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Class action suit challenging 'restraint chair' use at jail

Ryan Anisko is pantomiming. Poorly, but he gets the message across. He wants a pen.

It’s Feb. 18. He’s in a cell at the Gwinnett County jail after being picked up on DUI charges.

The camera’s already rolling, meaning the chair is coming, but Anisko doesn’t know that. After a few minutes he grows agitated: He flips off the sheriff’s deputy, says he’s going to sue “the s—-” out of everybody and sits down in the cell. He’s out of the camera’s sight when someone shouts through the glass to lay on the ground.

Shortly, four members of the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Department’s Rapid Response Team, the “RRT,” are in the cell. Wearing heavy-duty gear — helmets, masks, vests — they pounce, pinning Anisko down. His left leg is bent up and sat on. He says he’s sorry and asks what he did wrong.

After a fifth deputy brings in the chair, Anisko’s thrown in.

For three hours and 40 minutes, his arms and legs are locked in position and he’s pushed into the corner of a cell.

Restraint chairs are, for the most part, exactly what they sound like.

Intimidating devices with confining arm and leg straps alongside shoulder and lap belts, they’re used just about every day at the Gwinnett County jail. Protocol calls for them to be implemented to “restrain or limit the movement of (inmates) who … create a danger to themselves and/or others.” Complex phrases like “immediate and compelling intent to commit property damage and/or physical harm to themselves and/or others” are key.

A class action lawsuit filed against Sheriff Butch Conway and two other jail officials, though, is challenging the use of restraint chairs. Represented by attorneys John Cicala and Craig Jones, an undisclosed number of former inmates (which includes Anisko) is calling them excessive and unconstitutional.

“It’s overkill,” Jones said. “It’s gratuitous, it’s unnecessary, it’s punitive. It’s retaliatory in a lot of cases.”

It’s also complicated — and on video.

In the first half of this year, 129 Gwinnett County inmates were placed in the restraint chair. The justifications vary, but, according to documents obtained via the Open Records Act, typically fall under the fear of forthcoming self-harm.

“Inmate Anisko was placed into the restraint chair due to self harming behavior by striking the cell door with his head, hands and feet hard enough to cause harm to himself,” the official report says in reference to Anisko’s encounter.

The report for complainant Keven Goodwin’s restraint chair encounter was similar.

“Goodwin began demanding that Lt. Rudowski give him his shoes and started to tap on the door with his hand,” it said. “Lt. Rudowski began to walk away from the cell and Inmate Goodwin hit the door, with his hand, with enough force to potentially hurt himself.”

Under the sheriff’s department’s own guidelines for use, those are acceptable provocations for the restraint chair. Others include preventing property damage, minimizing the possibility of a situation escalating and performing medical assessments.

Once the threshold is met, the video camera comes out and RRT members stage outside of the cell in question for several minutes.

The inmate is placed in the chair, typically for around four hours. A nurse checks vitals.

The pending civil lawsuit, filed July 6 in federal court, is verbose and strongly worded. It takes on Sheriff Conway, Col. Don Pinkard (jail administrator) and Lt. Col. Carl Sims (the now-former commander of the RRT).

“By this action,” it says, “Plaintiffs seek to end the pattern and practice of unneccessary and excessive force inflicted upon hundreds of inmates of the Gwinnett County Jail by a Rapid Response team that is mobilized on a daily basis to subject detainees to gratuitous, punitive, and sadistic pain in retaliation for loud, intoxicated, or alleged noncompliant behavior when said detainees are contained in a secure environment such as a holding cell, are not posing a threat to the safety of themselves or others, and there is no present justification for the use of such force.”

Chief at issue are a pair of policies in the sheriff’s office’s own guidelines. One says the restraint chair is to be used as a “control measure when absolutely necessary,” not intended and “will not be used as a form of discipline or punishment.” The other calls for use of force to end “immediately when resistance ceases.”

Cicala and Jones, the attorneys, said neither was the case. Anisko and Goodwin, interviewed in Jones’ Atlanta office, said they thought they were being punished.

“There’s a lot of these videos where we’re watching them for 15, 20 minutes, and the (inmate), they’re sitting there,” Cicala said. “They’re sitting on the bench. Some of them are mouthy. Some of them are frustrated … But they’re in a contained environment, they’ve already been initially screened for weapons, drugs, anything else that could cause harm.

Said Jones: “You look at the video, and you say, ‘Whatever these people did to deserve this treatment, they ain’t doing it anymore.’ Not to concede anything, but whatever they were doing, they stopped doing it before they brought in the rapid response team.”

A sheriff’s department spokeswoman declined interview requests on behalf of Conway, Pinkard and Sims, citing the looming litigation.

The sheriff’s department is currently reviewing its use of force policy. Sims — a former Los Angeles Police Department officer who took out warrants for LAPD’s infamous 1988 Dalton Avenue raids — has been promoted from commander of the rapid response team to lead his own “jail intelligence” unit.

According to emails obtained by the Daily Post, Lt. Keith Cofer has taken over the RRT.

Both the review and transition pre-dated the current lawsuit and public questions about the use of restraint chairs, spokeswoman Deputy Shannon Volkodav said.

“We were reviewing our use of force policies before all this happened,” she said. “(Sims’ promotion) was also something that was in the works.”

“Being ex-military, it’s like, ‘Is this America?’” Goodwin said. “I thought that, and, ‘Now I’m behind this wall and anything can happen. If this is happening right now, anything can happen.’”

Goodwin, who served with the U.S. Army, spent three hours and 41 minutes in the chair last June. He too had been arrested on DUI charges. His request had been for his shoes, which sat lonely outside his cell. His feet were cold.

He was surprised with a pepperball — pepper spray in sphere form, basically — before RRT members stormed in.

Attorneys for the lawsuit he’s a part of played it coy, but said they believe anywhere from 500 to 1,000 former Gwinnett County inmates could ultimately join the class action case. That reflects the number they believe were unlawfully subjected to the restraint chair since July 2011, the max time period for which damages can be sought.

They want the sheriff’s office to cease such operations, and to “pay for the damage they’ve caused.”

“(The inmates) aren’t violent; they’re not a threat. They’re simply noncompliant,” Jones said. “And then (the RRT) responds to the noncompliance by using force. And by the time they use the force, they’re no longer noncompliant, if they even were to begin with … There needs to be a clear and present danger at the point that force is used.”