Correctional officers at minimum security federal prisons do not currently carry pepper spray as a tool for quelling violent incidents, but the Government Accountability Office report issued June 22 advised the Bureau of Prisons to reevaluate their rationale for not doing so.
A September 2018 policy statement issued by BOP established the plan for keeping pepper spray out of minimum security locations, though the tool would continue to be issued to officers at low, medium, high and administrative security locations.
The decision, according to the GAO report, stems from an understanding that minimum security prisons have low incident rates in the first place, due to prisoners wanting to keep from being moved to a higher-security location; predominantly non-violent offenders; and a desire to avoid public outcry against use of pepper spray.
A Department of Justice Office of Inspector General Investigation found a Bureau of Prisons supervisor had an “inappropriate sexual relationship” then attempted a cover-up, but the supervisor retired before the investigation was completed.
“While their arguments may hold merit, we found evidence based on our limited analysis that appears to question their underlying decision,” the GAO report reads.
“We found that in 2018 there were 47 reported incidents in the seven BOP minimum security prisons. These incidents included assaults on staff and other inmates; sexual harassment; and fighting, among others. Five of the incidents resulted in minor injuries to 10 BOP employees, and 18 incidents resulted in minor injuries to inmates. Further, one incident led to an inmate fatality. Additionally, during our site visits, 56 out of 73 officials across various security levels stated that deployment of pepper spray should be expanded to minimum security prisons because it would give employees an additional tool to protect their safety.”
During that same year, pepper spray was used by correctional officers at federal prisons 1,680 times, with most of those instances occurring at high- and medium-security prisons.
BOP policy on the use of pepper spray notes that it should only be used in incidents that require an immediate use of force, such as violence against staff or another inmate, or a calculated use of force, such as getting a noncompliant inmate out of their cell. A prison warden may only authorize that use in cases of an armed or barricaded inmate, an inmate that cannot be approached without harm to themselves or others or a situation where a delayed response could result in a serious hazard.
In all cases, prison officers must file paperwork to document the use of pepper spray and prison officials must review the incident to ensure that it meets with proper protocol.
Between August 2012 and September 2018, 179 allegations of inappropriate use of force were reported to the BOP Office for Internal Affairs, though 93 of those cases are still under investigation.
BOP has conducted research on the effectiveness of pepper spray as a response tool in maximum security prisons and found that it has reduced both containment time and the rate of injury for correctional staff.
But the GAO report comes amid increasing public scrutiny of the use of pepper spray and other respiratory irritants by law enforcement, most especially in the midst of a pandemic that is spread by coughing and sneezing.
Prisons have been under especial scrutiny, as they represent confined spaces where social distancing is hard to maintain and disease can spread rapidly once inside.
According to the GAO report, pepper spray is a “natural inflammatory agent that can cause coughing, tearing, and discharge of excessive mucous when deployed in the facial region.”
According to research issued by the National institute of Justice research into the impacts and effectiveness of pepper spray over the past few decades has “curbed its appeal” for law enforcement due to the potential for the spray to effect officers or bystanders and court decisions that excessive use of such a tool could violate a person’s constitutional rights.
BOP headquarters officials maintain that the restriction on pepper spray in minimum security prisons is appropriate, but GAO noted that correctional staff largely responded that access to pepper spray would help them maintain safety.
But other issues of safety dog BOP facilities, most especially the lack of sufficient staff to properly fill the duty rosters for each day.
GAO recommended that BOP conduct an analysis “using available incident and cost data, and other information as appropriate,” to determine whether the decision to not issue pepper spray to staff at minimum security prisons should still remain in effect. BOP agreed with the recommendation.