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‘Burned alive. On fire. Choking on toxic fumes’: Being pepper sprayed in prison

What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight:  ‘Burned alive. On fire. Choking on toxic fumes’: Being pepper sprayed in prison

  • After Pittsburgh decriminalizes pot, Black people are still disproportionately charged with possession

  • After jail deaths, judge will not set cash bail for people charged with nonviolent offenses

  • Sergeant who recorded attorney-client conversations faces felony charges

  • An argument that progressive prosecutors should leave New York’s DA association…

  • …and a pledge from one DA candidate that he won’t join

In the Spotlight

‘Burned alive. On fire. Choking on toxic fumes’: Being pepper sprayed in prison

Twenty lawsuits, brought by 12 incarcerated men in Oregon, allege that prison guards pepper sprayed the plaintiffs and then denied them medical treatment and even showers for hours and, in some cases, days after. The plaintiffs are not challenging the original use of pepper spray, only the denial of access to showers to “decontaminate” after. The lawsuits include allegations that one man was “hosed … down with multiple bursts of chemical agent from an industrial-size canister,” that another was not allowed to wash the pepper spray off his body for a full three days, and that in other cases the only showers that were offered were hot showers, which would intensify the effects of the pepper spray. “Burned alive. On fire. Choking on toxic fumes” were some of the plaintiffs’ descriptions of the sensation of being pepper sprayed and the aftermath. [Katie Shepherd / Willamette Week]

There has been recognition in recent years of the harm caused by pepper spray, also known as oleoresin capsicum or OC spray, and the difficulty of reining in its use in prisons. In 2014, California prison officials were forced to set limits on the use of pepper spray, especially on people with mental illness. Those policy changes came in response to a lawsuit and the release of videos showing guards repeatedly spraying people who were mentally ill to force them out of their cells. The judge in the case called the use of force in those cases “horrific” and said the state’s policies “demonstrate deliberate indifference to their mental illness and the harms caused by the weapons.” [Julie Small / KQED] In Wisconsin, a class action lawsuit resulted in a settlement agreement this year that will end the use of pepper spray in youth prisons. Thirty-five states no longer allow the use of pepper spray in youth facilities and other states have begun to reduce or phase out its use. [Don Thompson / Associated Press]

But there has also been momentum in the opposite direction. South Carolina began allowing officers to carry pepper spray in its main youth prison in 2016. Pennsylvania passed a law that same year requiring the state Department of Corrections to issue canisters of pepper spray to officers working in medium- and high-security state prisons. And officers working in the Federal Bureau of Prisons were granted the authority to carry pepper spray beginning in 2015, after an officer in a federal prison was stabbed to death. [Alysia Santo / Marshall Project]

In Texas, the Houston Chronicle reported in February, the use of chemical agents on incarcerated persons has gone up 70 percent in the past 10 years. Pepper spray is often used on those attempting suicide and self-harm. Corrections officers defended this use of pepper spray, saying that while “it might be controversial,” it was still “the best approach.”  Lawyers and advocates for people with mental illness strongly disagreed, arguing that “staff should be trained in appropriate practices for de-escalating the situation, calling in mental health staff, and using a nonviolent approach towards these suicidal individuals” instead or that “chemical restraint should be more of a last resort than a standard practice.” [Keri Blakinger / Houston Chronicle]

In 2011, following the pepper spraying of Occupy protesters at University of California, Davis that led to multiple injuries, the science journalist Deborah Blum looked at the effects of high level of exposure to capsaicin, the active ingredient in pepper spray. She wrote that “pepper spray acts as a potent inflammatory agent. It amplifies allergic sensitivities, it irritates and damages eyes, membranes, bronchial airways, the stomach lining—basically what it touches.” On the Scoville scale, which measures the intensity of a pepper’s burn, the Himalayan ghost pepper measures one million units. Pepper spray measures between 2 million and 5.3 million. The lower end of the range is the spray that can be bought by civilians. The higher end is the intensity of the spray used by law enforcement. [Deborah Blum / Scientific American]

