The restraint chairs that have been linked to up to three inmate deaths in Maricopa County’s jails have been replaced by a new piece of furniture.
Four-point beds or “safe beds” will be used as a last resort to strap down inmates who pose a danger to themselves or authorities, Sheriff Joe Arpaio announced Monday during a press conference. The 35 plastic restraint chairs will no longer be used.
Arpaio would not say exactly why he has done away with the chairs, but said he “thought quickly” and decided to be “proactive” and “try something else.” The sheriff said the change has nothing to do with critics’ pressure to stop using the chairs or the lawsuits filed when inmates have died after being placed in the chair.
“It was my decision to keep them. Now it’s my decision to change it,” Arpaio said. The four-point beds use cuffs and a waist strap to restrain inmates in a lying-down position, whereas the chair held inmates sitting upright.
Some of the county’s most costly lawsuits are associated with the restraint chair. The chairs have been used at least 25 years in the jails, Arpaio said.
Scott Norberg, 33, died in 1996 after he was handcuffed, hit at least 21 times with a stun gun and placed in the chair in such a way that his airway was cut off, according to court records.
A medical examiner’s report listed Norberg’s cause of death as positional asphyxia, meaning the position he was placed in did not allow him to breathe. Arpaio said his staff did nothing wrong and that he wanted to go to trial, but the county settled for $8.25 million.
On Aug. 6, 2001, 33-yearold Charles Agster III, of Scottsdale stopped breathing in the restraint chair. His family removed him from life support three days later. The medical examiner concluded Agster died of “positional asphyxia due to restraint” and “acute drug intoxication,” but ruled the death an accident.
In 2003, Amnesty International listed at least 11 deaths linked to restraint chairs.
Arpaio still maintains that restraint chairs did not kill his inmates, and that methamphetamine in their systems was to blame. He said the chairs are used successfully all over the country and have been used about 6,000 times in county jails.
“When you have 10,000 people a day come through your jails, sometimes people pass away,” Arpaio said.
But many human rights organizations and defense attorneys disagree.
Michael Manning, who represented Norberg and Agster, said it is “gratifying” to know the chairs have finally been taken out of the jails.
“Of course it’s tragic it has taken so many deaths and injuries to get to this point,” he added.
Attorney Larry Debus, who represented Robert Dillon, a former detainee who received a $135,000 settlement from the county, said the four-point beds will be as dangerous as the chairs if deputies aren’t properly trained to use them.
Arpaio said 85 percent of his staff is trained to use the beds, which have been used for years in the jail’s psychiatric ward. Also, the inmate will be given water and restroom breaks every two hours, supervised constantly and checked regularly by nurses, who will also exercise the inmate’s limbs. On-site videographers will also record any incident where a four-point bed is used.