Photo by Michael Coghlan via Flickr
Following brutal accounts of San Diego juvenile hall officers using pepper spray on detainees who refused to submit to strip searches in front of staff of the opposite sex, the California Legislature has passed a bill that strictly limits how strip searches are conducted on minors in custody.
The legislation, Assembly Bill 303, currently awaits Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature.
The author of the bill, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzales (D-San Diego), took up the issue last summer after the Youth Law Center (YLC) filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice that alleged widespread misuse of pepper spray — also known as oleoresin capsicum, or OC spray — in juvenile facilities run by the San Diego County Probation Department.
YLC’s investigation was spurred by a series of reports in the alternative newsweekly, San Diego CityBeat, as part of an ongoing collaboration with The Crime Report.
Based on incident reports previously denied to reporters, YLC’s 34-page complaint described how two suicidal young women, and at least one young man, had been repeatedly hosed with OC spray to force them to submit to strip searches in front of staff of the opposite sex.
In one case, a girl who refused to undress was repeatedly sprayed and locked in her cell until she vomited from the chemicals. When the girl finally collapsed — after the fourth spraying — staff made her crawl out of her cell, where they cut off her clothes, searched her, then confined her to her room for 48 hours.
“I have rarely seen such a brutal and insensitive way of dealing with a suicidal young woman,” YLC staff attorney Sue Burrell told The Crime Report.
“The strip search exacerbates what’s already a very delicate situation. The idea that a suicidal girl would be asked to disrobe in front of a group of adults she doesn’t know — including one of the opposite gender — is so out there. And then to pepper spray them?”
The Next Challenge: Pepper Spray
California remains one of 14 states that still allow pepper spray in juvenile detention facilities. While establishing statewide standards for the use of pepper spray may be the ultimate goal, Gonzalez’s bill is a first step in preventing situations like those described in YLC’s complaint.
At first, Gonzalez didn’t think such legislation was necessary. Having guards of the opposite sex present during a strip search or body cavity check should have been banned under an earlier state law that required anyone “conducting or otherwise present” be of the same sex as the detainee. But the law wasn’t clear on how it applied to juveniles and what being “present” actually meant.
AB 303 expands the law to include anyone “within sight of the inmate” and unequivocally applies this protection to wards of juvenile detention centers, with an exception for medical professionals. The bill also requires that strip searches be conducted in completely private spaces and bans staff from touching the breasts, buttocks or genitalia of the detainee during a visual search.
Staff who violate the provisions would be guilty of a criminal misdemeanor and victims would have the right to sue.
While Gonzalez is considered on the far left in her home district, the strip search issue galvanized both sides of the aisle, even gaining support from conservative talk radio in San Diego. Earlier this month, the bill passed unanimously in both California houses, with Republican Sen. Janet Nguyen from Orange County championing it in the Senate.
Shortly before YLC issued its findings in July 2014, Gonzalez had toured a San Diego juvenile detention facility, where she became concerned by the large number of female youth locked up on prostitution-related charges, despite being potential victims of sex trafficking or exploitation.
When she read about strip searches conducted in the presence of male staff, it struck her as another sexual violation.
‘Victimized’ Young Women
“Those girls have been victimized already, so why put them in that situation?” Gonzalez said in an interview with The Crime Report. “It just opened a can of worms. Why are we even detaining young women who have been victimized in a traditional juvenile incarceration setting?”
In negotiations on the bill, Gonzalez said she experienced paradoxical arguments from juvenile detention systems. On one hand, there was concern that AB 303 would require agencies to hire more female staff, but she heard the argument that pepper spray was necessary in juvenile hall because of the increasing number of female officers who must handle male detainees.
Ultimately, though, the bill passed with no registered opposition, and even several probation groups openly supported it.
One of those groups, the State Coalition of Probation Organizations (SCOPO), hopes AB 303 will bolster staffing. State regulations require that at least two probation officers be present during strip searches — one to do the search and one to monitor. Alberto Torrico, a lobbyist for SCOPO, said it’s sometimes difficult to meet that requirement if a facility is short on staff, let alone make sure there are enough female officers.
A.B. 303 will “require each county to be fully staffed up in a more gender-equitable fashion,” Torrico said. “It’s best to have more women [probation officers] and try to get a better balance.
“We still need to do a better job of getting more women into the profession,” he added. “In almost every county, we’re still seeing severe understaffing, so that’s really the problem. If you’re understaffed, then you can’t have gender balance and you can’t have proper supervision of the kids.”
AB 303 won’t be the end of the effort to reform juvenile detention facilities, Gonzalez said. She plans to look at how strip search laws should be applied to transgender youth, as well as regulating pepper spray use in juvenile halls on a statewide level and addressing the issue of minors incarcerated on prostitution-related charges. .
Meanwhile, a bill that sought to strictly limit solitary confinement in California juvenile facilities died in committee, due to projected costs for training and additional staffing. SB 124, authored by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), would have banned punitive solitary confinement and limited room confinement to four hours for youths who pose a safety risk.
Leno and the bill’s proponents argued that using isolation as a disciplinary tool, even for several hours, can undermine rehabilitation and exacerbate behavioral problems. At least 20 states have banned youth solitary confinement.
“Around the country, so many jurisdictions are doing a lot better than [California],” said YLC’s Burrell. “It is being done, it can be done. You don’t have to go cold turkey. You can figure out how to move in the right direction.”
Dave Maass, a former staff writer at San Diego CityBeat and a 2012 John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellow, currently works for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Kelly Davis, also formerly with San Diego CityBeat, was a 2014-2015 John Jay/Langeloth Health and Justice Journalism Reporting Fellow, and now works as a freelancer in the San Diego area. They welcome your comments.