Stories from the “Devil’s Chair”

The Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Department in Georgia is the latest police agency to face accusations of abuse involving a jailhouse restraint chair.

A potentially damning document has been filed in the federal lawsuit against Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway and other jail leadership, an expert calling the department’s use of restraint chairs “a ruse for implementing excessive force” . . .

A report filed last week by Allen Ault — a 40-year corrections veteran and former commissioner of the Georgia Department of Corrections — sided with the plaintiffs. The nine-page document had no shortage of strongly worded opinions on the Gwinnett County jail’s RRT [rapid response team] and its use of the restraint chair, which consists of arm, leg and lap constraints designed to “limit the movement of (inmates) who . . . create a danger to themselves and/or others.”

Ault’s thoughts included the following:

– “In my opinion, the problem is not how they conduct a takedown, but rather, the almost total indiscriminate use of the RRT that have now become standard practice in the jail.”

–  “Although it would be a daunting task to get the actual number of deployments of other Response Teams, I would venture to state, based upon my experience in the field and without fear of contradiction, that the Gwinnett County RRT has been deployed more often in the last thirteen years then (sic) the combined total of all other County, State and Federal facilities located in the state of Georgia.”

–  “Instead of the RRT being deployed as the last resort, it is being deployed as the first choice of preference by staff to handle a ‘problem’ inmate. Upon arrival, the RRT routinely uses force where no force is justified.”

– “It was also obvious that it was being used to punish some individuals who had been ‘vulgar’ in either language and/or deed in ‘reception’ or elsewhere in the jail before being placed in a cell.”

– “… way too often, in my opinion the ‘takedown’ and the use of the ‘restraint chair’ is a ruse for implementing excessive force.”

A restraint chair — sometimes dubbed the “Devil’s Chair” by critics — is a tool, just like a baton, a stun gun or any other piece of police equipment. There may well be proper uses for it. But jail officials in police agencies across the country have been found to have used it to administer abuse. I summarized some of those cases in a 2012 article about Nick Christie, a 62-year-old man who was pepper-sprayed to death while strapped to a restraint chair in Lee County, Florida.

There have been a number of deaths over the years at least in part attributed to what critics call “the devil’s chair” or the “torture chair.” In a 2000 article for The Progressive Anne-Marie Cusac documented 11 deaths, including several inmates with mental illness as well as cases in which inmates were pepper sprayed after they had been restrained. Cusac notes that in the 1999 case of James Arthur Livingston, who died after being strapped to a restraint chair in Tarrant County, Texas, the first deputy who attempted to give Livingston CPR wrote in his report, “I then removed myself from the area and walked into the sally port, where I threw up from inhaling pepper gas residue from inmate Livingston.”

In 2004, the Dayton City Paper wrote about three restraint chair-related deaths in Dayton County, Ohio, alone.

Restraint chair-related lawsuits alleging patterns of abuse have proliferated across the country, including in IowaGeorgia (PDF), ColoradoTexasCaliforniaNew Jersey and Maricopa County, Arizona, where the chairs were finally replaced in 2006 after three deaths and several million dollars paid out in settlements.

Florida has also had its share of restraint chair problems. Four of the 11 deaths Cusac chronicles in her 2000 article took place in Florida jails. In 2007, Lake County paid out a $500,000 settlement to the family of a woman who suffocated in a restraint chair, though the settlement didn’t bar the county from using the chair in the future. The state has also been the scene of a years-long, high-profile controversy following the use of a restraint chair on the daughter of the Florida state attorney in 2005.

Some of these cases may be the result of poor training, others due to a culture of abuse within a police agency. But the very nature of the restraint chair seems to make it particularly prone to abuse and excessive force. The state of Utah has banned the chair entirely, as has the Florida Department of  Juvenile Corrections and the Florida State Prison System. Vermont prohibits using the chair as a form of punishment and requires a medical and mental health professional to sign off before it can be used. Several other states put restrictions on under what circumstances the chair can be used and for how long.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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