Arrested on suspicion of public intoxication, Kurt Von Colln said he was strapped naked to a restraining chair at the Ventura County Jail for five hours, during which time he was given no choice but to relieve himself where he sat.
Keith George Stringer, arrested after a domestic dispute, said he was kept tied to the same chair, also for five hours, despite his pleas for water and access to the restroom.
And Eric Pratt said he suffered injuries to his back, hands and feet from the seven hours he spent in the restraining chair, following his arrest on suspicion of loitering and public drunkenness.
The three former inmates appeared at a news conference Tuesday to describe their time in the custody of Ventura County sheriff’s deputies, a week after a federal judge banned the use of the special chair at the county’s jail facilities.
The ruling, by U.S. District Judge Lourdes Baird in Los Angeles, came as part of a civil rights lawsuit the former inmates filed against the county Sheriff’s Department over its use of the “Pro-Straint” chair.
While the device, with ankle and wrist restraints, is designed to control violent inmates, the judge agreed with the plaintiffs’ lawyers that deputies also used it to punish inmates who had done nothing more than display a “bad attitude.”
Baird also certified the case as a class-action lawsuit, enabling other former and current county inmates to join the case.
Officials with the Sheriff’s Department said the judge’s decision to ban the use of the chair pending trial was based on inaccurate information, and they expressed confidence the injunction would be lifted after the case is heard in court.
“This is an advanced correctional tool to restrain violent individuals . . . that basically gets them to sit down and calm down,” said Ken Kipp, chief deputy of the county’s detention services.
But lawyers for the former inmates called the chair a barbaric device used to torture people in custody, some of whom, they said, are mentally ill.
Von Colln, an Oxnard resident who suffers from bipolar depression, said at the news conference that he found himself at County Jail 3 1/2 years ago after a bike-riding accident rendered him unconscious. He said when he asked why he was detained, the deputies ignored him.
“So I started singing hymns and songs, and they didn’t like that,” Von Colln said.
He was then strapped naked into the restraining chair for five hours, and during that time soiled himself. Rather than permitting him to get out of the chair to clean himself, he allegedly was forced to wipe himself with his bare hands.
His mother, Sandra Von Colln, said her son has not recovered from the humiliating experience, and that it may have set him back in terms of his mental illness.
“We worked so hard to help him, and then this puts it in reverse,” she said.
Deputies who arrested Pratt in 1997 on suspicion of public intoxication said he resisted arrest, and so was strapped into the chair when he arrived at the jail.
After seven hours under restraint, Pratt said, his feet and hands were swollen and covered with bruises. Pratt, an Oxnard resident who manages a pizza restaurant, said during the seven hours he pleaded to be released so he could use the restroom, but deputies allegedly told him he could urinate on himself.
“Am I some type of dog, some type of animal?” asked the 26-year-old Pratt, after the news conference. “So I just sat there and held it.”
Alan Wisotsky, special counsel to the Sheriff’s Department, downplayed the accounts, and said the plaintiffs during the time they were in custody posed a threat to the safety of themselves and the jail staff.
What the former inmates said “is nothing more than their interpretation of an event they created,” Wisotsky said.
But Baird found plaintiffs’ stories convincing enough to justify the ban.
Stringer, a Ventura resident, said his time in custody after an argument with his wife was the most humiliating experience in his life.
“I thank God we got a restraining order, because this should not be happening in this day and age,” he said.