I-Team | Dozens of inmates die in restraint chairs

I-Team | Dozens of inmates die in restraint chairs


by STUART WATSON / NBC Charlotte

Bio | Email | Follow: @stuartwcnc


Posted on December 30, 2013 at 6:31 PM

Updated Tuesday, Dec 31 at 5:16 AM

YORK, S.C. -- After learning that two detainees died in the same restraint chair in York, South Carolina, the NBC Charlotte I-Team launched a nationwide investigation of deaths in the chairs.

As mentally ill and drug and alcohol-impaired detainees shift from hospital and clinic settings to county jails, the  I-Team counted more than three dozen men and women who have died in restraint chairs in county jails from Washington state to Florida, including at least four in the Carolinas.

While the U.S. Department of Justice and its Bureau of Justice Statistics tries to track jail and prison deaths, no one is systematically counting deaths in restraints, leading to questions of under-reporting.

Some jails have stopped using the restraint chair after settling multiple lawsuits for millions of dollars, but there is no widespread ban on the chairs, despite a call for a ban from human rights groups, including Amnesty International.


One of the most troubling of those deaths: Sean Levert, the oldest son of Eddie Levert, the lead singer for the classic R&B band the O’Jays. Sean and his brother Gerald had hits of their own on the R&B and Hip Hop charts.

Sean Levert never lived to see the age of 40.

Withdrawing from Xanax and suffering from hallucinations, Levert died after being forced into a restraint chair by detention officers in Cleveland, OH. Cuyahoga County settled a lawsuit over the death for $4 million.

Some of the last images of Levert’s life were recorded as guards wrestled him into the chair and he repeatedly screamed, “No! No! No!”


Christopher Mason Armstrong had dropped out of NC State, his father’s Alma mater. Locked up on assault charges over the Christmas holiday, guards strapped him in a restraint chair in the Guilford County Jail for more than 24 hours continuously.

As soon as he could move, his body threw a blood clot and he died.

The county settled a lawsuit for $475,000, but the Sheriff defended his employees as having done nothing wrong.


Ricardo Garza was locked up in the Cleveland County Jail on a charge of DWI – driving while impaired.

Withdrawing from alcohol, he threw himself against a cell wall. Jailers strapped him in a restraint chair. He broke a rib and died with a punctured lung.

His daughter said he was never a violent man.

The Sheriff said Garza “never asked” to go to the hospital.

Cleveland County settled a lawsuit for an undisclosed amount.


Jeff Waddell was treated and released back to jailers at the Moss Justice Center in York County SC, when he was strapped in a restraint chair and wheeled into the jail because officers said he was “disruptive”.

He had an epileptic seizure, a condition his captors were well aware of, and choked on his own vomit and died.

A South Carolina insurance pool settled a lawsuit over Jeff Waddell’s death for $930,000 but never admitted wrongdoing.

“They have power,” said his mother Jeanne Waddell, in an interview. “They can get by with stuff.”

Ms. Waddell said her son had demanded mental health treatment long before he was jailed. “

And they told him ‘No.’ And he stayed there until they did and I know because I took him,” she said.

The I-Team found several cases where detainees or their family members called police or jailers for help, only to have their loved ones jailed and strapped in restraint chairs to die.


Nick Christie was a retired boilermaker from the Cleveland OH area who went to visit his brother in Florida. Christie went off his meds for mania, according to his widow, who personally called down to the jail to ask them to look out after her husband.

“He’s off his medicine. He’s manic. He’s a little far gone – more than manic,” Joyce Christie said in a recorded phone call.

Police arrested him for trespassing at a fast food restaurant next door to his hotel. Calling him “combative,” jailers strapped him in a restraint chair and soaked him in pepper spray. He died.

“He was a mentally ill guy that was strapped in a chair naked,” said Joyce Christie. “He didn’t deserve to be treated like that. All he needed was a hospital.”

The county paid out $4 million to settle a lawsuit over Nick Christie’s death. No jailers were disciplined or charged.


Christopher Parker called 911 saying someone was out to get him and admitted using meth. The Spokane Fire Department paramedics cleared him as well-enough to be transferred to waiting police, who arrested and jailed him on an outstanding warrant.

Jailers called him unruly and strapped him in a restraint chair. He died.

“He wasn’t afraid to ask for help,” said his father, Daniel Parker, in an interview with KREM-TV. “That’s what he did – he called them and asked for help.”

A lawsuit is pending.

“Really they ought to be banned outright,” attorney Mike Manning says of the restraint chairs. Manning has filed four lawsuits over deaths in restraint chairs, three of them in Maricopa County, Arizona. Manning says sheriffs and wardens are on notice. “They’ve been warned (the chairs) are too damned dangerous.”

