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The Restraint Chair: Safe and Humane?

Jail and prison employees call it the "strap-o-lounger," the "barcalounger," the "we care chair," and the "be sweet chair." Prisoners and their lawyers have other names for the device: "torture chair," "slave chair," and "devil's chair." They are not referring to the electric chair, but to a restraining device that has led to many serious abuses, including torture and death. Belts and cuffs prevent the prisoner's legs, arms, and torso from moving. The restraint chair is designed for violent prisoners who pose an immediate threat to themselves or others. But according to interviews with prisoners, lawyers, and restraint chair manufacturers, as well as a review of court cases, jail videotapes, coroners' reports, and scattered news stories, it is clear that the restraint chair is being used in an improper-and sometimes sadistic-manner:

children have been strapped into the chairs for nonviolent behaviors;
nude prisoners and detainees have been strapped into restraint chairs;
prisoners have been left in restraint chairs for as long as eight days. In some cases, the jail staff failed to manipulate the prisoner's limbs to protect against blood clots;
prisoners have been required to testify while in restraint chairs;
prisoners have been interrogated while in restraint chairs;
prisoners have been injured while in restraint chairs;
prisoners have been tortured by being hooded, pepper-gassed, beaten, or threatened with electrocution while in the chairs;
At least eleven people have died under questionable circumstances after being strapped into a restraint chair.
Use of the restraint chair is widespread: jails, state and federal prisons, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the U.S. Marshals Service, state mental hospitals, juvenile detention centers, and foreign governments are all equipped with the chair.

Amnesty International has called for a federal inquiry into use of the restraint chair. The device "is an issue of great concern to us," says Angela Wright, an Amnesty researcher on the United States. "It appears to be used in some jurisdictions as a front-line or even routine form of control, including as a punishment for disruptive or annoying behavior."

Michael Valent, a mentally ill prisoner, died after spending sixteen hours nude in a restraint chair in a Utah prison in March 1997. The deputy chief medical examiner, Edward Leis, confirmed that Valent's prolonged restraint "is the main precipitating factor leading to blood clots and his death." A lawsuit brought by Valent's mother ended in a $200,000 settlement with the state of Utah. Although it was not a stipulation of the lawsuit, the state stopped using the restraint chair. [PLN, Aug. 1997]

Scott Norberg died in June 1996 of what the Maricopa County Medical Examiners Office called "accidental positional asphyxia" after he was pushed into a restraint chair, his head forced to his chest, shocked with a stun gun, and gagged. Maricopa County and its insurance carrier settled a wrongful death lawsuit with Norberg's family for $8.25 million in 1998. [PLN, Feb. 2000]

Katalin Zentai, a former journalist, died in late 1996 at the Connecticut Valley Hospital, according to an excellent piece of reporting that appeared in the Hartford Courant in October 1998. For thirty-three of the final thirty-six hours of her life, Zentai was strapped in a restraint chair. She died, after being released from the chair, as the result of blood clots that had formed in her legs and traveled to her lungs.

On April 17, 1995, Carmelo Marrero died in the Sacramento County Jail while strapped in a restraint chair. The County Coroner's Office said his death was an accident. Officially, his death was listed as the result of "probable acute cardiac arrhythmia, due to probable hypoxemia, due to combined restraint asphyxia and severe physical exertion, due to apparent manic psychotic episode." As Supervising Deputy Coroner Phil Ehlert explained to the Sacramento Bee, hypoxemia is "a lack of oxygen caused by a highly agitated state exacerbated by imposed restraint." A class-action lawsuit against the jail, which was eventually settled for $750,000, claimed that the device had repeatedly been used for torture at the jail and that Marrero's death was a direct result of his time in the restraint chair.

Demetrius Brown, a twenty-year-old, mentally ill man, died in Jacksonville, Florida, on October 31, 1999, after a guard used a choke hold while others attempted to strap him into a restraining chair. "The manner of the death," concluded the medical examiner's report, "is homicidal."

