City council members raise objections, but correction officials say spray is needed to break up fights involving young inmates
By Leslie Brody
New York City Council members expressed alarm Wednesday at the rising use of pepper spray to stop fights in classrooms for young inmates at Rikers Island, where teachers have been offered respirator masks for protection.
Security officers used pepper spray 16 times this fall at the East River Academy, a group of schools for inmates aged 16 to 21, city Department of Correction officials said. They said it was much safer to break up fights with pepper spray than physical force. Further, violent incidents had risen after the department phased out solitary confinement for inmates under 22 years old over the past two years.
Now those with more severe behavior problems join classrooms rather than being given work in their cells to tackle on their own.
“We are still trying to tweak how best to keep them safe as well as how to keep everybody else safe,” said Francis Torres, representing the Department of Correction.
Daniel Dromm, a Queens Democrat who is chairman of the council’s education committee, said he was disturbed by the use of what he called “gas” on students awaiting trial. “I understand some can be big and violent, whatever, but I think ultimately what we need to do is find another solution rather than gassing kids,” he said.
The comments came at a hearing on a bill that would require the Department of Correction to report on its education programs for young inmates, such as their academic achievement and rates of violence.
The East River Academy served about 500 students a day last year. An official said about 50% of the students have learning disabilities, and about 20% arrive reading at below a fifth-grade level.
Attending class full-time is mandatory for 16- and 17-year-olds.
According to the United Federation of Teachers, students sometimes go to class in shackles and sit at desks bolted to the floor.
Suzanne Ribeiro, a teacher at Rikers, said all students in a classroom can feel the effects when the spray is used. Ventilation is so poor in some areas that the chemicals often spread through the hallways, she said, and some students throw up.
“It burns your eyes, it burns your throat,” she said. “Some people get a rapid heart-rate increase.”
She said there should be better ways to deter disruptions and reward good behavior, such as movie nights or extended family visits.
Since September, teachers have been offered respirator masks. Timothy Lisante, a superintendent who oversees East River Academy, said he worried that the prospect of wearing masks could hurt recruitment of teachers.
Laura Feijoo, a Department of Education official, said the use of pepper spray is “not ideal” and staff seek to de-escalate conflict first. A security officer is stationed inside each classroom of about 10 students.
The Department of Correction said that in the Rikers’ housing facility for 16- and17-year-old males, pepper spray was used 407 times from January through October this year, up from 284 times in that periodlast year. Use of force resulting in serious injury fell to two incidents, fromeight. Use of force with minor injury rose to 166incidents, from 163.
Inmate fights in that housing facility rose to 598, from 541.
The city plans to move 16- and 17-year-olds off the island into another site in the Bronx.
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