By Celia Hack / KMUW
Law enforcement officials say the chair is needed for those who harm themselves or others, but civil rights organizations worry it can be abused.
Since Jeff Easter took office as Sedgwick County sheriff in 2012, one topic has risen to the forefront again and again: How to handle people in jail with mental illness.
In 2014, he oversaw the opening of the jail’s first mental health pod, a section of the jail designed specifically for people with mental illness.
In 2019, Easter joined the Mental Health & Substance Abuse coalition, a county-wide collaboration between government, nonprofits and businesses to streamline mental health services.
In February, the county joined a national initiative to reduce the number of people in jail with mental illness — an estimated one-third in Sedgwick County.
But one way the Sedgwick County sheriff deals with people with mental illness has received less attention: the use of restraint chairs, which strap people by their arms, legs and torso into an upright sitting position.
“We have to have some way to restrain people from hurting themselves and us … and other inmates,” Easter said. “And the restraint chair is the safest way to do that, in our opinion.”
Restraint chairs are used in jails around the country. But organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas oppose their use due to safety and human rights concerns. Utah banned them in jails following an in-custody death that some blamed on the restraint chair.
The use of restraint systems in jails and correctional facilities are under particular scrutiny in Wichita following the death of 17-year-old Cedric Lofton in 2021. Lofton died after being restrained facedown at a Sedgwick County juvenile corrections facility by officers there. He was in the midst of a mental health crisis.
Restraint chairs safer than alternatives, law enforcement says
Restraint chairs rose to prominence in the 1990s, said Greg Etter, a former Sedgwick County sheriff’s lieutenant and professor of criminal justice at the University of Central Missouri. At the time, they were implemented as a safety measure to prevent in-custody deaths, he said.
“They have a restraint chair because that eliminated the hog-tying prone position,” Etter said. “People in the hog-tied prone position were subject to something called positional asphyxia.”
Lofton was not restrained in this manner. But he was restrained face down on the floor of a juvenile corrections facility for more than 30 minutes before dying of cardiopulmonary arrest. The Sedgwick County’s Department of Corrections, which oversees juvenile detention facilities but not the jail, stopped using restraint chairs in its juvenile detention facility in 2011.
The jail relies on restraint chairs frequently, Easter said. So far in 2022, it’s been used113 times.
Not all of the uses are mental health-related. According to the sheriff’s policy, people can be put in the restraint chair if they “must be protected from harming him/herself or others” or “for the welfare of an inmate in an escalating situation.” The chair is not supposed to be used as punishment.
Easter said that the restraint chair is not the first line of treatment for mental illness in jail. He said the jail’s medical staff includes behavioral care providers. And he told The Wichita Beacon that the jail is looking to replace two unfilled corrections positions with social workers.
But Easter said there are times when the restraint chair is necessary because his office cannot forcibly medicate people without a court order. For example, he said he needed the restraint chair to stop a person from blinding himself.
“Unless they’re a harm to themselves … the restraint chair isn’t used very often, especially with mentally ill patients,” Easter said. “Most of the time we can talk them down.”
The policy does not include a hard limit on how long someone can remain in the chair. Staff make the determination based on the inmate’s behavior.
The sheriff’s policy also mandates a sheriff’s deputy videotapes the incident and checks on people in the chair every 15 minutes. Medical staff have to check on people in the chair, too.
Civil rights organizations worry chairs can be misused
While Easter thinks the chair is necessary, many organizations have called for jails to ban restraint chairs altogether — including the ACLU of Kansas, Amnesty International and the United Nations Committee Against Torture.
“We do believe that they are a really dangerous tool,” said Micah Kubic, the executive director of the Kansas chapter of the ACLU. “And they have a record of contributing to really serious harm, and in many cases death, of folks who are in custody.”
A review by the Marshall Project found restraint chairs linked to 20 jail deaths between 2014 and 2020, many from blood clots resulting from long periods of time in the same position.
Kubic said he worries that Sedgwick County’s restraint policy — which says the chair can be used “for the welfare of an inmate in an escalating situation” — is too vague.
“In the jail context, just about anything could be argued to be an escalating situation,” Kubic said. “I found that particular provision to be very broad and ripe for interpretation in a way that lends itself to abuse.”
That was Eric Pike’s feeling when he was booked into the Sedgwick County jail in July 2014, for failure to license his dog and violations of the city’s dangerous dog statute. Documents from the sheriff’s office show that Pike was put in the restraint chair because he failed to follow instructions to stop kicking the door of his cell. Pike said he was kicking the door to try to get an officer’s attention because his handcuffs were too tight.
Officers pushed pressure points below Pike’s jaw and struck his thigh to get him into the chair, according to documents from the sheriff’s office.
“When they used the pressure points … I screamed like a girl,” Pike said. “I screamed at the top of my lungs.”
The records show that Pike defecated and urinated on himself during the incident. Pike thinks the incident resulted in a hernia. Medical records from the jail show his complaints about a hernia in the weeks following the incident.
Pike’s mother, Marcia, said she cried when she read the records showing the restraint incident.
“I used to think that when he was in jail, he was safe,” she said. “I never believe that anymore.”
Her biggest concern was that the chair seemed to be used as punishment, which is counter to the sheriff’s policy.
“It just doesn’t seem right,” Marcia Pike said. “He was already in a locked room with handcuffs on. He wasn’t going to hurt himself. He wasn’t going to hurt anyone else. He was just being annoying kicking on the door.”
Easter said that the chair was not used as a punishment, but that Pike was put into it because he resisted officers when they took him out of the cell.
“If they resist us and fight us while we’re pulling them out, could they be put in the restraint chair then? Yeah, they could be,” Easter said. “But it appears to me in this, he brought that onto himself. … He resisted, he spit, he kicked, according to these reports.”
The reports state Pike resisted when officers pulled him out of the cell to take him to the restraint chair, which was after he was told to stop kicking the door. They also say he spit, but after he was already in the chair.
Kubic said instances like Pike’s are what concerns him about the Sedgwick County restraint chair policy. He added that even if the restraint chair is an improvement over the prone position, the chairs still fall short of the level of care and human dignity people in jail should receive — particularly for those in a mental health crisis.
“In almost all cases, the response to a mental health crisis should be mental health treatment,” Kubic said. “Not punitive, not punishment, not a carceral penal activity.”
This article was republished here with the permission of: KMUW