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A still from a 2012 video showing Paul Schlosser, center, after being pepper-sprayed during a cell extraction in a Maine prison.

Adding Pepper Spray to the Prison Arsenal

A new Human Rights Watch report assesses use of force behind bars.

This March, most federal correctional officers started carrying pepper spray. It was a big policy shift for the Bureau of Prisons, which had long been opposed to arming its employees, saying weapons could be taken by inmates and used against staff members. But pressure on prison officials to change this policy mounted after the murder of an officer, Eric Williams, who was equipped with only a radio and handcuffs when a prisoner at a Pennsylvania prison stabbed him to death in 2013.

Individual states have adopted similar policies, expanding the availability of pepper spray in efforts to cut back on prison assaults and injuries. But as the accessibility of pepper spray widens, so has concern about inmates injured and even killed after being subjected to excessive amounts. The active ingredient, oleoresin capsicum, causes intense burning, coughing, and temporary blindness.

Pepper spray is just one type of force used by prison staff. A report released today by Human Rights Watch says the misuse of force on prisoners with mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder is “widespread and may be increasing.” The yearlong study was based on interviews, filings, and recent court cases and concludes that prisoners with mental health problems are more likely to have force used against them, including pepper spray and stun guns (firearms are banned or restricted in most prisons and jails).

These methods, according to the report, are less likely to be effective on people experiencing psychosis and could even strengthen delusions, resulting in a cycle where a mentally ill inmate’s behavior is exacerbated by the use of force, which leads to the use of more force. “It goes round and round and round, and there can be profound psychological injury,” said Jamie Fellner, senior adviser to U.S. programs at Human Rights Watch, and the author of the report.

Pepper spray is one of the most widely used prison weapons. It is often deployed during the course of cell extractions, when an inmate is forcibly removed from a cell by a team of officers, and video from a number of such incidents was included in the Human Rights Watch report. In one recorded incident from 2012, a bipolar inmate named Paul Schlosser was extracted from his cell and strapped to a restraint chair at a state prison in Maine. After he spit at a correction officer, he was sprayed in the face at close range. A spit guard was then placed over his face, and he repeatedly stated that he could not breathe. After being sprayed, he was not permitted to wash his face for 24 minutes.

Similar cases, some with accompanying videos, have led to pepper-spray restrictions in prisons in other states. A federal judge called California's use of pepper spray on mentally ill prisoners a "horrific violation" of their constitutional rights and ordered restrictions on its use in 2014. In one of the incidents presented to the federal court, a California prisoner who thought that officers executing a cell extraction had come to “harvest his organs” was sprayed six times over the course of six-and-a-half minutes. Arizona also settled a court case in 2014, and restricted the use of chemical agents on those deemed “seriously mentally ill” to incidents when there’s an “imminent threat.”

While some agencies have refined their policies on the use of pepper spray on mentally ill inmates, some lack a policy altogether. That was the case at the Lee County Jail in Fort Myers, Fla., where 62-year-old Nick Christie, who was being held in the jail’s mental health unit, died after being sprayed at least 10 times over the course of two days in 2009. An emergency room physician testified he was “entirely covered” in pepper spray, and a coroner later determined his death was a homicide. The jail had a “spray first, ask questions later” policy to using pepper spray, according to court documents.

Yet it’s the threat faced by those working in prisons that has prompted the widening availability of pepper spray and, in some cases, it’s been effective at improving safety. Washington state’s prison agency outfitted its officers with pepper spray after the 2011 murder of corrections officer Jayme Biendl. Since the policy change, which doesn’t impose restrictions on the use of pepper spray on mentally ill inmates, staff injuries have dropped about 10 percent, said Dan Pacholke, Deputy Secretary of Washington’s Department of Corrections.

“It’s a really powerful tool, especially if you don’t use it. You curb some incidents by its presence alone,” said Pacholke, who noted the spray could be used only for self-defense or the protection of others.

Before the federal government decided to expand the availability of pepper spray, it ran a pilot program, and found that the use of pepper spray reduced the time needed to contain violent incidents to 2.73 minutes, from 4.34 minutes. It’s unclear whether the federal government’s policy includes any limitations on the use of pepper spray on mentally ill inmates; a memo about the policy change makes no mention of such restrictions and the Bureau of Prisons did not respond to questions about the policy.

“The rhetoric in corrections is pepper spray improves officer safety, and in some places, the statistics back that up,” says Eldon Vail, the former director of the Washington Department of Corrections. “But it brings with it great danger because it’s so easy,” said Vail. “Without proper control, it can be used to abuse.”