Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Restraint Chair Deaths, Abuses Prompt Questions, Criticism and Lawsuits

Like another jail detainee more than seven years before him, Joshua Grose died while strapped into a restraint chair at the York County Detention Center in South Carolina.

In the early morning hours of October 12, 2013, following his arrest for allegedly killing both his stepmother and a neighbor by running them over with a stolen car, Grose began to beat his head against the wall and toilet in his cell.

Eight guards responded. One of them, as seen on video surveillance footage, punched Grose – who was reported to be “violently mentally ill” – a dozen times in the stomach as the other jailers eventually placed him in a restraint chair and put a football helmet on his head.

Having mostly immobilized him, the guards left Grose alone in the chair – with blood trickling down his face – where he continued to bang his head against the cell wall. Within two hours, and without receiving any medical treatment, he was dead.

Grose’s death was ruled a suicide by blunt force trauma to the head. But both prisoner advocates and mental health experts are in agreement that absent the use of restraint chairs to subdue mentally ill prisoners whose greatest danger is to themselves, there would be fewer fatalities.

On May 10, 2006, York County prisoner Jeffrey W. Waddell was strapped into the same restraint chair in which Grose died years later, after Waddell purportedly became “disruptive” and started vomiting due to epileptic seizures.

Jail guards, who were aware of Waddell’s condition, left him alone in the restraint chair without clearing his airway or helping him breathe. He choked to death on his own vomit.

“I said they were going to kill him,” said Jeanne Waddell, Jeff’s mother. “He seized continuously in the chair until he died. I think people who have medical conditions shouldn’t be in that kind of restraint.”

York County officials evidently agreed, paying $930,000 to settle a wrongful death suit in 2010; part of the settlement went to Waddell’s young daughter. See: Waddell v. York County Detention Center, U.S.D.C. (D. SC), Case No. 0:08-cv-03552-RBH-PJG.

“As long as these chairs are used, there will be more deaths,” noted Phoenix, Arizona attorney Michael Manning. “Because of the mental health of detainees, the impairment issues, there will be more deaths.” Manning has filed four lawsuits on behalf of prisoners who died in restraint chairs, including three against Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who finally stopped using the chairs after the county was forced to pay millions in damages. [See: PLN, March 2007, p.32].

“Really, they ought to be banned outright,” Manning said of restraint chairs. His first suit against Sheriff Arpaio, involving the death of prisoner Scott Norberg, ended in an $8.25 million settlement with Maricopa County. [See: PLN, Sept. 2000, p.1; Feb. 2000, p.20].

A fellow prisoner testified that Norberg was beaten as he was forced into a restraint chair on June 1, 1996. Jail guard Kimberly Walsh said in a sworn deposition that she warned another jailer that Norberg – whose head had been forced between his knees – was turning purple in the chair and couldn’t breathe.

“Who gives a fuck?” the guard replied. “He’s still going to fight.”

But Norberg didn’t fight. Instead he suffocated and died from positional asphyxia – being restrained in a manner that prevented him from breathing.

Numerous prisoners have died in restraint chairs nationwide, typically in jails and often after being beaten, pepper sprayed or shocked with Tasers. Fortunately not all restraint chair abuses result in deaths, but sadly the chairs are not only used to subdue violent prisoners; they are also used as a sadistic form of punishment or, in the case of Charda Gregory, extreme humiliation and torture.

On November 13, 2013, Gregory, a 22-year-old hairdresser in suburban Detroit, was arrested for allegedly trashing a motel room after a party. When she was booked into jail in Warren, Michigan, police said she was combative. After the young mother told jailers that her hair weave could not be removed because it was sewn into her own hair, she was forced into a restraint chair. Police officer Bernadette Najor was caught on surveillance video forcibly cutting Gregory’s hair. The charges against Gregory were eventually dropped and she filed a lawsuit, which the city agreed to settle for $75,000.

Previously, in 2006, Nabor had reportedly tackled, maced and strapped another female prisoner into a restraint chair for refusing to remove her pants at the Warren jail. Several years later, Virginia Hamilton told WXYZ-TV Channel 7 that she got into an altercation with Najor while being fingerprinted at the jail in 2008. Najor allegedly beat and forcibly removed Hamilton’s hair before she was handcuffed, tased and placed in a restraint chair. Hamilton was charged with assaulting a police officer but the charges were later dropped.

Najor was fired after the 2013 hair-cutting incident involving Gregory, which the police commissioner described as “disturbing” and “offensive.” However, in February 2015 the Warren police department was forced to rehire Najor and give her over $86,000 in back pay, following binding arbitration initiated by the union representing the city’s police officers.

