Hampden County’s Pepper Spray Problem

Use of force reports from the Hampden County Correctional Center reveal disproportionate use of chemical force against prisoners with psychiatric disabilities


By Seth Kershner

(CW for violence against incarcerated people and particularly neurodivergent folks.)

In a video posted on Masslive last year, Sgt. Joseph Celetti, a Hampden County Sheriff’s Department employee and academy commandant at the Western Massachusetts County Correctional Officer’s Training Academy, described OC as “one of the tools that we utilize at the sheriff’s department to gain compliance for inmates who are actively resisting.”

Along with knee and fist strikes, chemicals—carried in a spray can by supervising officers who have received special training—are considered a key part of the jailer’s use of force tool kit. Commonly known as pepper spray, oleoresin capsicum, or OC, is the chemical agent used most frequently by correctional officers in Massachusetts and around the country.

An analysis of hundreds of pages of use of force reports released under the Massachusetts public records law raises questions about how frequently and under what conditions the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department uses pepper spray against prisoners—many of whom are passively resisting or in the midst of a mental health crisis.

 

Cell Extraction

Just after 6 o’clock at night on May 14 of last year, five corrections officers dressed in head-to-toe tactical gear assembled in front of a cell at the Hampden County Correctional Center. The facility, located in Ludlow, is run by the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department and currently incarcerates around 960 males, both pretrial detainees and those serving sentences of less than two and a half years.

Wearing body armor and gas masks, the officers watched as Lieutenant Edward Lalancette used a small opening in the cell door to issue orders to a 50-year-old Hispanic man whose name is being withheld to protect his privacy. Unsatisfied with the response, Lieutenant Lalancette deployed four blasts of pepper spray in the prisoner’s direction. The team then entered to perform a risky maneuver known as a “cell extraction.” A report describes the man “tensing up and thrashing” and officers “administer[ing] knee strikes” to his body. After the incident, the inmate was eventually moved to a shower area to wash off the chemical agent before being released into a solitary confinement cell.

Jails are violent places, but what makes this episode stand out is how it started. As the Hampden County Sheriff’s own documentation shows, the entire ordeal began not because this prisoner had been aggressive or threatening around staff, but because he had refused to return a plastic meal tray.

“Although the return of a plastic meal tray may seem to be a trivial activity,” Hampden County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Steve O’Neil said, “we have had cases where the tray was broken by the inmate and could be used as a weapon for either self-harm or harm to staff.”

That May evening, the aforementioned prisoner became one of the dozens of incarcerated persons—many of them suffering from mental illness—who are subjected to violent use of force each year by officers at HCCC. Hundreds of pages of use of force reports reveal a culture where a military response to minor rule infractions is routine, and where officers needlessly deluge prisoners with pepper spray. When directed against those with psychiatric disabilities, experts worry that the violent tactics may further traumatize an especially vulnerable population, worsening their symptoms and undermining the effectiveness of the facility’s in-house medical staff.

 

Pepper Treatment

Hampden County corrections officers’ use of pepper spray has more than doubled over the last 15 years, even as its inmate population dramatically declined, according to data released by the sheriff’s department.

Since July 1, 2016, Hampden County officers have deployed the chemical agent more than 200 times—one of the highest rates of use for any county jail in the state, according to the Shoestring’s analysis.

As a correctional tool, OC is designed to inflict maximum pain. In a 2013 deposition, former Correctional Sergeant at Washington State Department of Corrections Eldon Vail described its effects: “People describe it as it feels like your skin is burning off. … The eyes feel like they’re bubbling and burning. Some people cough convulsively. It brings them to their knees.” Containing ingredients extracted from hot peppers, OC acts on the mucous membranes and respiratory system and is approximately 1.3 million times hotter than a typical habanero.

When Hampden County correctional officers undergo basic training, new recruits have to get a blast of OC. Last year a reporter for the Springfield Republican observed some trainees experiencing distress.

