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$1.1 Million Awarded in Texas Restraint Chair Settlement

Nueces County, Texas, settled a $1.1 million lawsuit filed by the father of Andrew Sokolinski, a prisoner who died while strapped into a restraint chair at the Nueces County Jail. The county settled the lawsuit midway through an August 2000 trial, three years after Sokolinski died from the abuse of jail guards.

Sokolinski, 32, was arrested in Corpus Christi in August 1997, for allegedly smoking a marijuana joint while standing on the sidewalk. He was booked into the Nueces County Jail where he was found on August 12, 1997, unconscious, bruised and strapped into a jail restraint chair. According to the medical examiner, Sokolinski died of a heart attack after struggling with guards.

An isolated incident? Hardly.

Approximately two years to the day of Sokolinski's death, another Nueces County Jail prisoner was pronounced dead. Bobby Stuart, 28, was similarly found unconscious, bruised and strapped into a jail restraint chair on August 19, 1999. He had been booked into the jail after allegedly getting drunk and later causing a ruckus at a Corpus Christi convenience store. In Stuart's autopsy, a medical examiner couldn't list a cause of death.

Stuart's family, too, is suing Nueces County and Sheriff Larry Olivarez. The case is set for trial July 3, 2001. The family has not decided how much money they will request.

In the meantime, Nueces County has been scrambling to come up with money to pay for the litigation. After the Sokolinski settlement was reached the cashstrapped county was forced to raise taxes to pay it. The jail had no insurance for lawsuits. County Judge Richard Borchard acknowledged that taxes will rise a penny for every dollar of valuation this year, partly to make up for the chunk of money taken by the jail lawsuit.

A jail guard named Thomas Bailey was in charge the night Sokolinski died. According to court documents, Bailey coated Sokolinski's face with pepper foam and left him alone, strapped to a restraint chair, a wet towel draped over his head. James Reynolds, another guard who was already under investigation for excessive force complaints, was also on hand the night of Sokolinski's death. Prisoner witnesses said they watched Reynolds knee, kick and slam Sokolinski's head against the floor while he spat up blood. His head sounded like a watermelon when it hit the ground, the witnesses told investigators.

One of those investigators, Texas Ranger Robert Garza, whose duty it is to investigate rogue police actions, doesn't believe the witness accounts. "The inmates lie, the inmates exaggerate," Garza said. "How can they be credible when they're a bunch of crooks and thugs?"

So much for impartial investigations.

In the hours before Stuart's death, a jail surveillance camera was recording the unfolding activity. Unfortunately, when investigators reviewed the tape they found that the last hour preceding and up to Stuart's death had been mysteriously erased.

Jail officials claimed that they had nothing to hide, and the video was accidentally erased after a power outage. However, the families believe that both young men died at the abusive hands of jailers who hit them and choked them with pepper spray, all while they were strapped into a restraint chair and then left them alone to die.

In a July 2000 letter to the U.S. government, Amnesty International called for an investigation into the "highly inappropriate use of the fourpoint restraint chair in jails. "We've found an abundance of cases where the use of the chair does constitute a human rights violation," said Dr. William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International. "We've had a series of deaths." [See the Sep. 2000 PLN for a detailed history on restraint chairs.]

Source: The Brownsville Herald.

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