Sprinkler vandalism, assaults at Training School provoke pepper spray debate

Sprinkler vandalism has caused about $50,000 in damage at the Training School

CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — An assault during one of several recent incidents involving young offenders vandalizing the interior sprinkler system at the Rhode Island Training School has prompted a demand for pepper spray and body armor by the union that represents the facility’s employees.

For two months, it rained about once a week inside the detention center’s youth assessment center, where juvenile offenders are held leading up to their trials or until they’re placed in another facility.

Department of Children, Youth and Family (DCYF) Director Trista Piccola said various residents have set off the sprinklers seven times over a six-week period to create diversions.

“They’re trying to create a diversion to the extent that they want to be able to engage in fighting with other residents,” Piccola said. “A diversion to try to get us out and create chaos within the facility itself.”

The damage from the seven vandalism incidents was about $50,000, and the new sprinkler heads are expected to cost at least another $50,000.

During the May assault, the targets changed. A sprinkler-related evacuation sent 24 residents into a courtyard, where there were only two Juvenile Training Workers.

According to Local 314, the union that represents the workers, eight of the residents allegedly teamed up to assault one worker.

Another worker’s jaw was broken in the melee.

“They clearly did go after the staff. And that took it to a whole other level,” Piccola added. “In the other incidents they were going after each other.”

The state is in the process of replacing the sprinklers with tamper-resistant models to make it more difficult to create this type of diversion.

The damage from the seven vandalism incidents was about $50,000, according to the DCYF, and the new sprinkler heads are expected to cost at least another $50,000 to $60,000.

Local 314 President Jerry Minetti said in a statement that the union is asking for the right to deploy body armor and pepper spray to protect themselves.

Piccola said several organizations, including the Federal Court Master that’s monitoring the facility during its current consent decree status, are adamantly opposed to the use of body armor and pepper spray in juvenile detention facilities.

Piccola said both items are “highly inappropriate for our population and would be in conflict with the role and mission of the Training School.”

Sprinkler vandalism has caused about $50,000 in damage at the Training School

Minetti said body armor and pepper spray are authorized by DCYF operating procedures for Probation and Parole Officers.

Juvenile Program Workers most certainly should have the same protective gear available due the dangers faced daily,” Minetti said.

Changes have been made since the assault, according to Piccola, who said the population in the assessment center was reduced by a dozen, and the dynamic of the offenders in the facility was changed by separating potential rivals.

“There was something going on with that particular mix of kids,” Piccola said. “There’s a lot of reasons for that. There’s gang-related activity that happens when we get rival gangs.”

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau