Experts disagree on effectiveness, appropriateness of restraint chairs

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comNovember 30, 2013 


— In the aftermath of a double homicide suspect’s death in a jail cell in October, York County officials are considering changing procedures used when placing an inmate in a restraint chair, the device that held Joshua Matthew Grose in place after he fought with officers and tried to drown himself in a toilet last month.

Kris Jordan, attorney for the York County Sheriff’s Office, said York County Detention Center officials are reviewing how restraint chairs are kept in place when inmates are strapped in them and what other devices might be available to restrain combative detainees.

But jail administrators, an attorney and a corrections expert have widely varying opinions on whether restraint chairs should be used at all. Some say they are effective for subduing violent inmates, while others argue that the devices are demeaning and cause more harm than good.

“I know there are some facilities that use them and have success using them,” said Major Neal Urch, operations director at the Spartanburg County Detention Center, where restraint chairs are no longer used. “We’ve been successful enough by treating people like human beings and having them comply.”

On Oct. 18, deputies charged Grose, 34, with two counts of murder and one count of attempted murder after they say he stole neighbor Sandra Thomas’ car and ran over her and his stepmother, Sandra Grose, 65, killing them both. Authorities say he also nearly beat to death his uncle, Curt Allan Sisk, 60.

Grose died two days later, after a nearly two-hour struggle with detention center guards in which he became violent and combative. He fought against officers, even grabbing onto one’s legs, after they tried to stop him from banging his head repeatedly against a wall.

Officials placed Grose, wearing a football helmet, in a restraint chair, but he continued to struggle. Jailers put him in a cell, but the chair was positioned in a way that allowed him to throw his head backward against the chair and a cell window. He was found unresponsive at about 2:30 a.m.

After performing CPR for nearly 20 minutes, an EMS crew took him to Piedmont Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.

Preliminary autopsy results show that he died of blunt force trauma to the head, said York County Coroner Sabrina Gast. She expects to receive full autopsy results this month, before she completes her report establishing an official cause of death.

The State Law Enforcement Division is investigating Grose’s death.

SLED also is investigating the death of William Blinn, a burglary suspect who hanged himself with bed sheets while in a detention center cell. He was taken to Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, where he died 10 hours later from injuries suffered during his suicide attempt.

York County Detention Center policies require detention staff to file a repot any time an “intractable, violent, combative or uncontrollable” inmate is placed in a restraint chair. The report must include the name of the inmate and all staff involved, the date and time of restraint, where the restraint took place, reasons for using the chair, and any injuries to the inmate or staff.

An inmate placed in a restraint chair must be checked every 15 minutes, and those contacts must be logged in on a pink suicide watch sheet posted outside his cell.

Jail surveillance video – which officials displayed for reporters but have not released to the public for fear it would pose a security risk – shows officers checking on Grose about every eight minutes, each time writing on the suicide watch log.

The York County Sheriff’s Office declined to release the documents showing restraint measures detention center officials used on Grose, as well as his suicide watch logs.

Those reports “are part of the evidence being used in the pending coroner and SLED investigations,” Jordan said.

State standards

The York County Detention Center’s restraint policies meet the state’s minimum guidelines for detention centers and jails. The facility, housing on average more than 500 inmates, received only one citation during its 2012 state inspection.

But state guidelines require only that local jails and detention centers draft written policies and procedures detailing the use of restraint as a security precaution during transfer or temporary emergencies, for medical reasons as directed by a physician or responsible medical authority, or at the discretion of the facility’s manager to prevent an inmate from injuring himself or others.

Each detention center is tasked with writing its own facility guidelines, which state inspectors evaluate each year to ensure they are “reasonable,” non-punitive and not excessive, said Blake Taylor, director of the state Department of Corrections’ compliance and inspections division.

“We don’t micromanage or spell out everything that goes in that,” Taylor said.

Prospective detention center employees must take a class at the state Criminal Justice Academy, where they are taught that use of force must be reasonable and necessary and cannot go beyond what’s needed to get an inmate under control.

Academy instructors tout restraint chairs as a useful tool to control violent inmates for medical and safety reasons. According to the academy’s curriculum, they warn that the devices “should be used in a humane manner and only applied when and for as long as necessary.”

The jailhouse video shows that Grose, while nude but later partially covered with a towel or blanket, was placed in the chair at about 1:08 a.m. More than an hour later, after struggling with jail guards, being outfitted with a spit hood – a cloth mask placed over an inmate’s head to prevent him from spitting on officers – and a football helmet, Grose was still hitting his head against the jail cell window.