In early December 1996, twenty-two-year-old Anderson Tate was arrested after a routine traffic stop and taken to the St. Lucie County Jail in Florida. He informed the jail personnel that he had swallowed a large amount of cocaine. He was denied medical care and "died while strapped in a restraint chair," reported Amnesty International in 1998. As Tate died, "he was in the chair for three hours, moaning and chanting prayers, while jailers taunted him and ignored his pleas for help. Two deputies were dismissed after an administrative investigation by the Sheriff's Department, but no criminal charges were filed." The incident was recorded by a video camera.

On March 5, 1997, Daniel Sagers died in an Osceola County, Florida, jail after guards placed him in a restraint chair and beat him, using a towel to force his head back so violently that they damaged his brain stem. Sagers was being held at the jail for firing a shotgun while on a golf range. His family eventually won a $2.2 million civil lawsuit. In February 1999, a former guard was convicted of manslaughter in Sagers' death and sentenced to one year in jail. He has filed an appeal. Two other guards pleaded no contest to charges of battery and were placed on probation. [PLN, Oct. 1999]

On December 20, 1994, Shedrick Brown died after struggling with guards while being forced into a restraint chair in the Hillsborough County Jail in Tampa, Florida. After four hours in the chair, he was found unresponsive, having suffered a stroke. He died an hour later. In March 1995, the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's Office ruled his death a homicide.

On August 30, 1997, Anthony R. Goins died in a Kansas City, Missouri, jail of cardiac arrest after struggling with guards who squirted him with pepper spray and strapped him in a restraint chair. When the officers returned a few minutes later from washing the spray off themselves and planning to clean up Goins, they found him dead. The coroner said that the drug PCP and Goins's struggle with the police were contributing factors in his death.

In December 1998, Kenneth Vincent Bishop died at the Pueblo County Jail in Colorado shortly after being placed in a restraint chair. Although the Pueblo County coroner ruled that his death resulted from an excessive level of amphetamines, the sheriff has denied the ACLU's open-records request of the video of Bishop's treatment. According to Mark Silverstein, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, the sheriff has also refused to hand over the jail's restraint policy.

On the night of July 6, 1999, James Earl Livingston was having a psychotic episode. He wrongly believed his brother-in-law was chasing him and trying to kill him. Livingston, a thirty-one-year-old man with schizophrenia from Tarrant County, Texas, ran to the police for protection. In about eight hours, half of that time spent in a restraint chair, Livingston was dead.

The Tarrant County Medical Examiner's Office ruled last August that Livingston's was a natural death caused by bronchial pneumonia. But that's not the whole truth, says Richard Haskell, a lawyer who is representing Livingston's mother, Maxine Jackson, in a suit against the Tarrant County Sheriff's Department. He says Livingston's last stint in the chair killed him. "So far as we know, he was pepper-sprayed in the face and then placed in a restraint chair," says Haskell. Livingston was not allowed to wash the pepper spray out of his eyes and off his face in apparent violation of Tarrant County Sheriff's Department procedures, says Haskell. "He was not decontaminated, and he was left alone in a room. Within twenty minutes he was dead."

Pepper spray "inflames the mucous membranes, causing closing of the eyes, coughing, gagging, shortness of breath, and an acute burning sensation on the skin and inside the nose and mouth," said Amnesty International in a 1998 report on human rights abuses in the United States. "There is considerable concern about its health risks."

Deputy Mark Lane Smith was the first person to perform artificial respiration on Livingston in an unsuccessful attempt to revive him. When another deputy took over, wrote Smith in a Detention Bureau 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."

It's hard to imagine the terror someone feels who is buckled into a restraint chair after being pepper-sprayed, says Haskell. "You wouldn't do that to a dog."

The chair that held James Earl Livingston for more than four hours, on and off, on the night of July 6, 1999, is manufactured by KLK, Inc., of Phoenix, Arizona. The KLK chair sells for $2,290, plus a $190 crating charge. This "Violent Person Restraint Chair" (the company's name for the device) "has been in use by the sixth largest sheriff's office jail system in the nation for four (4) years, with a ninety (90%) percent reduction in injuries compared to the previous four (4) years," brags the company advertising. "Special sizes and colors available upon request."