Manning’s first restraint chair case was Scott Norberg, who suffocated after jailers forced him in a restraint chair in what is called “positional asphyxia,” his head forced between his knees.

One fellow inmate testified that guards were beating Norberg.

A female officer, Kimberly Walsh, gave a sworn deposition in the lawsuit saying she warned fellow officers, “I told him he wasn’t breathing and he was turning purple and he said, ‘Who gives a f---? He’s still going to fight.’”
The resulting lawsuit over Norberg’s death ended in a judgment of more than $8 million.

But it wasn’t until two more deaths in restraint chair in the same Maricopa County Jail-- and two more multi-million dollar lawsuits, that Sheriff Joe Arpaio retired the restraint chair.

“As long as these chairs are used, there will be more deaths,” said Mike Manning, the plaintiff’s attorney. “Because of the mental health of detainees, the impairment issues, there will be more deaths.”
But in South Carolina, jail inspectors don’t even keep track of the deaths in restraints or the lawsuits and settlements paid out as the result of them.

“I’m not aware of it,” said Blake Taylor, who supervises jail inspections for South Carolina’s Department of Corrections.

Taylor was not even aware that the state had paid out a $930,000 settlement in the case of Jeff Waddell in York County.

“I don’t have any information on that,” Taylor said in an interview. “It was not reported to me about the settlement.”

South Carolina law requires local jails to file a written report with Taylor’s office after every jail death. But the I-Team found no mention of the restraint chair in the reports, even in cases like Jeff Waddell, who died after being strapped in the chair.

“We know there are many more of these deaths caused by misuse of the restraint chair than we’ll ever know about,” said attorney Mike Manning.

Joshua Grose was violently mentally ill. He had been arrested for running over his own stepmother and a neighbor woman in a stolen car, killing them.

Jailers wrestled with Grose to try to stop him from banging his head against his cell wall and toilet.                      
Grose bloodied his head and a detention officer called 911 to ask paramedics to treat him.

“Uh – had a subject resist on ‘em and they had to deal with him,” the caller told the operator.

Paramedics did not transport Grose to Piedmont Medical saying he did not require stitches.

Within two hours he was dead.

York County Coroner Sabrina Gast ruled the death a suicide by blunt force trauma to the head.

Blake Taylor, the jail inspector, defends the Sheriff’s officers: “My preliminary review has satisfied me thus far that it was handled as well as could be under the circumstances.”

A State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) investigation is pending.

The NBC Charlotte I-Team has a pending Freedom Of Information request for all videos of Grose’s treatment in the Moss Justice Center.


“They’re really not equipped to cope with these folks or to help them,” said Dr. Pleas Geyer, a psychiatrist at Carolinas Medical Center’s Billingsley Road hospital which routinely treats the mentally ill.

Dr. Geyer treats patients who are a danger to themselves and others, and says he never uses a restraint chair like many jails do.

Instead he relies on a series of techniques that allow the patient to talk, that isolate the patient with a staff member, and when pressed, relies on bed restraints and sedatives.

So there are never tasers or pepper spray or punching patients to force them into restraints, he says.

But while psychiatrists view restraints as a last resort, detention officers see them as necessary force to protect the prisoner from himself and the staff from the detainee.

“If you watch this video you should understand how to use the chair correctly,” says a training video from E.R.C. Inc., one manufacturer of the so-called “emergency restraint chair.”

The video teaches officers how to tighten straps but relies on a “lovely assistant” to demonstrate, far from the kicking and screaming inmate detention officers frequently face in the real world.

“Hopefully if they’re violent they have the leg irons and handcuffs on,” the video instructs.

But at the South Carolina Justice Academy, the training manual for detention officers is rarely based on hope.

“If you get into a wrestling match, then people are going to get hurt,” said Dr. Geyer. That’s why he says nurses are trained to back off and let patients vent.

Jails typically don’t have that “luxury”, and detention officers are not trained to deal with psychotic detainees. Couple that with laws and public policy that have pushed the mentally ill out of hospitals and into jails.

“The psychiatric population in this country has been transferred from hospitals and clinics to jails,” said Dr. Geyer.

So York County, like every other jail, has to learn to better deal with people who are profoundly mentally ill.

“I hope we learn, and I hope we make some changes,” said Jeanne Waddell, whose son Jeff died in the restraint chair. “It’s really, really, really needed.”

Because life is precious, lawsuits are expensive and mentally ill detainees are still bound for jails more than hospitals.