by Derek Gilna
A wrongful death suit has been filed in state court in Oldham County, Kentucky by the family of 30-year-old Steven Lee McStoots, who died of suffocation when he was strapped face-down on a mattress in five-point restraints at the Kentucky State Reformatory. McStoots had been forcefully removed from his cell after refusing to take medication; his hands were cuffed behind his back and his ankles shackled to a bed by at least four prison guards.
According to Sam Carl, the family’s attorney, McStoots’ January 16, 2013 death resulted from the use of what he claimed was an outdated and inappropriate restraint technique. Prison officials, however, argued that the mentally-ill McStoots was agitated and in danger of harming himself when he was placed in restraints.
Carl disagreed that McStoots posed a threat. “He had settled down and was not a danger to himself or others at the time he was carried into the cell where he died,” Carl stated. “I don’t know that I’ve seen a case where a person has died on videotape under questionable circumstances and use of restraints [that are] sometimes characterized as cruel and outdated.”
Five-point restraints involve a person being tied to a bed, with restraints placed on the ankles, wrists and around the chest. In this case, McStoots was restrained face-down. Teresa Garrard, a nurse who was present when McStoots died, filed a whistle-blower suit claiming she was fired after she expressed concerns about the incident and alleged a cover-up by prison staff.
Garrard’s lawsuit against the prison’s medical provider settled in 2015 under confidential terms. Local prosecutors declined to present the case involving McStoots’ death to a grand jury.
Cameron Lindsay, a twenty-five year corrections veteran, prepared a report concerning the use of restraints on prisoners on behalf of the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy. He wrote that the repeated use of restraints could constitute “gross negligence, and deliberate indifference” on the part of the facility and the Kentucky Department of Corrections (DOC), and was “unconscionable.”
Further, Lindsay stated, “throughout my entire career, I have never heard or known of an inmate being in four-point restraints for multiple consecutive days, let alone, weeks and months.”
According to Jeff Edwards, division director of the Kentucky Protection and Advocacy agency, “There are more people with mental illnesses being incarcerated than ever before,” and the 25 to 30 percent of Kentucky state prisoners who have mental health problems are not receiving “true psychiatric treatment because that’s not what Department of Corrections is assigned to do. They are not there to provide psychiatric treatment. They are not a hospital.”
Although the Oldham County Deputy Coroner held the reason for McStoots’ death was “undetermined,” staff at the prison reportedly lacked proper training and he suffocated while being restrained. Footage from a hand-held camera that recorded the incident appeared to show serious errors were made, and according to the DOC the training with respect to five-point restraints was “very poor” and guards involved in the incident were not equipped to respond properly.
“It was evident ... that the cell entry team was not prepared for this particular situation and the staff appeared to be lacking in confidence,” a DOC report stated.
Prison officials concluded that more formal training was necessary and that prisoners should be placed in the prone position or face-up when being restrained. In the past, the warden had the power to approve the use of five-point restraints; now, that authority must come from the DOC’s central office.
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