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Report: Jail’s use of restraint chairs ‘a ruse for implementing excessive force’

Butch Conway

Butch Conway

A potentially damning document has been filed in the federal lawsuit against Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway and other jail leadership, an expert calling the department’s use of restraint chairs “a ruse for implementing excessive force.”

Last July, attorneys Craig Jones and John Cicala filed a class action suit on behalf of several former inmates at the Gwinnett County jail, alleging that the sheriff’s office and its “rapid response team” acted irresponsibly and abusively in placing them in so-called restraint chairs for hours at a time. The legal action singles out Conway, jail administrator Col. Don Pinkard and Lt. Col. Carl Sims, the now-former commander of the aforementioned rapid response team.

Sheriff’s office officials have declined to comment on the pending litigation, but, in an official response as part of the lawsuit, called their actions “reasonable under the totality of the circumstances.”

A report filed last week by Allen Ault — a 40-year corrections veteran and former commissioner of the Georgia Department of Corrections — sided with the plaintiffs. The nine-page document had no shortage of strongly worded opinions on the Gwinnett County jail’s RRT and its use of the restraint chair, which consists of arm, leg and lap constraints designed to “limit the movement of (inmates) who … create a danger to themselves and/or others.”

Ault’s thoughts included the following:

— “In my opinion, the problem is not how they conduct a takedown, but rather, the almost total indiscriminate use of the RRT that have now become standard practice in the jail.”

— “Although it would be a daunting task to get the actual number of deployments of other Response Teams, I would venture to state, based upon my experience in the field and without fear of contradiction, that the Gwinnett County RRT has been deployed more often in the last thirteen years then (sic) the combined total of all other County, State and Federal facilities located in the state of Georgia.”

— “Instead of the RRT being deployed as the last resort, it is being deployed as the first choice of preference by staff to handle a ‘problem’ inmate. Upon arrival, the RRT routinely uses force where no force is justified.”

— “It was also obvious that it was being used to punish some individuals who had been ‘vulgar’ in either language and/or deed in ‘reception’ or elsewhere in the jail before being placed in a cell.”

— “… way too often, in my opinion the ‘takedown’ and the use of the ‘restraint chair’ is a ruse for implementing excessive force.”

The rapid response team is a SWAT-style group made up of highly trained deputies. Videos previously viewed by the Daily Post show members, upon being summoned, staging outside a cell in helmets, vests and masks before entering, pinning down the inmate in question and putting them in the chair. Some were shot with pepperballs prior to deputies entering the cell.

Inmates are typically left in the restraint chair for about four hours.

In the six months prior to the suit’s filing, the process was implemented in excess of 200 times.

Cicala, one of the attorneys for the case’s plaintiffs, declined to provide a specific number but said Tuesday that the total of former inmates joining the suit was “growing.” Ault’s report said he reviewed the affidavits of seven different plaintiffs.

The timeline for a potential trial in the case remains unclear, but Cicala he hoped the addition of Ault’s input would help convince people that the suit is “a legitimate, bonafied situation.”

“This isn’t just a bunch of people calling foul,” Cicala said. “It’s a very legitimate claim and these people are seeking justice. I think that’s going to be recognized not only by any credible expert in the field, but I think that anybody who’s a legitimate law enforcement officer is going to say, ‘Look, this is inappropriate.’”

A sheriff’s office spokeswoman declined to comment Tuesday.

Sims, the RRT’s commander during the lawsuit’s timeframe, has been promoted since. That action, as well as a re-examination of the jail’s use of force policy, were in the works prior to legal action being taken, officials have said.