“I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” one recruit yelled. “This is the worst thing I’ve ever been through,” cried another.

If this is the baseline reaction to OC spray, what would be the effect on a person with mental illness?

Much worse, it turns out.

A prison psychiatrist told investigators with Human Rights Watch in 2015 that there were two likely effects of using pepper spray on this population—“escalation” of the prisoner’s “fear and anxiety,” and “destruction of trust in the mental health staff.”

Meanwhile, county jails across the Commonwealth have assumed the burden of caring for those with psychiatric disabilities. In a statement, spokesman O’Neil said that around half of HCCC’s prisoners receive some level of care by a mental health provider. In a four-part series by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, county sheriffs in Mass said their “jails have turned into psychiatric hospitals.”

While only approximately 10% of OC spray incidents since July 1, 2016, involved prisoners who were violent or threatening to harm staff, a significant number involved incarcerated persons in the midst of a mental health crisis—either expressing suicidal thoughts or actively harming themselves. In fiscal year 2018, Hampden County officers used a chemical agent on prisoners who were suicidal or threatening to self-harm on at least 20 separate occasions—a quarter of all pepper spray incidents for that period.

In one such incident that occurred Sept 30, 2018, officers prevented an incarcerated person from committing suicide. Medical staff later screened the prisoner—who had been found with a “ligature tied around his neck,” according to an incident report—before releasing him to a cell where he would be protected from further self-harm by being under the constant surveillance of staff stationed outside.

When the man began banging his head against the cell wall, Captain Mark Peloquin ordered him to “come to the cell door and cuff up.” Given his agitated state, it is not clear from the report whether the inmate could respond to verbal commands. But an order is an order, and after Captain Peloquin shot pepper spray into the cell, records show that he called on members of the elite Special Operations Unit to gear up and move the 33-year-old to a shower to decontaminate.

Upon returning the man to his cell, officers then tried to shackle his arms and legs to a “four-point humane restraints bed,” deemed a necessary step “due to his active attempts of self harm.” Captain Peloquin noted that in order to overcome the resistance of this prisoner—who was nude throughout the ordeal—one officer began delivering “distraction blows” to prisoner’s left thigh. Once the man’s arms and legs were shackled and secured to the bed, he was left there for the next two hours.

Such incidents are “extremely alarming” to Jesse White, staff attorney at Prisoners’ Legal Services. “In so many of these instances what you’re actually seeing is a prisoner in severe emotional distress,” White said, adding that such cases “should be dealt with through mental health intervention and de-escalation instead of force.”

In a statement, Hampden County Sheriff’s Department spokesman O’Neil said that OC spray is only used “in situations where an inmate’s behavior necessitates that the staff enter the cell to prevent self-harm to the inmate and others, and the inmate has refused to cooperate.” O’Neil also added that OC spray was a safer alternative to other possible use of force scenarios, and that “while unpleasant, has no long-term impact.”

As noted in a 2015 article in the peer-reviewed Hong Kong Medical Journal, “little is known about the long-term effects of pepper spray.”

As early as the 1990s, researchers with the International Association of Chiefs of Police warned that individuals with mental illness are “generally less affected” by pepper spray due to differences in their perception of pain. In turn, one manufacturer of pepper spray warned at the time, this could lead jailers to continue administering the chemical in an attempt to force a change in behavior, increasing the risk of an inmate’s injury or even death from overexposure.

 

Repeated Doses

Beyond possibly adverse health risks, repeated dosing also opens up Hampden County Sheriff’s Department to potential liability. In a 2010 case involving the repeated use of pepper spray at a Florida state prison, an appellate court ruled that when authorities use pepper spray on a prisoner “when he cannot control his actions due to his mental illness, then the force no longer has a necessary penological purpose and becomes brutality.”

At HCCC, records reveal multiple instances of repeated doses.

