoped the governor or legislative leaders would reconsider providing training school workers pepper spray or foam and body armor "to keep people from getting hurt."

©2019 The Providence Journal (Providence, R.I.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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