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Frequent pepper-spraying of inmates in Alaska prisons raises safety concerns

Michelle Theriault Boots

One pepper-spray incident started with a hard-boiled egg tossed at the back of a prison guard’s head from an upper walkway.

It swiftly escalated to the inmate yelling he would kill the guards who came to ask him about the egg.

A pencil was clenched in his fist like a weapon.

Next came a stream of searing, traffic-cone-orange oleoresin capsicum spray aimed at the prisoner’s forehead.

Pepper spray is something like the WD-40 of Alaska prisons: It is the grease that makes the system, based on maintaining prisoner “compliance,” run.

It’s used hundreds of times a year to do everything from stopping an inmate from flooding a cell with toilet water to breaking up a fistfight.

Correctional officers -- who generally work unarmed except for their self-defense training, a radio and a canister of pepper spray -- call it one of their most essential tools.

And they use a lot of it.

According to Alaska Department of Corrections reports, there were 179 documented uses of pepper spray statewide from July 2013 through July of this year. Guards say the official number seems low.

They also say officers are turning to their canisters more often as less-experienced guards enter the workforce with little training in dealing with a prisoner population they describe as more intoxicated, erratic and violent than ever.

Martin Crowley retired last summer after a long career as a correctional officer and sergeant in Alaska. In his more than 20 years on the job, he said, he never personally sprayed an inmate, though he presided over a handful of sprayings.

More often, he said, he spent time talking down unruly prisoners to avoid using force. Now, he said, prisons are so understaffed that a single guard might be alone in a housing unit containing 100 prisoners.

When trouble starts, there’s no time to talk.

“We had that luxury. We don’t have that luxury anymore,” Crowley said. “We have to make a judgment based on the circumstances and press on.”

The correctional officers’ union has complained for years that understaffing has led to poor training and unsafe work conditions. The DOC maintains the staffing model is working fine.

‘Horrific violation’

Correctional experts consider pepper spray to be one of the safest and most effective uses of physical force against inmates.

“You can pepper-spray the daylights out of somebody, it burns like crazy and he does what you want him to, and they wash it off and it’s over,” said John Scott, another recently retired veteran correctional officer in Anchorage. “It’s not like we’re damaging the person.”

Civil liberties and mental health advocates have started to question its use, especially on mentally ill prisoners who may not understand the consequences of their actions and who make up a majority of inmates in Alaska and nationwide.

About 60 percent of prisoners in Alaska have a diagnosable mental illness, according to the DOC. Of those, roughly 20 percent are considered “severely and persistently mentally ill,” with illnesses like schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders.

In April, a California federal judge ruled that use of large quantities of pepper spray on mentally ill prisoners was a “horrific violation” of constitutional safeguards against cruel and unusual punishment. U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Karlton told the California corrections department to revise its standards on pepper spray use, but he did not ban it.

A disturbing video released as part of the civil rights case showed a naked, screaming inmate being doused repeatedly in pepper spray by guards.

In Alaska, there is no policy banning the use of pepper spray on the most seriously mentally ill inmates, said DOC Commissioner Joe Schmidt.

But it is discouraged, in part because “they don’t respond to it,” he said.

Correctional officers say spraying does happen, even in the Anchorage jail's special unit offering intensive psychiatric care.

If a prisoner is out of control, pepper spray is much safer than the hand-to-hand grappling of the past, Schmidt said.

“We’d rather do that than get hands-on with someone."

But there is debate about just how safe pepper spray is. It has been eyed in a handful of recent deaths, including a diabetic New Jersey man with a heart problem who collapsed and died in June after being sprayed by police.

A federally funded 2004 study examining deaths linked to pepper spraying in confrontations with law enforcement found that there was “no evidence that (pepper spray) ... is a total or contributing cause of death except when pre-existing asthma ... is present.”

Oleoresin capsicum spray is “relatively innocuous,” the report found.

Threats of ‘ass-kicking’

Hundreds of pages of 2008-09 special incident reports acquired through a public records request catalog each time pepper spray was used against an Alaska inmate.