I telephone KLK. Teresa Dominguez, a production coordinator with the company, tells me the chair is sold mainly to prisons and mental hospitals but says she can give me no other information. On her advice, I submit a fax of questions for the company's officers. After more than a week without a response, I call back.

"They basically said they can't answer the questions," says Dominguez. "The owner saw the fax and said, 'No, we won't answer these.'"

The company also declined to answer questions about the death of James Earl Livingston. But Dominguez says the chair isn't to blame. "How they use the chair, I imagine, would be the question," she says.

Another manufacturer is more forthcoming. Dan Corcoran is president of AEDEC International Inc., of Beaverton, Oregon, which manufactures the popular Prostraint Violent Prisoner Chair. Corcoran says his chair is "humane" and was designed to be so. "You know, when you take a little bird and it's lost and confused, and at first its heart is beating?" he asks. But if you fully cup that bird in your hands and immobilize it, the bird, he says, "calms down." So, too, says Corcoran, with human beings. The chair "makes a real nice sit for them."

What about allegations that the restraint chair has been linked to several deaths and that it is easily misused? "The people who want to do good start gainsaying it, calling it a medieval instrument of torture," says Corcoran, who "has no patience" with this stance. "It's a way of getting attention."

When I ask Corcoran for a press packet, he tells me he doesn't have one "because every lawyer who doesn't have a job" will want to get hold of the press packet and take his words out of context. He will, however, tell me the chair's cost-- "$900 bucks. If you get the accessories, $1,300." He will also tell me who his customers are-- "mostly county jails," but also state prison systems, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the Forest Service. "Park Service, too," he says. "Every state, every province has it."

Corcoran also exports his restraint chairs, but "only to the countries that really believe in human rights," he says. "A lot of countries are looking into this right now. We're kind of ticklish about selling them to Third World countries that don't have human rights because there really is a possibility that they might be abused." But, he says, you can use anything for torture.

Among those countries that have gotten Corcoran's OK and now have AEDEC restraint chairs is the United Arab Emirates. According to Amnesty International reports on the United Arab Emirates, "Cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishments, including flogging and amputation, were repeatedly imposed" in 1999. In 1998, "Torture and ill-treatment were reported and the use of cruel judicial punishments increased significantly." In 1997, said the human rights group, "Torture and ill-treatment of detainees in police custody continued."

Corcoran says he has sold "thousands" of the chairs. But as to the exact number, "We don't tell anybody that, in court or otherwise."

A flier for the chair recommends its use for "interrogating prisoners and for detaining people in Holding Tanks in Mass Entertainment Facilities (Concert Halls, Collisiems [sic], etc.)." It appears to be used primarily in the intake and booking sections of local jails. Many of those who end up in the chair have not been convicted of a crime and have landed in jail for minor offenses, such as public drunkenness.

"The mere presence of the restraint chair is asking for abuse," says Charles T. Magarahan, an Atlanta attorney. On June 5, 1997, Magarahan's client, Christopher Stone, was beaten, strapped into a restraint chair, and then beaten again after he was arrested for drunk driving and brought to the Cherokee County Jail. "He had not been uncooperative," says Magarahan. "He kept saying, 'I'm with you guys.' They put him in the chair-but they didn't push it like you'd push a chair. They dragged him by his head, with him screaming in pain."

"When Plaintiff was in the holding cell, totally restrained, Defendant [Deputy Sheriff Donald] Ware returned to the outside of the cell and sprayed pepper spray underneath the door," says the legal complaint that Stone filed against Ware, Cherokee County, and two other jail employees (the suit is currently in court). No one bothered to decontaminate Stone. Then, once the cloud of gas subsided, says the complaint, Deputy Ware returned and sprayed under the door again.

In a separate suit , Ware was also prosecuted for using excessive force against Stone. On November 4, 1999, he pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to one year probation and fined $1,000. He has also been dismissed from his position.

