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Chair’s Use on Inmates Banned at Jail

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Finding that Ventura County jailers have misused a special chair, a federal judge has ordered the Sheriff’s Department to employ other means to restrain belligerent inmates while they are being booked into County Jail.

U.S. District Judge Lourdes Baird in Los Angeles sided with attorneys for four former inmates from Ventura and Oxnard who claim they were tortured for nothing worse than their bad attitudes by being strapped and shackled into the narrow, high-backed chair for five to seven hours.

The judge ruled Friday that the plaintiffs were likely to win their civil rights lawsuit. Ventura County may have violated inmate rights, she said, because it has no clear policies on when the “Pro-Straint” chair should be used and for how long.

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“Data . . . shows that the [Sheriff’s Department’s] misuse of that chair flows from a practice of restraining nonviolent arrestees for extended periods of time in violation of the arrestees’ 14th Amendment rights,” she wrote in a 50-page decision. “The policy allows deputies to require restrained arrestees to either urinate or defecate on themselves and be forced to sit in their own feces or ‘hold it.’ ”

She did not, however, ban use of the chair at other institutions. Such restraint chairs are used in 48 of 58 California counties and in state and federal prisons, officials said.

In response to the order, the Sheriff’s Department is now using different ways to restrain combative inmates during booking, officials said. One man arrested during the weekend was placed in belly chains and shackles as an alternative, they said. The chair had been used as a humane alternative to more forceful means, they said.

“What the judge did was take us back 15 years in how we restrain violent inmates,” said Cmdr. Mark Ball, a jail administrator.

“This chair is absolutely the most humane method of restraining a violent individual.

“Yes, they are uncomfortable,” he added. “But I liken it to spending five hours in a coach seat flying back to the East Coast. The only difference is that the Pro-Straint chair reclines more.”

County attorney Alan Wisotsky said he expects to file an appeal with the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, seeking immediate relief. A decision could come within two weeks, he said.

“I’m confident that when this case goes to trial in January, the jury will conclude there was not a constitutional violation in any of these cases,” he said.

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Despite Baird’s finding that Ventura County’s guidelines give jail supervisors too much discretion, Wisotsky said the county follows almost exactly a set of rules written by the state.

“We have not abused the use of that chair,” Wisotsky said.

Chief Deputy Kenneth Kipp, who oversees jail operations, said that while it is true jail supervisors use their own judgment of when the chair is needed, there are myriad rules on how it should be used.

A deputy checks on a restrained inmate’s condition every 15 minutes, a sergeant checks in every two hours, and a nurse evaluates an inmate’s condition initially and every two hours thereafter.

The lawsuit notes that one inmate was left in the chair for 32 hours, but Kipp said that was the extreme case. The average time is about two hours, he said.

“What are we asking a person to do?” Kipp said. “We’re asking a person to sit down. We only use this for people that truly represent a threat to themselves, to other inmates or to staff.”

But lawyer Sam Paz, who represents the four former inmates, said his study of County Jail bookings during an 18-month period in 1996-97 revealed 377 cases where inmates were strapped in the chair. It is clear, he said, that Ventura County used the chair improperly for punishment.

“And I think this ruling sends an important message to many of these jails and prisons that are using new technology,” he said, “and the message is that you still have to be very careful about avoiding torture in dealing with prisoners. . . . Many detainees were recorded crying and begging to be let out of this torturous chair.”

Paz cites the case of John Von Colln, 40, of Oxnard, who was strapped naked in the chair for five hours--until he defecated and urinated on himself.

“He was then forced to clean up after himself with his bare hands,” Paz said.

Kipp said Von Colln, who was drunk and admits no memory of the incident, took off his own clothes. “We don’t put naked people in the chair,” Kipp said.

Paz said one woman inmate--whom he now represents because the judge expanded the suit to a class action for all affected inmates--was placed in the chair naked and forced to suffer the taunting and ridicule of male officers for hours. When she cried and complained to be released a hood was placed on her head, he said.

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Kipp said he could not comment on the woman’s case.

He said that the 377 chair uses cited by Paz represent just a tiny fraction of the 45,000 inmates booked into the jail during the period studied.

The Pro-Straint chair, manufactured for a decade by an Oregon firm, faces a spate of court challenges nationwide. Lawsuits tell of mentally ill jail and prison inmates strapped in the chair for hours at a time. Tennessee inmates filed suit in 1994 alleging that the chair damaged their blood vessels.

One Utah inmate died in March 1997 after being strapped in the chair.

The U.S. Department of Justice has filed its own legal actions in Louisiana and Arizona to stop the use of the chair because they allege it has been used for punishment.

“In those situations it was abundantly clear there were abuses,” said the county’s Wisotsky. “But that is not the case here.”


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