Later, officials realized he was not breathing.

Standards outlined by the American Correctional Association, a national accreditation organization, dictates that detention centers visually observe each inmate in the jail cell every 15 minutes after there has been an assessment by a health authority. They also must document all decisions and actions taken while the inmate is in a restraint chair.

Detention center staffers did that, sheriff’s office officials have said.

Constant supervision

But Robert Phillips – a Rock Hill attorney who three years ago reached a nearly $1 million settlement after challenging the York County Detention Center’s restraint policies – says 15-minute checks might not be frequent enough.

In 2006, inmate Jeffrey Waddell died after being left in a restraint chair while he suffered a seizure and began to vomit and foam at the mouth, said Phillips, a personal injury and medical malpractice attorney with McGowan Hood & Felder in Rock Hill.

Because his restrained position prevented him bending over to clear his airway, Phillips said, Waddell began aspirating, breathing fluid into his lungs that led to his drowning on his own vomit.

“When you’re put in a restraint chair, you need to have constant supervision,” Phillips said. “Constant supervision means I sit there and watch you and make sure nothing happens to you. It’s one of the most helpless positions a human being can be in.”

Jordan, the sheriff’s attorney, said Waddell suffered from an atypical seizure disorder and mental health issues. Based on conversations with his neurologist, his mother and Waddell himself, jail guards realized he was violent. He refused to take his medications and “had a history of faking seizures,” she said.

Waddell had been in the detention center for three months, charged with assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature while on probation for the same charge.

At one point, Jordan said, jail officials took him to Piedmont Medical Center for an evaluation and tried to take him to a mental health facility, but no beds were available. Back at the facility, Waddell became disruptive and was placed in a restraint chair. He began having another seizure, but officers believed it was a typical seizure that would end quickly.

Waddell’s seizure continued until he died.

His family filed a lawsuit against the sheriff’s office, alleging that his constitutional rights had been violated and that detention center officials were deliberately indifferent when they ignored Waddell’s condition. In 2010, the sheriff’s office agreed to settle the lawsuit for more than $900,000.

Preparing for every possible situation is impossible, Phillips said, but common sense should come into play.

“There’s no rule that says you can’t put a stick of dynamite between (an inmate’s) head and the back of the chair,” he said. “You wouldn’t do that because that’s stupid. If you have constant supervision and you see a guy banging his head against the wall, you move him.

“I give them a pass on the very first bang on his head. The second bam, bam, bam … they’ve got some responsibility.”

After completing an internal investigation, sheriff’s office officials determined that detention center officials followed all policies and procedures in dealing with Grose.

“They used ingenuity to try and protect Mr. Grose from his self-destructive behavior,” Jordan said during a Nov. 12 press conference. “Our officers are cursed at, they’re spit on, they have urine and feces thrown at them.

“When our officers come to work each day … they also have to deal with these types of issues that’s common for them every day.”

Use of force is allowed to maintain order and protect the detainee, other inmates and staff, Jordan said.

Restraint chairs, Taylor said, are a “commonly accepted way of trying to control behavior to prevent people from hurting others, or hurting themselves if they are acting wildly.”

Other options

Brad Tripp, a Winthrop University sociology professor who teaches classes in criminology, deviance and corrections, is not a big fan of the use of restraint chairs in jails, but he says they sometimes are necessary.

“I don’t think it’s a great thing,” he said, “but if you have people who are willing and eager to do harm to themselves and your job is to stop them from doing so, unfortunately, sometimes you have to.

“When you’ve got people who are mentally ill being dealt with by corrections officers instead of mental health professionals, there are (only) so many thing you can do as an officer.”

York County Detention Center guards can use handcuffs, plastic “flex cuffs,” leg irons, waist chains, protective helmets or four-point restraints that bind an inmate’s arms and legs to stop them from moving, according to jail procedures.

Policies suggest officers use restraint chairs for inmates who are destructive, combative or suffering from a mental disorder that makes them uncontrollable.

A watch commander or supervisor must authorize the use of a chair before an inmate is placed in one.

Medical professionals do not have to be involved unless an inmate is “four-pointed” – a procedure that restrains an inmate’s or patient’s legs and arms. Medical staff only become involved in restraining inmates when monitoring their medical status.

Jonathan McFadden •  803-329-4082

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