Judge dismisses restraint chair lawsuit

A federal judge dismissed a civil rights lawsuit against Gwinnett County jailers that accused them of using special restraint chairs to subject inmates to "sadistic pain."

Attorneys for those inmates argued the chairs were often brought in to punish inmates rather than protect them from self-harm, and they used the jail's own training videos as their proof.

They pointed to cases like Justin Shuford.

By the time the camera starts recording, a hungry Shuford had already banged a metal partition hoping to get a jailer's attention. He got more than he bargained for.

"If you watch the video you can clearly see I wasn't trying to harm myself," Shuford told FOX 5 I-Team reporter Randy Travis when he began investigating this issue two years ago.

On the video, eight minutes actually go by with Shuford sitting quietly in his cell. Then the jail's Rapid Response Team rushes in. Team members eventually slam Shuford into a restraint chair, a decision by the jail duty sergeant to prevent Shuford from damaging public property or hurting himself.

The RRT is specially trained to handle unruly inmates. They eventually leave Shuford facing the cell wall, strapped in the chair for nearly four hours, all for banging his hand one time.

Shuford argued the jail violated his civil rights, and along with three other former Gwinnett inmates sued in federal court.

But this month, a judge threw out the case, finding "a legitimate need for the application of force."

"Nobody's safe if we can't make an inmate behave in a jail situation," said Gwinnett County sheriff Butch Conway. "We have inmates who come in here on alcohol, drugs, with mental problems that you can't control without the use of force."

A Fox 5 I-Team analysis of dozens of restraint chair videos found many examples of inmates clearly trying to hurt themselves or cause damage to their cell.

Often, someone suffering from a mental illness winds up first in a local jail, leaving personnel with the challenge of how to deal with them without putting anyone's safety at risk.

But in some videos, the jail used restraint chairs on people like Justin Shuford, an inmate with no drug, alcohol or mental illness issues, someone who seemed calm and compliant, yet still wound up strapped down for hours.

"You look at that and say, well, why did you need the RRT when the guy was already quiet?" asked Randy asked sheriff Conway.

"Right, and that's something we've changed since this lawsuit and since your airing some of the video footage and asking that question," the sheriff responded.

Last year the Gwinnett jail logged 458 use-of-force reports out of 40,000 inmates. Sheriff Conway says his people now work harder to capture the original bad behavior on camera. But he admits...

"Those videos don't look good to the untrained eye."

In his ruling dismissing the lawsuit, federal judge Steve Jones said even though some inmates had calmed down before the video started "there is evidence in the record that inmates exhibiting self-harming behavior once are likely to do it again…"

The judge also found it made no difference the R-R-T had a slogan written on their training room wall: "Execute with extreme violence" and after our investigation aired someone added "F--- Randy Travis."

"They won't do that again I promise you," the sheriff told Randy.

"No more writing on the white board?" Randy asked?

"Not about Randy Travis." said sheriff Conway.

John Cicala, one of the attorneys for the four inmates who sued, says they are appealing the judge's ruling dismissing the lawsuit.

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