In February 1999, the Sacramento Sheriff's Department settled a class-action lawsuit alleging that deputies were torturing people, many of them women and minorities, with a restraint chair. The cost of the settlement was $755,000, the largest ever for alleged officer misconduct in the department's history. The lawyers who brought that suit are demanding that the restraint chair be banned.

The Sacramento case alleged numerous and repeated forms of torture, including mock executions, where guards strapped inmates into a Prostraint chair and told them they were about to be electrocuted. Katherine Martin, a 106-pound woman with a heart condition, claimed she spent eight and a half hours in the chair after she was wrongly accused of touching a guard. She alleged that the straps had been pulled so tight that they had sliced skin from her back and shoulders and cut off circulation to her extremities and that she suffered permanent nerve damage. She also claimed that she was given no liquids and that she was taunted and mocked. She was denied her requests to use the bathroom and ended up urinating on herself. Martin had originally been brought into the jail on suspicion of public drunkenness. This charge was later dismissed.

Videotapes of the Sacramento Jail's restraining methods played an important role in the case. In one tape, Ronald Motz calls through the window of his cell, asking for his lawyer. "Motz, this is the last time we're going to tell you, sit down," says a police officer, "Your attorney's not here, and the phone doesn't work." Motz continues to call out. After a break in the tape, guards wrap a spit mask around his face and pull him into a chair. "I just want to call my attorney," says Motz. "You don't get to call an attorney," says the officer. "Why?" asks Motz. The officer tells him that he can't make the call because he was "drunk in public." A few seconds later, the guard says, "You were going to be released in about five hours. Now you're not."

"What did I do wrong--ask for my attorney?" asks Motz.

"You weren't following directions," says the guard.

The videotapes also show a woman named Gena Domogio being put into the chair naked. She yells at the guards who are kneeling on her back and spits blood on the floor, apparently because her mouth has been injured. The guards respond by wrapping her face in a towel. They keep the towel on her face and at one point appear to hold it against her mouth as they force her into the chair, although she repeatedly says that she has a thyroid problem and that she can't breathe.

Kimberly Byrd was reportedly taken to the hospital after she passed out in the chair where she had been hooded and tightly bound, according to a letter Amnesty International wrote to the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department in March 1999. In the videotape of her restraint, she is obviously terrified. "I'm going to die. Please don't let me die," she says over and over again.

The Sacramento case, Geovanny D. Lobdell vs. County of Sacramento et al., listed AEDEC International, Inc., as a defendant. AEDEC's Corcoran gave a deposition on June 8, 1998, to attorney Stewart Katz. Many of Katz's questions referred to a "Manufacturer's Warning" sheet Corcoran distributes to his clients: "The purpose of the Prostraint Chair is to provide law enforcement and correctional officers with the safest, most humane, and least psychologically traumatizing system for restraining violent, out-of-control prisoners," reads the statement of purpose included on the warning. "The chair is not meant to be an instrument of punishment and should not be used as such."

Here are selections from Corcoran's deposition:

Q: What testing did you do?

A: I put various friends in there. I yanked

on that as hard as I could, and I'm physically apt. I could cause no pain to them whatsoever.

Q: Now, does your manufacturer's warning make any reference to minimum age constraints for persons to be restrained in the restraint chair?

A: That does not.

Q: And does it refer to any maximum age constraints for people to be placed in the restraint chair?

A: No, it does not.

Q: Does it convey any warning as to whether individuals with specific health problems should not be placed in the restraint chair?

A: No.

Q: Well, are there any physical conditions that you believe should lead to a person not being restrained in the chair?

A: No arms, no legs.

Q: All right. So you don't believe the chair should properly be used on amputees or people born without fully developed limbs.

A: The chair wouldn't be functional unless they had appendages.

Q: Is it a fair statement that it's your opinion that the chair is less psychologically traumatizing than the alternatives you mentioned [these included, in Corcoran's words, "four-pointing, chained to a bench, strapped to a bed"]?

A: Yes.

Q: Is that opinion based upon any medical or psychological expert work in the field?

A: No.

