Prisons and Jails Still Use the ‘Devil’s Chair.’ It’s Been Used for Torture.

Several reports have recently surfaced of people being mistreated using restraint chairs—even resulting in death, in extreme circumstances.
August 9, 2021, 1:35pm
In this photo reviewed by the U.S. military, a U.S. Navy medical personel stand next to a chair with restraints, used for force-feeding.
In this photo reviewed by the U.S. military, a U.S. Navy medical personel stand next to a chair with restraints, used for force-feeding. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

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A man thrown in jail over two traffic offenses in Clayton County, Georgia, was allegedly strapped into what’s been described as a “devil’s chair” for several hours. He was then covered with a hood, beaten, and photographed, according to a new federal indictment against the local sheriff.

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Restraint chairs, which allow law enforcement to pin down a person’s arms, legs, and torso, are typically reserved for instances where a detainee has been deemed a danger to themselves, others, and property. But they’ve also been used to punish people in jails and prisons across the United States, including at the Clayton County Jail, according to the indictment filed July 29 in a U.S. district court in the civil rights case against Sheriff Victor Hill.

Over the years, several other reports have surfaced of people being mistreated using restraint chairs—even resulting in death, in extreme circumstances. As a result, some jurisdictions have banned or restricted the chairs to avoid further problems, while human rights advocates have pressed for their abolition nationwide.

In one of the most horrifying cases, a mentally ill man stopped breathing and died less than an hour after he was released from a restraint chair in the San Luis Obispo County jail, according to the Los Angeles Times. The man had been left naked and shackled for nearly two days after he’d repeatedly struck himself in the head and face. After the incident, the county said it would no longer use the chair.

“Unfortunately, when you give law enforcement these tools, they will often misuse them and use them in inappropriate ways.”

The man detained at the Clayton County Jail was allegedly dropped off in May 2020 after a state trooper arrested him for speeding and driving with a suspended license, according to last month’s indictment. As sheriff, Hill allegedly ordered officers to put the man, described only as “W.T.” in court documents, in the controversial device, as he’d allegedly demanded with other detainees that year. W.T., who was struck twice by what he “believed to be a fist” despite not being physically aggressive, was also photographed by one officer who “covered the blood on W.T.’s jail uniform with a white paper smock,” according to the indictment. At one point, W.T. urinated in the chair.

The Clayton County Sheriff’s Office policy was that restraint chairs only be used in situations where an inmate was so violent or uncontrollable that it was necessary to “prevent self-injury, injury to others or property damage,” particularly when other techniques hadn’t been effective, according to the indictment. The devices were also never meant to be used as a form of punishment, which manufacturers and other law enforcement officials have explicitly warned against in the past. 

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Hill approved the sheriff’s office’s policy himself, according to the indictment against him. Yet he allegedly didn’t enforce it. Now, he’s facing a total of five charges of violating inmates’ constitutional rights. (While he was originally indicted in April, the superseding indictment filed last week added W.T’s allegations against the sheriff.)

In 2020 alone, the restraint chair was used against several detainees in the Clayton County Jail, according to the indictment: a man accused of assaulting two women, a 17-year-old who’d allegedly vandalized his home during an argument with his mother, a person accused of a domestic disturbance, a man who’d gotten into a payment dispute with one of Hill’s deputies before he was charged with “harassing communications,” and W.T.

Hill has pleaded not guilty to all of the accusations against him. When asked for comment, Hill’s attorney, Drew Findling, directed VICE News to statements he'd made about the new charge to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Those comments, which referenced an earlier motion to dismiss the April indictment, also noted that nobody had alleged Hill either assaulted or directed the assault of anyone. 

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“The superseding indictment is a desperate Hail Mary by the government in response to Sheriff Hill’s powerful motion to dismiss,” Findling told the paper. “The allegation contained in the additional count was known to the government for over a year and clearly not included by the government in the initial indictment.”

Since Hill was first charged and suspended from his post by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, an Instagram page has posted several screenshots of adoring emails and social media posts from apparent fans, including one that describes him as “THE BEST SHERIFF Clayton County has ever had!” 

Possible torture 

Two decades ago, in 2000, the United Nations Committee Against Torture urged U.S. officials to outright abolish restraint chairs and stun belts—two methods of controlling people that the panel thought might ''almost invariably” lead to breaches of the international treaty against torture, according to the New York Times. Despite that, restraint chairs managed to proliferate in detention facilities nationwide—regardless of whether they held pretrial detainees not yet convicted of a crime or supermax prisoners. 

Amnesty International also urged officials to ban restraint chairs, in part because “they are so easily deployed, and their use is virtually unregulated in many jurisdictions,” according to a paper the organization published on the issue in 2002. That, too, had little obvious effect. By 2006, it was reported that guards at Guantánamo Bay were using the chairs to force-feed detainees who were on hunger strike. 

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While strapping down a person who’s a danger to themselves or others might be helpful in some circumstances, the practice can quickly start to look like torture when combined with excessive force or humiliation, according to Justin Mazzola, the deputy director of research for Amnesty International USA.

“Unfortunately, when you give law enforcement these tools, they will often misuse them and use them in inappropriate ways,” Mazzola said.

That might include leaving people in the chairs for hours until they soil themselves or tasing and hitting them while they’re strapped down, he said.

“That’s where you really cross that line from when something like this could be warranted to where you’re actually torturing an individual or subjecting them to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment,” Mazzola said. 

In Tennessee, for instance, a Cheatham County corrections officer was caught on video repeatedly tasing a defenseless teenager strapped to a restraint chair. The officer was sentenced to five years in prison last year for the 2016 incident, but the teen was reportedly never the same and died of a drug overdose in his home two years after the encounter, according to WTVF, a CBS affiliate in Nashville. 

More recently, an elderly Ohio man alleged in a lawsuit this year that Hamilton County jailers once put him in a restraint chair for several hours after he refused a strip search. While bound to the chair, the man urinated on himself and had to sit in his waste for hours, according to his complaint. He wasn’t the only one subjected to that kind of treatment, either: The lawsuit alleged that hundreds of inmates were similarly restrained every year, largely because they were deemed “uncooperative.” 

Even jail staff have, in some instances, appeared to fight back against misuse of restraint chairs. A lieutenant at a New Jersey jail recently sued her director over allegations that she was retaliated against for speaking out after the director ordered a verbally abusive inmate into a restraint chair as punishment.

But Hill’s attorneys, in their motion to dismiss the indictment last month, argued that detainees weren’t significantly injured or subjected to violent acts due to the Clayton County Jail’s restraint chairs, despite the government’s claims. Furthermore, since deploying the widely used chairs didn’t “constitute excessive force under clearly established law,” Hill didn’t have fair warning that his conduct was criminal, the attorneys said.

“This court should dismiss the indictment because Sheriff Hill did not have fair warning that his use of a restraint chair, which is a common law enforcement tool, violated the Constitution,” the attorneys wrote, “and allowing this prosecution to proceed would work a constitutional crisis all on its own.”