The Southern Poverty Law Center is suing the Polk County Sheriff's Office for its treatment of juveniles. Friday, there was a hearing on one of the more contentious issues in the lawsuit: using pepper spray on the kids.
The law center wants a temporary injunction, which means the practice would be stopped for now. Down the line, when the issue goes to court, a federal magistrate will make a final call.
Today's hearing follows one earlier this week where attorneys argued that guards at the Polk County Jail should be temporarily banned from using pepper spray on juveniles being held at the facility.
The injunction hearing in U.S. District Court is part of a lawsuit filed in March. The Southern Poverty Law Center sued on behalf of the parents of seven youths, ages 15 to 17, who claimed they suffered as a result of being subject to an "adult correctional model" in the Polk County Jail, rather than being housed in a juvenile facility staffed by professionals who are experts in working with troubled children.
On Monday, lawyers for the center called a witness who was 17 when he was detained in January and pepper sprayed after he was "jumped" by several youths upon his arrival at the jail. The youth, who was identified only by his initials of J.P., said after he was pepper-sprayed, neither the guards nor a nurse helped him recover.
"I was spitting and slobbering everywhere," the teen said. "My face was on fire. I didn't know what to do to stop the burning."
J.P. said that he was allowed to take a quick shower the night he was pepper sprayed, but that the water was too hot and exacerbated the burning sensation. He took a shower the day after being sprayed, but the chemical, which lingered on his neck and hair, burned other sensitive parts of his body as he showered, he said.
Lawyers for the center said children and teens are being put at risk when they are pepper sprayed, especially teens like J.P. who suffer from asthma. The lawyers are also expected to introduce evidence that youths are fending for themselves with little adult supervision while in the facility and that assaults between detainees are common.
The civil rights lawsuit was filed about a year after the Florida Legislature passed a bill that allows counties to place children in adult jails.
John Trohn, a lawyer for the Polk County Sheriff, told judge Mark Pizzo that pepper spray is used on juveniles only "after verbal commands are ignored."
Trohn added that the court will hear about a few officers who "fell below standards," were removed from the juvenile assignment and disciplined. But, he added, the Polk jail has "excellent accountability" and has not mistreated juveniles.
"There's no way you're going to be able to rule that there's a widespread practice of malicious and sadistic behavior," said Trohn.
Polk officials maintain the county houses the young inmates for less money and offers a better facility and services than the state Department of Juvenile Justice. Youths are segregated from the adult population and supervised by specially trained detention deputies.
The injunction hearing is expected to last five days, with lawyers from the Southern Poverty Law Center calling several juvenile inmates and lawyers from the sheriff's office calling pepper spray experts.
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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