Another Reason to Resist: The “Devil’s Chair”

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Those taken into custody by police in the United States of America confront a substantial risk of being tortured by their captors. Police who commit such crimes face a negligible risk of significant punishment.

A newly released video shows detention deputies at Tennessee’s Rutherford County Jail pepper-spraying a captive who was locked into a device often called the “Devil’s Chair.”

The victim had been detained on a charge of “resisting” – no details were provided as to what he was resisting, or why it was supposedly a crime to do so. While on-camera, the victim put up no visible struggle. An officer identified as Deputy James Vandermeer can be seen inserting pepper spray into the gap in the “spit shield,” an appliance that covers the victim’s face. After the shield was removed ten minutes later, the inmate was left convulsing and crying for help for an hour and fifteen minutes. He never received medical attention.

Vandermeer – who had previously been fired for a DUI arrest – lied in his official report by describing the victim as “combative,” an assertion contradicted by the video evidence.

The victim in Rutherford County survived his ordeal in the Devil’s Chair. Cleveland resident Nick Christie, an emotionally disturbed 62-year-old man who was detained for several days by Lee County, Florida deputies in March 2009, was not so fortunate.

During his imprisonment, which occurred after his frantic wife had contacted authorities seeking help, Christie was repeatedly shackled to a restraint chair, hooded, and attacked with military-grade pepper spray. The chemical assault was so intense that it left other inmates gagging on the fumes. Christie, who suffered from respiratory and heart disease, pleaded with deputies to remove the spit mask because he couldn’t breathe. One inmate described how Nick turned “purple and almost blue” as he suffocated.

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Medical personnel who attempted to save Christie’s life were overwhelmed by the pepper spray residue, which was potent enough to eat through their medical gloves. The victim died of heart failure two days after his arrest. The death was ruled a homicide – but the State Attorney’s office insisted that there is no evidence of criminal wrongdoing on the part of the deputies who tortured Nick Christie to death.

Restraint chairs come in various styles, colors, and brand names, but the design and function are consistent: The device binds an inmate in such a way that he or she cannot move the arms, legs, or torso. Supposedly created for the sole purpose of restraining violent and dangerous inmates to prevent them from injuring themselves or others, restraint chairs are frequently used to punish captives whose behavior wasn’t dangerous, but merely annoying to their captors. This has led to a growing number of incidents in which prisoners have been abused, maimed, crippled, and killed.

Writing April 2000 issue of The Progressive Ann-Marie Cusac described how restraint chairs are routinely used to punish non-violent behavior; for instance, protesters arrested on disorderly conduct charges have been confined in the chair for passive resistance to orders from guards, or for demanding to speak to lawyers.

They are quite common in juvenile detention facilities: Dan Corcoran, president of a Beaverton, Oregon firm that manufactures the chairs, reported under oath that his biggest clients included juvenile detention systems in Georgia and Florida. Significantly, a juvenile offender in the United States is more likely to be confined to a restraint chair than a convicted adult criminal in other developed nations. While markets for the device have been hard to find in Europe and in most of the English-speaking world, Corcoran was able to unload large part of his inventory in such havens of liberty and human dignity as the United Arab Emirates. Since “interrogating prisoners” is one of the advertised functions of the chairs, Corcoran probably found a good customer in the CIA and the Department of Homeland Security.

Many of the shocking and lurid abuses committed by US military and intelligence personnel in Abu Ghraib and Gitmo were merely applications of tactics that have long been commonplace in American jails and prisons.

In 1999, the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department paid out $755,000 to dismiss a class-action suit over the use of restraint chairs as punishment. Among the plaintiffs in the suit was Katherine Martin, a 106-pound woman with a heart condition who was confined to a chair for eight and a half hours after allegedly touching a guard. The restraints were pulled so tight that skin was permanently abraded from Katherine’s back and shoulders, and she suffered lasting nerve damage. As is often the case when detainees are confined in the chair for long periods, Katherine was denied access to a bathroom and spent hours sitting in her own waste.

The charge against Martin that led to this treatment was “suspicion of public drunkenness.”

Ronald Motz, another plaintiff in the Sacramento lawsuit, was also arrested for public drunkenness. A videotaped record shows Motz pleading for a chance to call his attorney, only to be told by a guard that “the phone doesn’t work.” After a gap in the tape, Motz is shown being strapped down in a chair with a spit mask around his face.

“I just want to call my attorney,” he protests.

“You don’t get to call an attorney,” snaps a guard, who informs him that he was “going to be released in about five hours. Now you’re not.”

“What did I do wrong – ask for my attorney?” Motz asks plaintively.

“You weren’t following directions,” the guard replies.

The Sacramento video record also shows the March 1999 detention of a woman named Gena Domogio, who was strapped in a chair after being thrown to the floor by several guards. After pinning the victim down, the guards knelt on her back and wrapped her face in a towel. As she is bound into the chair she can be heard protesting that she had a thyroid problem and couldn’t breathe. Kimberly Bird, another Sacramento detainee, was taken to the hospital after being rendered unconscious in the chair. The video record shows her pleading, “I’m going to die. Don’t let me die.”

Owing to the exercise in murderous futility called the “war on drugs,” some jailers and prosecutors have used the “Devil’s Chair” to help extort guilty pleas from terrorized suspects. This was the case with Diane Avera, a 45-year-old grandmother from Meridian, Mississippi, who was arrested in Demopolis, Alabama in July, 2010 for the supposed crime of buying too much Sudafed. She was held in Marengo County Jail for 40 days. At one point she was bound for 17 hours, and denied drinking water or access to the bathroom. She also developed edema in her feet, a condition that led to fatal blood clots in several of the inmates who died while strapped to restraint chairs.

Avera had bought Sudafed for use in a planned scuba diving excursion. After being tortured in Marengo County Jail, she accepted a plea agreement in which she confessed to buying the pseudoephedrine for use in manufacturing methamphetamine.

Abuses of this kind are routine, and they underscore the fact that being detained by a police officer – rather than being a brief and trivial imposition – is a legitimate threat to the lives of innocent people.

11:05 am on February 2, 2014