Q: Now [your statement of purpose states]: "It is an especially useful tool for restraining drug or alcohol affected prisoners." Period. My question, sir, what is your evidence for believing that it is especially useful for people who are on drugs?

A: Because medical restraints at that time are very dangerous.

Q: And what is the basis for saying the medical restraint at that point is dangerous?

A: Because they have not diagnosed what is in their bloodstream already, and whatever is put in there is compounded.

Q: Was there any scientific literature you relied on to come to this conclusion?

A: That's common sense.

Q: Did you do any testing on people who were under the influence of drugs or narcotics?

A: No.

Q: Did you do any testing for people who are under the influence or feeling the effects of alcohol?

A: No.

Q: All right. Now, the last statement under your "Statement of Purpose": "The chair is not meant to be an instrument of punishment and should not be used as such." Why did you include that sentence?

A: Because Mexico asked to purchase 200 of them, and I wouldn't sell them to Mexico.

Q: And why wouldn't you sell them to Mexico?

A: As any instrument, car, toilet plunger, they can all be abused. There was too high a potential without--we have a high, much higher standard in this country than other countries do. That's why the chair does work here and people will buy it.

Q: People go to the bathroom while they are seated in the chair. Are there provisions in the design of the chair to evacuate those excretions?

A: Yes.

Q: What are those?

A: Not to evacuate but contain.

Q: What are those?

A: The thing is cupped. Blood-borne pathogens and bodily fluids are contained in the person's clothes. I felt that was a better choice than let the pathogens go into the cell and infect other people.

Q: Have you looked at any of the literature regarding how long a person can safely be restrained in a Prostraint Chair?

A: There is no literature that I know of.

Q: Have you done any studies, research, as to the maximum amount of time an individual can be restrained in your restraining chair without causing a physical injury?

A: No.

Q: Now, if you thought the chair wasn't punishing, why wouldn't you sell those chairs to Mexico?

A: Because I have seen enough movies, and I may be stereotyping, but there could be interrogations. I didn't want that to happen.

Q: Is it a correct statement that you marketed the Prostraint restraining chair for use which includes interrogating prisoners?

A: Yes.

Q: Do you know if any customers purchased ten restraint Prostraint chairs?

A: Yes.

Q: And has anyone purchased ten?

A: Yes, or more than ten.

Q: What entity would that have been?

A: I think both the states of Florida and the state of Georgia for the juvenile division. They require it."

Efforts are now under way to restrict or ban use of the chair. This past August, a Knox County, Tennessee, judge ruled that the confession of robbery suspect E. B. "Boyd" Collier was involuntary and illegal because it came while he was confined in a restraining chair during his five-hour interrogation. "While such a chair may be useful, it easily crosses the line as a coercive force," wrote Criminal Court Judge Mary Beth Leibowitz.

A March 1996 Department of Justice investigation of the Maricopa County Jails in Arizona found that the sheriff's department used stun guns on prisoners while they were confined in restraint chairs, including one case where jail staff used a stun gun against a prisoner's testicles. According to Amnesty International, one prisoner, Richard Post, was forced into a restraint chair in a manner that is "reported to have caused compression of his spine and nerve damage to his spinal cord and neck, resulting in significant loss of upper body mobility." On August 19, 1999, Maricopa County agreed to pay Post $800,000 to settle his claims that jail guards had used excessive force against him. In 1997, jail officials told Amnesty International that the jail system owned sixteen chairs and that it had used them about 600 times in the past six months. The Maricopa County Jails have since altered their restraint policy and no longer use the chairs for punishment. A Department of Justice lawsuit against the jail system was dropped in June 1998. [PLN, Aug. 2000]

Alleged misuse of the restraint chair led the U.S. Department of Justice to file a 1996 lawsuit against Iberia Parish Jail in Louisiana, claiming that the jail deputies, as a matter of course, subjected prisoners to "cruel and unusual punishment and physical and mental torture" by confining them to restraint chairs for hours and forcing them to sit in their own excrement. One prisoner was allegedly held in the chair for eight days, another for forty-three hours. In a pretrial settlement, the jail authorities agreed to stop using the restraint chair.