In Savannah, Georgia, Mathew Ajibade was found unresponsive in a restraint chair on January 2, 2015; he had been placed in the chair and tased after being restrained following a violent altercation in which several jailers were injured. Ajibade, 21, was experiencing a bipolar episode when he was arrested. His girlfriend handed the arresting deputies his medication but Ajibade never received medical care at the jail; nine employees who were on duty the day he died were terminated several months later. The coroner declared his death a homicide and three Chatham County jail employees were charged with involuntary manslaughter. Mark O’Mara, the attorney representing Ajibade’s family, said the guards’ actions were sadistic and “nothing less than torture.”

In October 2015 two former deputies were found not guilty of involuntary manslaughter in connection with Ajibade’s death, though one, Jason Kenny, 31, was convicted of cruelty to an inmate while the other, Maxine Evans, 56, was found guilty of perjury and falsifying records. A former jail nurse, Gregory Brown, was also acquitted of manslaughter but convicted of making a false statement. Kenny was sentenced to one month in jail to be served on weekends plus three years’ probation. Evans was placed on probation for six years, while Brown received a three-year suspended sentence.

“I knew that that same system that failed Mathew would not be the system that got him justice,” said Chris Oladapo, Ajibade’s cousin. “I had already warned my family not to expect anything. We expected nothing, and we got nothing.”

Studies indicate that restraint chairs increase the risk of pulmonary embolism, or potentially fatal blood clots, especially when “physical trauma is followed by immobility.” Force is often used to place uncooperative or mentally ill prisoners in restraint chairs, where they are then unable to move. Further, the instructions provided by the companies that manufacture the chairs caution against restraining anyone for more than two hours, yet alone people in need of treatment for medical or mental health conditions, injuries, or drug or alcohol withdrawal.

In December 2014, Sussex County, New Jersey settled a lawsuit filed by a former jail prisoner who alleged he was brutally beaten, sprayed with chemicals and placed in a restraint chair for 19 hours.

According to court documents, Robert A. Norman was incarcerated at the Keogh-Dwyer Correctional Facility awaiting transfer to a state prison when he saw another prisoner being forced into a restraint chair. He tried to communicate with the prisoner, then returned to his cell. Later, seven guards entered his cell and maced him before beating him savagely. He was thrown against a wall, punched, kicked and handcuffed behind his back and shackled.

The guards then forced Norman into a nearby shower room where they ran cold water on him and beat him some more, according to the lawsuit. During the incident, Norman was compliant and pleaded for the beating to stop.

The guards then took the wet, handcuffed and shackled Norman to the restraint chair, released the other prisoner and tightly strapped Norman in, leaving him there for 19 hours. Norman experienced excruciating pain from the beating, mace and positional restraint in the chair; he was not given a bathroom break and urinated on himself.

Norman filed a civil rights suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in federal court. See: Norman v. Untig, U.S.D.C. (D. NJ), Case No. 2:11-cv-00700-SDW-MCA. The lawsuit was dismissed and refiled in Superior Court in Sussex County; it was then transferred to Superior Court in Morris County before being settled for $55,000.

“People don’t have a chance to know what goes on [in the jail],” said attorney Jeffery Patti, who represented Norman. “A light needed to be shone on what was going on in there.”

Jasper County, Missouri jail prisoner Richard Watson, 43, was reportedly strapped into a restraint chair for over 20 hours in December 2012 without water, food or medication after he violently slammed his head against a window at the jail. He had a history of medical and mental health problems, as well as alcohol abuse, and died after being found unresponsive in the chair. Watson’s mother, Jane Brown, filed suit and received a $250,000 settlement; she has called for a ban on the use of restraint chairs.

Christopher Armstrong, who was jailed in December 2010 on assault charges, was held in a restraint chair for more than 24 hours at the Guilford County Jail in Greensboro, North Carolina. An NBC affiliate in Charlotte reported that as soon as Armstrong was allowed to move, “his body threw a blood clot and he died.”

Guilford County settled a wrongful death suit filed by Armstrong’s family for $475,000, though the sheriff adamantly refused to admit that his employees had done anything wrong.

In Iowa, a federal jury awarded $42,000 to a woman who was placed in a restraint chair for seven hours. On January 25, 2006, while held at the Scott County Jail, Lillian Slater had a painful flare-up of her sickle cell disease. Rather than provide her with appropriate medical care, guards at the jail strapped Slater into a restraint chair for at least seven hours. Slater sued Scott County, the sheriff and several guards, raising claims of deliberate indifference and excessive force – which she argued were part of an official custom or policy that resulted from inadequate training.

On April 23, 2010, a federal jury found in favor of Slater and awarded her $35,000 in damages for the excessive force claim plus $3,500 in punitive damages against each of two jail guards, Greg Goudet and William Lomba. The district court later awarded $213,374.60 in attorney fees plus $8,080.47 in costs against the defendants. Slater was represented by the Chicago law firm of Loevy & Loevy. See: Slater v. Scott County, U.S.D.C. (D. Iowa), Case No. 3:07-cv-00125-JAJ-TJS.