The reports depict pepper spray being used to prevent imminent physical harm but, more frequently, when an inmate simply ignored an order, such as a directive to stop banging on the cell window.

Prisoners were sprayed after flooding their cells with toilet water, covering the window of a cell with paper, refusing to put on clothes, refusing to take off clothes for a search, cutting an arm with a broken cup, breaking jail sporks and trays, and head-butting guards.

One prisoner in the mental health module was enraged by a nurse playing country music on the radio, ignored orders to change cells and was sprayed.

Another was sprayed for being “extremely mouthy and disrespectful” to guards and stealing a meal tray.

Guards always warn the prisoner to stop the behavior first, Schmidt said. Those who don’t obey get sprayed.

Frequently, pepper spray use was directly preceded by colorful insults and threats to the correctional officer. “Ass-kicking” comes up a lot.

One report notes that a prisoner, after being sprayed, yelled at a guard, “You may have pepper spray, but I have hepatitis!”

The reports also offers a window into the less-frequent use of restraint chairs.

In one report from March of 2009, an inmate spit blood at a guard and was pepper-sprayed, strapped to a restraint chair and covered with a “spit hood” for two hours.

It’s not clear if any policies about when it’s appropriate to use pepper spray have changed since 2009.

But one rule is different now: Guards are no longer required to fill out the “special incident form” every time pepper spray is used, DOC spokesperson Sherrie Daigle wrote in an e-mail.

‘Making grown men cry since 1975’

Officers at the Anchorage Correctional Center carry Sabre Red (company slogan: “Making Grown Men Cry Since 1975”) pepper spray in 4.4-ounce canisters that can be clipped to a belt.

Jails also store larger 18-ounce canisters -- nicknamed “party cans” by guards -- to quell bigger disturbances.

Pepper spray is the most potent tool they can carry.

Correctional officers who work inside institutions don’t carry guns because of the threat that a prisoner could take the weapon and use it against them.

“When I started with the department we didn’t have (pepper spray), and it was all hands on,” Schmidt said. “If you had to get somebody (out of a cell) you’d have a mattress of a shield and you’d run into the guy with your partner behind you.”

About 15 years ago, the rules were changed. Now most -- but not all -- guards carry spray.

And every correctional officer is pepper-sprayed in the face during training. The idea is to teach the guard how it feels: A stream of ultra-concentrated oleoresin capsicum packs 2 million Scoville heat units.

By comparison, a jalapeno contains about 6,000.

(To this reporter, a modest burst of pepper spray felt like a swarm of hornets to the eyes and a blistering mouthful of smoldering embers mixed with cayenne pepper -- pain that shocked.)

If an officer knows how it feels, he or she can “fight through it” if spray is used against them, said Scott, the retired officer.

‘It loses its effect’

Sherman Pitt is a 51-year-old inmate at the Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward, serving a lengthy sentence for the stabbing death of a man outside a Ketchikan bar in the early 1990s.

Over the years he says he’s been sprayed “a good 10 times at least.”

“A couple of times for fighting,” he said. “Once for spitting in a guard’s face.”

It feels like getting shampoo in your eyes, but worse.

“You can’t breathe because it’s going through your nose,” he said.

At Spring Creek, pepper spray is dispensed like air freshener, Pitt said.

“They pepper spray people in Seward for as much as flushing suspected contraband down the toilet,” he said in a phone call from the Anchorage jail, where, he says, he is awaiting a medical procedure.

From Pitt’s perspective, the use of spray has gone up “1,000 percent” in the past five years.

He says he recently witnessed the spraying of a prisoner who had two broken legs and was in a wheelchair.

Pitt says the most hardened or mentally ill inmates show no response to a face full of pepper spray.

Once, he said, when he was incarcerated at a privately run prison in Arizona, he was sprayed and had no chance to wash it off.

After a while it didn’t burn anymore.

“Here’s the thing,” he said. “If they pepper spray you too often, it loses its effect.”