On Dec 21, 2016, Sergeant Edward Lalancette asked an inmate on suicide watch to relinquish his sweatshirt—a forbidden item because it could be used to fashion a noose. When the inmate “refused to comply with my directives,” Lalancette later wrote, he asked a five-man cell extraction team to suit up and come to the scene. The supervising officer then shot four bursts of OC spray at the inmate.

The following year, on the afternoon of Oct 25, 2017, officers responded after a prisoner—who we’ll call John for privacy reasons—threatened to harm himself. In a use of force report, Hampden County Lieutenant Ricardo Long reported that when the facility’s SWAT-style Special Operations Unit arrived on the scene, the inmate took cover behind his mattress.

Then came the deluge.

“Inmate was sprayed seven times before he became compliant,” Lieutenant Long noted in his incident report.

Less than a week later, the tactical team sought to move John following further threats of self-harm. Finding the prisoner noncompliant, armed with a pencil, and holding up his mattress as a makeshift shield, Lt. Long noted the operation’s grim outcome in his incident report: “OC mace was introduced into cell #3.” In an effort to get John to agree to be handcuffed, they sprayed him with pepper spray eight times.

Between Oct 18, 2016, and Aug 24, 2018, records show, John was pepper-sprayed on 26 separate occasions for threatening self-harm, refusing orders, or for such nonviolent conduct as placing a towel over his cell window. Over the course of a single day in August 2018, he endured three separate pepper-spray incidents. Officers recorded John saying that he would “set a record” for the number of times he was pepper-sprayed.

 

Compliance

Prisons and jails need rules to keep everyone safe, and corrections officers use their authority to enforce compliance with those rules. However, some question whether cell extractions, pepper spray, and other violent methods are an appropriate response in the case of inmates with mental illness whose condition sometimes makes it hard for them to obey those rules.

In a 2015 report, Human Rights Watch found that use of force protocols at many state and county correctional institutions failed to recognize how incarcerated persons with schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders “may find it next-to-impossible to abide by, or even to understand, prison regulations when delusions and hallucinations distort their understanding of reality.”

In response to a public records request, Hampden County Sheriff’s Department General Counsel Theresa Finnegan stated that use of force guidelines were exempt from the public records law since “disclosure of this information could prove detrimental” to their law enforcement efforts. Although actual guidelines remain shrouded in mystery, records show that at HCCC, the use of chemical agent appears to be a routine tactic in response to jailhouse rule violations and does not appear to account for the (in)ability of the inmate to understand officers’ commands.

On May 23, 2017, mental health staff requested that officers place an extremely agitated prisoner in four-point restraints to prevent him from harming himself. When the cell extraction team arrived, according to an incident report, the inmate was “punching and slapping himself” while shouting, “Shazam time, bang bang.”

After officers’ requests to come to the door and “cuff up” were ignored, Captain Joseph Harris sprayed the inmate three times with OC spray before noting that the chemical was having a “limited effect” on the man, who “wouldn’t respond and continued screaming while punching and slapping himself.” The prisoner eventually retreated to a corner of his cell, allowing officers time to enter and place him in four-point restraints.

This sort of approach to pepper spraying appears to go against the American Bar Association’s use of force standards. Approved in 2010, the guidelines—which are only advisory in nature—ask that officers only use the chemical agent “as a last resort after the failure of other reasonable conflict resolution techniques.” Department spokesman O’Neil, in a follow-up email, wrote that just last year, auditors from the Massachusetts Department of Correction reviewed Hampden County Sheriff’s uses of force and found them in full compliance with DoC standards.

“A lot of lawyers and policy people start with asking if there was unlawful use of force,” said Fred Cohen, professor emeritus at SUNY Albany and author of the leading textbook on correctional mental health law. “That’s the second question. The first question to ask is, Was there any need to use force? What would’ve happened if you waited, for example?

 

Deescalating a Troubled Marriage

Use of force against inmates with mental illness, more than anything else, underscores the troubled marriage of medicine and incarceration. Journalist Alisa Roth, in her 2018 book Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness, writes of how even when a facility has a modern psychiatric unit with adequate staff, it is inherently limited to the extent that it is still a “correctional unit under correctional control.”