In 2010, a settlement was reached in the death of a prisoner at a jail in Coweta County, Georgia; the death occurred after the prisoner was placed in a restraint chair while suffering from alcohol withdrawal.

William C. Sutton, Sr., 58, was sentenced to serve 90 days for a DUI. Two days after he was booked into the jail on January 23, 2008, he suffered a seizure. A jail doctor allowed him to return to his cell after prescribing anti-seizure and anti-withdrawal medication.

The next day Sutton had another seizure and was taken to a hospital. Once stabilized, he returned to the jail. Over the next six days he was agitated and experienced incoherent speech, hallucinations, confusion and loss of mobility. On the morning of January 31, 2008, guards placed him in a restraint chair in the booking area after he showed signs of delirium tremens (DTs).

He spent 14 hours in the chair – 12 hours longer than recommended by the manufacturer. Sutton was allowed out of the restraint chair only to eat and visit the infirmary; after one trip to the infirmary, he was again strapped into the chair, allegedly for his own protection. Three hours later he experienced a heart attack and died.

Sutton’s estate filed suit and settled the case for $525,000 on December 14, 2010. The estate was represented by attorneys Albert M. Pearson III and D. Brandon Hornsby. See: Sutton v. Coweta County, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ga.), Case No. 3:10-cv-00011-JTC.

In several cases, prisoners died after being put in restraint chairs after they were pepper sprayed and had spit masks or hoods placed over their heads, which impaired their breathing. Such practices ignore the need to decontaminate prisoners who have been subjected to pepper spray, mace or other chemical irritants.

A $284,500 settlement was reached in the death of a pre-trial detainee at South Carolina’s Beaufort County Detention Center. The prisoner’s wife and four children sued the county and its private medical care provider, Southern Health Partners, Inc.

Jesse Greer, 46, was arrested at a bus station on December 27, 2007. He showed signs of severe mental distress and injured himself once in custody. On the evening of December 31, Greer began kicking and banging his head on his cell door. When he failed to follow orders to back away from the door, he was doused with pepper spray through the food port.

Rather than back up, Greer started licking the pepper spray. Guards forcibly removed him from the cell, applied a spit mask and strapped him into a restraint chair. Moments later Greer was found unresponsive and pale; although taken to a hospital, he was removed from life support and died on January 1, 2008.

An autopsy determined his death was due to “excited delirium, likely due to chronic methamphetamine use.” However, Dr. Jonathan Arden, an expert hired by Greer’s estate, said the restraint chair was a contributing factor. “The straps that were tight across his chest caused compression that compromised his ability to breathe until he suffered a respiratory and cardiac arrest,” Arden wrote.

The August 4, 2011 settlement included a $192,000 payment from Southern Health Partners and $92,500 from Beaufort County. Greer’s estate was represented by attorneys James A. Brown, Jr., and Thomas A. Killoren, Jr. Originally filed in federal court, the case was later transferred to the Beaufort County Court of Common Pleas. See: Greer v. County of Beaufort, U.S.D.C. (D. SC), Case No. 9:09-cv-03057-RMG.

Daniel Linsinbigler was only 19 years old when he suffocated to death in a restraint chair at a jail in Clay County, Florida in March 2013 after being pepper sprayed and placed in a spit hood that impeded his breathing. The teenager had been on suicide watch and held in solitary confinement after suffering a psychotic break; his death was ruled a homicide, though no charges were ever filed. According to another prisoner at the jail, guards had taunted Linsinbigler into an agitated state, then conducted a cell extraction and put him in the restraint chair, where he repeatedly complained that he couldn’t breathe before he died.

His mother questioned why jail staff had removed him from the cell in the first place. “He was in a single-man cell,” she said. “Who is he going to hurt?”

On November 2, 2014, David Yearby was pepper sprayed and hooded before he was found dead in a restraint chair nine hours later by Middlesex County, New Jersey jail guards. The cause of death was undetermined and no charges were filed. The 27-year-old, who suffered from bipolar disorder, was allegedly assaulted by guards during a cell extraction before being strapped into the restraint chair, according to a lawsuit filed by his mother in September 2015. Yearby died from a cervical fracture of the spine due to blunt force trauma, according to the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s office.