In early January of this year, a group of Erie County, Pennsylvania, prisoners asked a federal judge to ban use of the chair. Their suit against the prison, which is still pending, says that prisoners have been held for two to eight hours in the chair for such behaviors as "making insolent remarks," cursing, and throwing towels at one another.

In Ventura County, California, a class action lawsuit led a federal judge to issue a preliminary injunction banning the chair on November 15, 1999. That order is being appealed. The lawsuit alleged that during one eighteen-month period, 377 people had been strapped into the chair at the Ventura County Jail and that one prisoner had been left in the chair for thirty-two hours. "Data shows that the Sheriff's Department's misuse of that chair flows from a practice of restraining nonviolent arrestees for extended periods of time in violation of the arrestees' Fourteenth Amendment rights," wrote U.S. District Judge Lourdes Baird in her fifty-page decision. "The policy allows deputies to require restrained arrestees to either urinate or defecate on themselves and be forced to sit in their own feces or 'hold it.'"

On December 13, 1999, Amnesty International issued a statement calling for an inquiry into police actions at the WTO protests in Seattle. Among the allegations that troubled Amnesty were several incidents involving restraint chairs at the King County Jail. "People were allegedly strapped into four-point chairs as punishment for nonviolent resistance or asking for their lawyers," says the group's press release. "In one case a man was stripped naked before being strapped into the chair."

Martin Mijal, a building contractor in Portland, Oregon, participated in the WTO protests. He was arrested with other Direct Action Network protesters and charged with "failure to disperse." After ten hours of waiting in several jails, and hearing that a lawyer was on her way, the group decided to resist the deputies' attempts to transfer them to individual cells. According to Mijal, they linked arms. Mijal says the deputies responded by bringing in several restraint chairs. They then began to separate the protesters. "I was holding myself in a ball with my arms locked under my legs," writes Mijal in his complaint to the ACLU of Washington. "As they carried me, I cried out 'Lawyer!' three times because I was very scared and I thought they might be close by."

Mijal says he did not resist as the guards placed him in the restraint chair. In fact, he wrote in his ACLU statement, "I asked the guards if they were OK since they had to carry me and it must have been awkward. They said 'yes' they were. Then, as I remained entirely incapacitated in the wheelchair, and totally by surprise a male guard put pepper foam directly into my eyes. It was very, very painful. Instinctually, to get the foam out of my eyes, I wiped my forehead against the nearest thing, which was a guard's leg, who was standing to the side of me and I heard him yelp when the chemical burned through his pants."

Mijal's action seems to have angered the guard. "Then he took a cloth and put it over my face," he writes in his ACLU complaint. "Then he put his hand on the cloth and with his finger found my left eye socket and rubbed the poison in my eye, forcing my eyelid up. Then he lifted the cloth and put another pad of thick cloth over my mouth and gagged me. I couldn't breathe at all, because of the pain and the fear. I was in immense agony."

"We would dispute that account," says Jim Harms, Public Information Officer for the King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention. He claims that the deputies were simply following procedures and that the activists shouldn't have expected to see their lawyer so quickly upon arriving at the jail. He also says that the officers used a standard use-of-force progression on Mijal, that he struggled with the guards and refused to be restrained, and that he was pepper-sprayed just so the deputies could get him into the chair. As for being pepper-sprayed while restrained, hooded, poked in the eye, and gagged, "there is nothing in the report or the follow-up review to show that actually happened," says Harms.

"If you've ever seen the film Brazil, it's like a scene from the torture chamber," says Robert Smith of San Francisco. Smith, an activist with Art and Revolution in San Francisco, was arrested along with Mijal and backs up his claims. "He's being held down, he's got a bag over his face, there's people in riot gear all around him. This is after being pepper sprayed. I'd never seen human beings doing something like that to other human beings."

Anne-Marie Cusac is Managing Editor of The Progressive. This article was made possible in part by the Fund for Investigative Journalism, Inc.

Reprinted with the permission of The Progressive, 409 East Main Street, Madison, WI 53703. © 2000

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