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Maricopa County, Arizona, Abandons Restraint Chairs Following Deaths, Multimillion Dollar Payouts

After three prisoner fatalities and two wrongful death payouts totaling $17.25 million, Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, has finally discontinued the use of restraint chairs in county jails.

On August 21, 2006, Arpaio told The Arizona Republic that the jail?s restraint chairs have been replaced by restraint beds. The so-called ?safe beds? contain shackles for the prisoners? hands and feet. According to Arpaio, the beds are a safer alternative. Jerry Sheridan, chief of custody for the Sheriff?s Office, said the beds will only be used as a last resort. He said padded cells called ?safe rooms? will be used first.

At least three prisoner deaths have been linked to the use of restraint chairs at the jail. Two spawned lawsuits that resulted in multimillion dollar payouts. In March 2006, a federal jury awarded $9 million to the parents of Charles Agster III, who died after being strapped into a restraint chair at the jail in 2001. In 1996 the county paid $8.25 million to settle in the death of Scott Norberg, who also died in a restraint chair. Autopsies revealed that the men, both of whom had methamphetamine in their systems, died of positional asphyxia.

Attorney Michael Manning, who represented both families, said his clients would not have sued ?had the sheriff just apologized to them and made these changes so other kids wouldn?t die, so this is very gratifying,? he said. ?It?s tragic that it?s taken this long.?

Amnesty International has urged U.S. authorities to ban restraint chairs, which have been in use since the 1970s, until the federal government launches an investigation into their use. Arpaio and others argue that the chairs remain a ?good tool? for restraining combative prisoners.

It has long been known, however, that restraint chairs are often deadly.
Because they?re designed to be as uncomfortable as possible--seats are inches off the ground with heels against the buttocks, forcing knees into the chest, and arms straight down at the sides--positional asphyxia is always a concern. Moreover, many jailers can?t resist using the chairs as punishment, leaving prisoners strapped down in an unnatural position for excessively long periods. Of the 6,000 times the chair has been used in the Maricopa County Jail since 2001, for instance, 300 of the incidents were initiated by guards.

Unfortunately, the mistreatment of prisoners is nothing new to Sheriff Arpaio, who has built a reputation as ?America?s toughest sheriff.? As previously reported by PLN, Arpaio?s abusive tactics have included housing prisoners in tents, forcing them to wear pink underwear, parading thousands through downtown Phoenix as they walked several blocks to a newly opened jail clad only in pink boxer shorts and flip flops, and installing live feed webcams--some of which were trained on the toilets--in prisoner housing areas. The Sheriff?s sadism has earned him the ire of many. To date 11 people of been prosecuted for threatening to kill him.

Source: The Arizona Republic

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