And in Denver, Colorado, Michael Lee Marshall choked to death on his vomit at the Downtown Detention Center after being placed in a restraint chair with a spit hood over his head, as jailers stood nearby and watched him die. The November 11, 2015 incident was videotaped, though the video was only released after a local newspaper filed suit. Marshall, 50, who suffered from long-term mental health issues and weighed 112 pounds, had been arrested only four days earlier. The coroner ruled his death a homicide but prosecutors declined to file charges, citing medical conditions that contributed to Marshall’s death. His family announced in May 2016 that they plan to file a wrongful death suit against city and jail officials.

Marshall’s death prompted the independent news site ShadowProof.com to look into similar deaths in custody. They examined the deaths of 30 prisoners nationwide that involved restraints, including 16 who were diagnosed as mentally ill. Fourteen prisoners had been placed in restraint chairs and nine were wearing spit hoods or masks when they died. Ten of the deaths were ruled homicides, but only three resulted in prosecution and there was just one conviction. In seven cases the cause of death was either undetermined or accidental, while another five cited “excited delirium” – a controversial diagnosis that conveniently absolves law enforcement officials of any guilt for using force that results in death. [See: PLN, April 2016, p.10].

Dr. Pleas Geyer, a psychiatrist at the Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, North Carolina who has routinely treated violent mentally ill patients, noted that he has never used a restraint chair to subdue them. If certain techniques don’t work to calm a patient, he said he might have to use bed restraint and sedatives.

Typically, however, mental health staff are trained to placate patients by allowing them to vent. Nurses do not assault patients or use pepper spray or Tasers to force them into restraints; when they need to be isolated, they are put in padded rooms so they can’t hurt themselves.

But poorly-conceived laws and public policy decisions have made the incarceration – and subsequent abuse – of people with mental health problems commonplace. Prisons and jails have become de facto mental health facilities in the United States, and the mentally ill are often punished for engaging in behavior caused by their mental illnesses.

“The psychiatric population in this country has been transferred from hospital and clinics to jails,” Geyer observed. And correctional facilities, he added, are “really not equipped to cope with these folks or to help them.”

Guards are not medical professionals and are not trained to handle people with serious mental health conditions. But while correctional facilities may lack sufficient staff or resources to provide treatment for the mentally ill, they do have restraint chairs.

In Florida, the Department of Corrections and Department of Juvenile Justice have stopped using restraint chairs, according to an October 2012 news article, while human rights organization Amnesty International advocates for banning the chairs altogether. The American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization that advocates for peace and social justice, considers restraint chairs a form of torture.

So why do corrections agencies still use them? Because companies still market and sell them to prisons, jails and other detention facilities. Pro-Straint says its RC1310 model restraint chair is “the most secure way to restrain violent or combative prisoners while ensuring officer safety.” A competitor, Safety Restraint Chair, Inc., markets its Mark 10 model chair “to help control combative, self destructive, or potentially violent detainees.” The devices are hawked at law enforcement conferences such as those sponsored by the American Correctional Association (ACA) and National Sheriffs’ Association. Of course, the companies don’t include information in their promotional materials about the many prisoners who have died in their chairs.

Because restraint chairs continue to be used in prisons and jails, deaths continue to occur. In Kentucky, jail prisoner Jerry Dale Hardwick, 34, was placed in a restraint chair at the Casey County Detention Center due to “combative behavior,” according to news reports. He was found dead on July 5, 2016 while still strapped in the chair; the State Police are investigating his death. Hardwick had been arrested on charges of public intoxication, evading police, disorderly conduct and criminal mischief.

And according to a lawsuit filed in July 2016, Charles Weslie Johnson, 57, died at the Greenville County Detention Center in South Carolina after he began having seizures and was placed in a restraint chair. Surveillance video showed Johnson being strapped into the chair while he was jerking due to the seizures; he was not checked for almost an hour, then was found unresponsive and pronounced dead at a local hospital. He had been jailed on a drug-related probation violation.

“We cannot wrap our heads around why Mr. Johnson was restrained,” said attorney Robert Jones, who represents Johnson’s family. “He went there with hopes of being cleaned up and kind of rehabilitating his life. Unfortunately and tragically, he never made it out.”

Sadly, such tragedies involving deaths in restraint chairs are all too common – though the simple solution of banning the use of restraint chairs is something that most corrections officials are apparently unwilling to consider.

Sources: www.wcnc.com, New York Daily News, www.macombdaily.com, www.wxyz.com, www.deadlinedetroit.com, https://shadowproof.com, www.modvive.com, www.pro-straint.com, www.treatmentadvocacycenter.org, www.denverpost.com, www.news-leader.com, www.wspa.com, www.centralkynews.com, Associated Press, www.coloradoindependent.com, www.policestateusa.com, www.nj.com, www.islandpacket.com, CNN, Huffington Post, www.restraintchair.com

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal cases

Norman v. Untig

Greer v. County of Beaufort

Slater v. Scott County

Sutton v. Coweta County

Waddell v. York County Detention Center