Opinion writer

A restraint chair in the Fairfax County jail. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)

The L.A. Times has a long and ugly story about a mentally ill California man who died in county jail earlier this year.

For 46 hours, Andrew Holland’s legs and arms were shackled to a chair in the San Luis Obispo County jail.

The inmate, who suffered from schizophrenia, was left in his own filth, eating and drinking almost nothing. He was naked, except for a helmet and mask covering his face and a blanket that slipped off his lap, exposing him to jail staff who passed by his glass-fronted cell.

When he was finally unbound, guards dumped him to the floor of a nearby cell. Within 40 minutes, he had stopped breathing.

The article rightly focuses mostly on how jails treat the mentally ill. But the use of a restraint chair — sometimes called a “devil’s char” — is also part of this story.

Holland remained in an isolation cell for 10 days until he was moved to a restraint chair when deputies saw him repeatedly strike himself in the face and head.

Though some departments cap the use of a chair restraint to two hours, the Sheriff’s Department policy allowed jailers to restrain inmates for up to 16 hours. The county has never explained why Holland was restrained for nearly two days.

A sheriff-coroner’s report concluded he died from a pulmonary embolism. A private autopsy conducted for Holland’s family went further, linking the embolism to deep vein thrombosis, the likely result of a blood clot in the leg caused by long immobility.

Restraint chairs, which typically allow jail personnel to fasten an inmate to a chair at the wrists, ankles, thighs, arms and sometimes head, are a tool. They can be used to protect an inmate from hurting himself or other inmates. But they also render inmates completely helpless, which means their use requires a well-trained and conscientious staff. Anything short of that, and the chair becomes an opportunity for sadistic guards to abuse an unruly (or in many cases, a mentally ill) inmate, or for lazy or absent-minded guards to strap one in and then neglect him, as appears to have happened here.

Back in 2012, I wrote about a particularly awful restraint chair death in Florida, in which deputies restrained and then pepper-sprayed a man from Ohio who was having a nervous breakdown. I reported in that story that there are some jurisdictions that restrict use of the chair to four or fewer hours at a time. So yes, 46 hours is excessive, by really any standard. Some jurisdictions prohibit the use of restraint chairs for mentally ill people, while some jails and prisons have banned them completely.

There’s also a long and well-documented history of jail personnel abusing inmates in the restraint 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, Ariz., 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.

Since then, there have been more allegations of restraint chair abuse in Gwinnett County, Ga., and Mesquite, Tex. In 2015, the family of a New Jersey man sued when he died after he was left in a restraint chair for nine hours. Last month, the family of an Oklahoma man sued because he died after being left in a chair for more than 48 hours. In 2015, the family of a college student sued after Chatham County, Ga., deputies shocked him four times with a stun gun while he was in a restraint chair. He later died. In similarly-named Cheatham County, Tenn.,, a 19-year-old man sued the deputies he claimed shocked him over 40 times while he was confined to a chair. Police in Knox County, Tenn., changed their restraint chair policy in 2016 after a successful lawsuit by a prisoner who was kept in one for 48 hours. In Maine, video of deputies pepper spraying a man while he was strapped to a restraint chair went viral in 2013.

This isn’t even the first such case Southern California. In 2000, Ventura County settled with four inmates for $1 million after they alleged in a lawsuit that they were confined to a chair for seven hours for having a “bad attitude.” A court had already barred the county from using the chairs in 1999. The county was hit with three such lawsuits within a year.