The effects intensify after being sprayed multiple times. Pepper spray “induces a burning sensation in the eyes in part by damaging cells in the outer layer of the cornea. Usually, the body repairs this kind of injury fairly neatly. But with repeated exposures, studies find, there can be permanent damage to the cornea.” Even more alarming are the effects related to inhalation. “Capsaicins inflame the airways, causing swelling and restriction. And this means that pepper sprays pose a genuine risk to people with asthma and other respiratory conditions,” Blum wrote. “And by genuine risk, I mean a known risk, a no-surprise any police department should know this risk, easy enough to find in the scientific literature.” [Deborah Blum / Scientific American]

Earlier this year, MassLive looked at the experience of corrections officers who were sprayed with OC spray as part of their training. Recruits at the the Western Massachusetts County Correctional Officer’s Training Academy in May were sprayed once in the face in order to be prepared for exposure to pepper spray on the job. The reporter described how the recruits coped with the burning eyes and the inability to breathe. One described it as “hell” and another said, “This is the worst thing I’ve ever been through.” Close by was a decontamination area with “running water, a large fan, and buckets and buckets of water mixed with baby shampoo”—everything the men in Oregon prisons have alleged they were denied. [Patrick Johnson / MassLive]

Stories From The Appeal

Photo Illustration by Anagraph / Photo by Andrey Pavlov/Stocksy

After Pittsburgh Decriminalizes Pot, Black People Are Still Disproportionately Charged With Possession. About 51 percent of the people charged with possession of a small amount of marijuana in Allegheny County are Black. [Joshua Vaughn]

Stories From Around the Country

After jail deaths, judge will not set cash bail for people charged with nonviolent offenses: This week, Allan Martin Gomez became the sixth person to die in four months at the Cuyahoga County jail in Cleveland. He had been in jail for four days, unable to post $150 on a $1,500 bond, on charges of possessing less than five grams of cocaine. After seeing a cleveland .com report of the death, Judge Michael Nelson contacted the website on Tuesday and said the “string of jail deaths disturbed him and he’s no longer comfortable setting bonds for people charged with crimes unless they’re charged with violent crimes.” Instead, Nelson said he would set personal bonds. He has also asked for a meeting with jail officials to understand the reason for the deaths. The court’s administrative judge has indicated she has set up meetings with jail officials to understand what is happening at the jail and what will be done to prevent future deaths.  [Adam Ferrise /]

Sergeant who recorded attorney-client conversations faces felony charges: A sergeant for the Alameda County, California, sheriff who illegally recorded conversations between young people and their attorneys has been charged with four counts of felony eavesdropping. In August, the San Francisco Chronicle obtained a video of Sgt. James Russell talking about recording privileged conversations in a way that suggested it was common practice. The district attorney’s office also turned over a recording to the public defender’s office of a young client’s conversation with an attorney. The charges against Russell stem from recordings in March of four young people jailed at the the Eden Township Substation in San Leandro. The charges against them have been dismissed. [Megan Cassidy / San Francisco Chronicle]

An argument that progressive prosecutors should leave New York’s DA association…: Writing in the Times Union, the civil rights campaign director at VOCAL-NY points to the contradiction between the progressive commitments made by an increasing number of prosecutors in New York and their membership in an organization that consistently opposes any meaningful reforms—the District Attorneys Association of New York (DAASNY). Prosecutors who are members despite holding themselves out as champions of reform include Cy Vance of Manhattan, Eric Gonzalez of Brooklyn, and John Flynn of Erie County. Policies and legislation that DAASNY has opposed in recent years include giving the state attorney general authority to investigate police killings, legalizing possession of certain categories of knives to bring an end to arrests and prosecutions that largely targeted Black and brown residents of New York City, bail reform, and the creation of a prosecutorial misconduct commission. [Nick Encalada-Malinowski / Times Union]

…and a pledge from one DA candidate that he won’t join: New York City Council Member Rory Lancman, who is running for Queens DA, praised Nick Encalada-Malinowski’s piece about DAASNY as “spot on” on Twitter. When asked if he would commit to not joining DAASNY if elected, Lancman said he would not join.

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