SF juvenile hall counselors call for safety reforms, Mace 

click to enlarge Fred Nelson, a juvenile probation counselor, is requesting to be armed with mace to help restrain out of control inmates. - PHOTO BY GABRIELLE LURIE
  • photo by Gabrielle Lurie
  • Fred Nelson, a juvenile probation counselor, is requesting to be armed with mace to help restrain out of control inmates.
On a recent evening at San Francisco’s juvenile hall, as the young inmates headed to their rooms for the night, three of them decided to throw a going-away party of sorts for one of their peers who was to be released the next day.

They jumped him.

“He was outmanned,” said Greg Foote, a counselor for the Juvenile Justice Center. “He’s a big kid. It probably took the three of them to knock him down.”

Earlier that same evening, Foote said, another counselor had to go to the hospital after a detainee threw a dinner tray at her head.

Outbursts of violence such as these have prompted juvenile hall counselors to call for greater safety measures when dealing with the troubled youth incarcerated in The City’s detention facility.

Since they don’t carry guns, the counselors are asking to be armed with chemicals to subdue unruly minors.

“I can’t help but think that if we had had the proper chemical agents, that these problems wouldn’t have happened and they certainly wouldn’t have been as bad as they were,” Foote said during last week’s Juvenile Probation Commission meeting.

The chemical agents Foote referred to are Mace and pepper spray, both compounds intended to incapacitate an aggressor. In San Francisco’s juvenile hall, where counselors often act as jail guards for a population of youths serving time for serious offenses, their union is pushing for the enhanced security tools.

But the head of the Juvenile Justice Center is skeptical of such a need.

Chief Probation Officer Allan Nance — who oversees the department’s several facilities, which detained more than 700 youths last year — said he doesn’t want a chemical agent introduced into the juvenile justice system in The City, calling it unnecessary and potentially problematic.

“I’ve seen far too many situations in other jurisdictions where the use of pepper spray has not been as helpful and has the potential for misuse,” Nance said.

The union that represents the counselors, Service Employees International Union Local 1021, said more aggressive safety measures are needed even though The City’s juvenile hall has fewer inmates today than in recent years. In 2008 there were around 60 percent more youths incarcerated in the system than in 2014. In the past two years, the 150-bed facility has on average housed 70 to 74 youths per day, Nance said.

In San Francisco, the counselors are the sole guards for a population of youths who spend the day in classes and roaming the facility’s grounds, rather than locked up in cells. The counselors are unarmed except for handcuffs, said union representative Ben Sizemore, adding that the union contract provides around $10,000 for chemical agents like Mace.

“People think that we are just counselors, which is a gross misnomer of what we do,” said Fred Nelson, a juvenile counselor of 26 years. “It’s also a detention facility. You can’t have it one way, where it’s all verbal talking. Holding hands and saying kumbaya is not always appropriate.”

San Francisco counselors employ various tactics to calm situations, such as physically restraining and then isolating an out-of-control youth.

Nelson said inmates sometimes are the size of adults, which makes proper training and resources essential for the staff to be able to control them.

Legally, counselors could carry Mace under the agreement between juvenile hall workers and The City, which permits certain employees, including counselors, to be trained to use the defensive tool, Nelson said. But the commission would have to approve the device’s implementation and add its costs to the budget for the next fiscal year before it could be used.

Unlike in San Francisco, counselors at four state-run facilities in California carry chemical agents like Mace, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Joe Orlando said. But chemical agents are a last resort, he said.

Chief Probation Officer Nance said he plans to meet with the counselors and union representatives to discuss their safety issues.

“We’re not that far apart with our staff,” Nance said. “But I don’t feel that this is an insurmountable task for us and I certainly don’t feel that the level of concern that the staff expressed is at a level that warrants extreme acts on our part at this time.”

Equipment issues

Since 2013, the union has pushed the Juvenile Probation Commission to extend safety measures for employees and youths at juvenile hall when it began to lobby for improved surveillance cameras.

“We have second-class equipment, and in order for us to do an appropriate job, which is a very difficult and time-consuming and caretaking job dealing with the incarcerated and troubled youth we have in The City, we need first-class equipment,” Nelson said.

Cameras at juvenile hall cover hallways and the entrances and exits to units where youth live, but the footage is not recorded. Their locations are also limited. To keep people accountable for their actions, that needs to change, Sizemore said.

“It is a priority for the department to install the safety cameras and we’ve already made some significant steps in our current year budget as well as our fiscal year ’15-16 budget request to make sure we are sufficiently funded to install cameras in our juvenile hall,” Nance said.

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