The Devil's Chair.

Author:Cusac, Anne-Marie
Position:Misuse of restraint chairs - Editorial

Intended as a restraint, it has led to torture and death

Jail and prison employees call it the "strap-o-lounger," the "barcalounger," the "we care chair," and the "be sweet other names for the device: "torture chair," "slave chair," "and "devil's chair."

They are referring not 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:

* restraint chairs have been used for punishment of nonthreatening behavior;

* children have been strapped into the chairs for nonviolent behaviors;

* nude inmates 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 prisoners' 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 investigation into use of the restraint chair. The device "is an issue of great concern to us," says Angela Wright, a researcher at Amnesty's headquarters in London. "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."

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 more than 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 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, restraint asphyxia is "a lack of oxygen caused by a highly agitated state exacerbated by the 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.

Scott Norberg died in June 1996 in Arizona of what the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's 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.

Katalin Zentai, a former journalist, died in late 1996 at the Connecticut Valley Hospital, according to an investigative report 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 traveled to her lungs.

On December 3, 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.

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.

Also in March 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, who was mentally ill, was being held at the jail for firing a shotgun while on a golfing range. His family eventually won a $2.2 million civil lawsuit. In February 1999, a former corrections officer was convicted of manslaughter in Sagers's 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.

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 chain When the officers returned a few minutes later from washing the spray off themselves, they found him dead. The coroner said that the drug PCP and...

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