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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

County OKs Settlement Over Jail Restraint Chair

August 24, 2000|MATT SURMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The county has agreed to pay about $1 million in a settlement with four men who say they were harmed by a restraint chair while in jail custody, and has further agreed to a policy that limits use of the chair only to short periods.

In their lawsuit, the men contended they were tortured for nothing worse than their bad attitudes by being strapped and shackled into the narrow, high-backed "Pro-Straint" chair for as many as seven hours. The Sheriff's Department has been barred from using the chair since a 1999 ruling that said the department had no clear policies on when the chair should be used and for how long.

"We recognize that there were areas that needed improvement," sheriff's counsel Alan Wisotsky said. The county had believed "we were in full compliance, and [it has] come to our attention that's not entirely the case. That has been remedied."

The new policy allows restraint for only four hours, and requires that medical personnel offer the inmate water at least once an hour and the inmate be released from the restraint to use the bathroom.

This is in addition to rules that officials said were already in place before the lawsuit was filed, including that a deputy check a restrained inmate's condition every 15 minutes and a nurse evaluate an inmate's initial physical and mental state.

Advocates for the mentally ill and opponents of the chair say deputies use the restraint too often for punishment and the potential for abuse is too high, even with the county's concessions.

"I can't say this is vindication," said Sandra von Colln, mother of one of the plaintiffs. "It's very maddening to think they have a right to do this to a human being."

In 1997, von Colln's son, Kurt, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, was arrested on suspicion of public intoxication and spent five hours strapped in the chair, with von Colln alleging her son soiled himself and broke his ankle while strapped to the chair.

He and three other plaintiffs--Jeffrey Lloyd, Keith Stringer and Eric Pratt--will divide $500,000 and the county will pay their lawyers about $425,000 in legal fees.

The Sheriff's Department will now be able reinstate use of the chair once the two parties agree on a monitor who will check four times a year to ensure jailers are complying with the new policy, Wisotsky said. Selection of a monitor must be made within two months.

Neither Sheriff Bob Brooks nor his staff members returned phone calls Wednesday.

The Pro-Straint chair has faced a spate of court challenges nationwide. Tennessee inmates filed suit in 1994, alleging the chair damaged their blood vessels, and a Utah inmate died in 1997 after being strapped to the chair.

Makers of the Pro-Straint chair, manufactured since 1988 by AedecInternational of Beaverton, Ore., say it is designed as a humane alternative to more forceful means of restraining dangerous inmates. Such chairs are used in 48 of 58 California counties and in state and federal prisons.

"It doesn't violate their rights," said Dan Corcoran, the company's president. "It's just like getting in a car and putting on a seat belt."

When used properly, Corcoran said, the chair is a "lifesaver" that provides an alternative to chaining inmates to toilet grates or leaving them to throw themselves around their cells.

But Amnesty International, a human rights organization, has criticized the chair's use, saying it offers too much chance for abuse. The group even cited Ventura County in a recent report before the U.N. Committee Against Torture.

"We believe there's a tremendous potential for abuse with this type of restraint device," said Elaine Michetti of the organization's Los Angeles office. "There are large numbers of routine abuse of the chair against drunk or mentally ill people."

Amnesty has asked the federal government to investigate the chair's use nationwide.

Wisotsky argued the lawsuits had nothing to do with excessive force on the part of deputies, and that the department has fixed its policy. The chair will only be used after all other options are considered, the agreement said.

Advocates for the mentally ill who had been watching the case closely said they are relieved by the settlement, which they called a significant change.

"People are pretty much defenseless in that situation. It really looked like a prescription for disaster the way Ventura County was heading," said Ron Honberg, legal director for the National Assn. for the Mentally Ill in Arlington, Va. "We feel the settlement is a step in the right direction."

*

Times staff writer David Kelly contributed to this report.

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