Prison watchdog sounds alarm on pepper spray use

Canada’s prison watchdog is raising red flags about the “go-to” use of pepper spray in federal penitentiaries, which his office found has tripled in a five-year period with little accountability.

In his annual report tabled in Parliament Monday, Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers said pepper spray was used in 60 per cent of the 1,833 use-of-force incidents in 2015-2016.

“The link between institutional safety and the increasing use and reliance on inflammatory agents is tenuous at best,” said Sapers.

The correctional investigator partly blamed the increase on a policy change back in September 2010 that allowed correctional officers to carry pepper spray canisters on their belts. Before then the chemical, which makes it hard to breath and see, was locked up.

His report notes that there hasn’t been a correlating increase in the severity of security incidents or threats to justify the increased use pepper spray.

Lack of oversight noted

Sapers also called out what he termed a lack of monitoring and national oversight of how pepper spray is stored, weighed, inspected, assigned and controlled.

In the review of use-of-force incidents, Sapers’s office found correctional officers didn’t always give inmates decontamination showers or physical assessments after pepper spray had been used.

Jail Death Sapers 20160728

Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers Canada’s says pepper-spray is now the ‘go-to’ tool for making inmates compliant in federal penitentiaries. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

In most cases where pepper spray is used, there is no video recording, making it hard to tell if other de-escalation methods could be used, Sapers said.

“When you have pepper spray being used when there’s been no threat, there’s been no physical contact, when there hasn’t even been a threat of physical contact, and simply because somebody is frustrated because they weren’t been listened to fast enough, then I think you have a problem in terms of accountability,” he said.

Mental health issues raised

The report goes on to say that more than 40 per cent of all use-of-force incidents last year occurred on inmates at psychiatric hospitals and pepper spray was used in 54 per cent of incidents involving an inmate who was self-harming..

“The treatment centres are penitentiaries, but they’re also designated as hospitals so the people there are patients. So what we have is a situation where four times out of 10 when a patient is in crisis and perhaps self-harming, they get pepper sprayed,” said Sapers.

Among Sapers’s recommendations is that pepper spray canisters be weighed after each use and that officers be held to account for the use and volume of spray deployed in each incident.

Correctional Service Canada has already agreed to implement the recommendations.

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