By all accounts, HCCC takes mental health care seriously. While some jails in the state, notably those in Bristol County, have disturbingly high rates of suicide behind bars, Hampden County does not. Hampden County Sheriff’s Department also employs 10 full-time mental health clinicians—three times as many as similarly sized facilities in the state, according to spokesman O’Neil.

But even well-staffed institutions like HCCC are ill-equipped to deal with cases of acute psychosis, according to Cohen, the professor who studies mental health in prisons and jails.

“It is a military organization,” he said in an interview, referring to the typical correctional facility, “and there’s a culture there where if the officers order something and you’re not complying, we will use force to make you comply. And that’s the end of it.”

Despite having a relatively impressive number of mental health clinicians on staff at HCCC, there is little sign that specialists are actually used as part of a larger strategy to avoid using force on those suffering from mental illness. Use of force reports from HCCC almost never mention attempts by mental health staff to de-escalate a situation, nor is their approval needed before officers use force against prisoners with psychiatric disabilities.

Cohen and other correctional mental health experts maintain that responding with military force to someone in emotional distress often aggravates their trauma. As a result of the continued use of these tactics, advocates with Prisoners’ Legal Services want Hampden County to start viewing use of force through a different lens.

“There is a way to take use of force and the dehumanization and trauma that comes with it, and to think about that from a public health perspective,” White, the Prisoners’ Legal Services attorney, said in an interview. If left unchanged, she added, the use of force culture at HCCC may end up worsening the condition of those in custody.

“That has a cost to the public, because if you are taking in people and causing them to suffer trauma and harm while they are incarcerated, this has a damaging impact on the incarcerated person and on the community to which they return when they are released,” White said.

Making a shift in how force is used at HCCC should be easier to accomplish than at other institutions. The department has a track record of developing progressive, public health-oriented programs. Under former Sheriff Michael Ashe, who stepped down in 2017 after more than 40 years in office, Hampden County developed a model for correctional medicine that helped released prisoners be better able to connect with a network of medical care providers in their home communities. This model helped win Hampden County Sheriff’s Department an Innovations in American Government Award from the Ford Foundation and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

While attorney White and her colleagues would like to see reform at HCCC, they are also pushing legislation that would create consistent guidelines for use of force in all Mass jails and prisons. Use of chemical agent varies significantly across jurisdictions. While officers at HCCC used the former on 80 separate occasions between July 1, 2017, and June 30, 2018, their counterparts at another facility with roughly the same number of prisoners—South Bay House of Correction in Boston—only used pepper spray eight times during the same period, according to data released by Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department under the public records law.

 

Minimum Standards

In addition to setting minimum standards for use of force across the state, bills that are currently before committees in the Massachusetts House and Senate would also forbid corrections officers from using chemical agents against prisoners who may have any cognitive, psychiatric, or other disability that impedes their ability to understand or comply with orders.

White also said that lasting reform depends on establishing more oversight of a largely unregulated sector of government. Despite receiving more than $600 million annually in state funding, the state’s 13 county jails operate with virtually no state supervision and differ significantly in how they keep data on the use of force. Some track “cell extractions” and use of four-point restraints; others don’t. Omnibus legislation supported by Prisoners’ Legal Services would establish baseline standards for transparency in use of force, including data reporting and easier access to public records.

“Independent oversight and transparency are critical to increasing accountability of correctional staff inside prisons and jails,” White said. “Prisons and jails are public institutions, and yet, there is little to no public information regarding how force is being used against incarcerated persons.”


This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.

Seth Kershner is a writer and researcher whose work has appeared in outlets such as Rethinking Schools, Sojourners, and Boulder Weekly. He is the co-author (with Scott Harding) of Counter-Recruitment and the Campaign to Demilitarize Public Schools (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

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