Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The non-electric chair of death

A typical restraint chair

A typical restraint chair

The manufacturers of the restraint chairs and the officials who run the jails, prisons, federal agencies, military operations, psychiatric hospitals and juvenile facilities that use it make it sound like a reasonable and useful, even humane, tool. The chair offers a means of subduing and containing inmates, detainees or patients who are a danger to themselves and others. Once the offender is buckled in at the waist and shoulders, arms and legs, wrists and ankles, everyone is supposedly safe from harm. Defenders of the device point out that most models are equipped with wheels, helpfully making it possible to cart the now-immobilized perpetrator away for medical attention.

Yet Amnesty International and other activists have investigated its use and are trying to ban the restraining chair. Since the chair’s institution a slew of wrongful-death lawsuits have targeted institutions using the chairs. It seems that though the chair may not be dangerous in itself, it is all too easily abused by those in authority may be prone to vindictiveness and excessive force. The restraint chair’s detractors point out that it has been misused in countless cases for interrogation, administering beatings, threatening, even torturing the immobilized person. Estimates vary, but the chair has been linked to any number of deaths from 10 to dozens over the last few decades.

Alphie Herrera. 39, landed in Lehigh County Prison in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in January 2013 on charges of violating parole, retail theft and resisting arrest. A month later after he became belligerent and fought with guards, they put him in a restraining chair to move him safely for a medical evaluation. Herrera had a seizure in the chair, which despite his being transported to a hospital, resulted in his death. His family says authorities are at fault in Herrera’s death because they unnecessarily and forcibly subdued him with the chair. At the time, Lehigh County Prison was facing a lawsuit from the family of David Campbell, 25, who died in October 2011 after being stripped naked, placed into the restraint chair and pepper sprayed before, the family alleges, guards turned off the security camera in his cell.

Nick Chrsitie

Nick Chrsitie

Ohio man Nick Christie, 62, was arrested for trespassing and disorderly conduct in Lee County Florida in 2009; he suffered from mental and physical problems. His family alleges that he died from being subjected to excessive force. When guards put him in a restraint chair the allegedly placed a “spit mask” over his face. The spit mask is meant to keep a prisoner from spitting on the jailer, but when used in conjunction with pepper spray keeps the spray concentrated around the victim’s face. Christie was pepper sprayed ten times. The facts of the case are not in dispute. The sheriff’s office, however, investigated and determined that its employees had not acted improperly. (Assistant State Attorney Dean R. Plattner would later be accused of a pattern of letting officers off the hook for criminal misconduct, including the use excessive force and wrongful deaths.) In a 2012 lawsuit, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement maintained there wasn’t enough evidence to even investigate the deputies involved, but the county ultimately settled with the Christie family for an undisclosed amount.

Such law suits can be expensive. The Sacramento County Jail settled for $750,000 in a class-action lawsuit surrounding the 1995 “accidental” death of Carmelo Marrero. After completing an examination, the coroner listed Marrero’s cause of death as “probable acute cardiac arrhythmia, due to probable hypoxemia, due to combined restraint asphyxia, and severe physical exertion, due to apparent manic psychotic episode.”

Maricopa County lost a whopping $8.25 million when they settled with Scott Norberg’s family, who sued over his 1996 asphyxiation death. Norberg was less than a day before he was forced into a restraint chair by guards and gagged, violently pushed his neck to his chest (breaking his larynx), suffocated him with a towel and shot him with a stun gun 14 times. Guards in the same Phoenix, Arizona, jail system also relied on a restraining chair with the developmentally disabled Charles Agster, whose hooded head they forced between his knees; they waited nearly 5 minutes after he stopped breathing to perform CPR, saying they thought he was faking his distress. Eric Vogel, 36 and physically healthy but mentally ill, died of a heart attack shortly after leaving a Phoenix jail in 2001; guards had put him in the restraining chair and beat him with a baton.

Nick Christie in the chair; alive, but in pain.

Nick Christie in the chair; alive, but in pain.

The number of vulnerable prisoners restrained in these chairs is striking. Daniel Sagers was reported to be mentally ill. When he was arrested in Florida for firing a gun on a golf course, guards restrained him in a chair and beat him, forcing his head back so far that it damaged his brain. A civil lawsuit gave his family $2.2 million; Osceola County jail fired two of his jailers, and a jury convicted a third of manslaughter.

Demetrius Brown was also mentally ill. He died after Jacksonville, Florida, jailers struggled to get him into the chair. James Arthur Livingston was in the grips of a schizophrenic episode when he went to Terrant County Texas police for protection against the brother he delusionally thought was trying to kill him; he died in a restraining chair after jailers doused him with pepper spray.

After being pulled over in a traffic stop in St. Lucie, Florida, Anderson Tate told jailers that he’d ingested a large amount of cocaine and needed help; instead of getting him medical help, jailers strapped the raving man to a restraint chair and mocked him for three hours. A video camera recorded Tate’s ordeal, and as a result the Sheriff’s Department fired two jailers and disciplined five—no criminal charges were filed.

A Kansas City, Missouri, coroner said that Anthony R. Goins’ 1997 death was caused by a combination of PCP, pepper spray, which impairs breathing, and the restraining chair. Similarly, in 1998, the Pueblo County Coroner in Colorado announced that Kenneth Vincent Bishop died from the combined effects of amphetamines and the chair.

In 2003, Ray Charles Austin, a man with a history of mental illness, who attacked deputies in Gwinnett County, Georgia, died after being tasered repeatedly while in a restraint chair. The same thing happened to another Gwinnett County prisoner in 2004: Frederick Jerome Williams ended up in jail after his young son intending to call an ambulance, reported to 911 operators that his daddy was behaving strangely after stopping his epilepsy medicine. Williams died after being tasered by guards five times in 60 seconds.

In many of these cases, the restraint chair is just the casual setting for institutional violence or lack of regard for a prisoner’s well-being. Not surprisingly there have been many, albeit comparatively minor, complaints of chafing and nerve damage from the buckles. Besides concerns about the negative psychological effects of being bound and immobilized by an institutional authority, it seems that some chair-related deaths involve internal injuries suffered by “proper” positioning and confinement in the chairs. In 1995, the Hillsborough County Medical Officer ruled the death of Florida prisoner Shedrick Brown’s to be a homicide. Brown died of a stroke in a restraint chair after guards struggled to force him into the chair. Journalist Katalin Zentai died in 1996 after a 36-hour stay in a Connecticut Valley Hospital’s restraining chair left her with fatal blood clots in her lungs. Blood clots also killed Michael Valent in Utah in 1997—the resulting lawsuit netted his mother a $200,000 settlement, and convinced that state to stop using the chair. Other suits will no doubt follow, but will a change in local or federal policies come too?

The latest controversy associated with improper use of the restraining chair involved the U.S. military’s standard operating procedures use of the chair as a precursor to force-feeding. Allegedly detainees, who hunger strike in Guantanamo Bay, are held immobilized in the chair while nutrients are pumped to the stomach through the nose. So far, no deaths have been reported. Stay tuned …

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