When you think of a restraint chair, you may think about a drug smuggler who failed his mission duct-taped to a chair, hooded, and beaten. In this case, it is technically a chair restraining someone from escaping. Hence the name “restraint chair.” However, this is now how most restraint chairs are utilized. Overtime, Hollywood has portrayed unrealistic expectations of actual restraint chair operations. This blog will explain the unadulterated use of a restraint chair, when it is OK to be used, and who is responsible for using it. 

 Leg Irons. Belly Chains. Stuff-Cuffs. Plastic Zip-Ties. BolaWraps. Although these names may sound like barbaric methods, they are integral pieces of correctional practices. The reality is, these restraint devices can effectively restrain violent individuals, so there isn’t a reason to sugar-coat the names of the devices. They are designed to uphold the three C’s: Care, Custody and Control. In jails and prisons, restraint devices are used in all three “C categories.” That's right, even Care. Think about it, the facility is ultimately responsible for caring those who are often drug addicts, suicidal, or possess other mental health concerns, and to keep them safe. Nonetheless, with restraints comes a risk. When using restraint devices to keep someone safe and under control, the risk of injury increases. Let’s dive into this a little deeper.  

A 2010 study by Dr. Tinia Strout suggests that the outcomes of using restraint beds and boards do more harm than help. The research found these restraint methods were the last thing that people in a mental health crisis or psychosis expect. Conversely, the restraint beds and boards were used to protect an individual from harming themselves or others around them. Regardless, the negative attention towards the study guided jails and prisons to use more comfortable restraints for further operations. You read that correctly, “comfortable restraints.” These are known to be the restraint chair or full body wrap. Both of these devices allow the inmate to sit in a posture similar to the fetal position, allowing the inmate to hold still in a psychologically proven comfortable placement. It also allows medical staff to conveniently monitor any areas for health and wellbeing checks. However, the use of restraints carries a litany of liability concerns. Below we walk through the TOP 5 things to know when using the most popular method of inmate restraint: the restraint chair.

  1. First and foremost, the use of the restraint chair should be clearly outlined as a use of force for the specific purposes of protecting the inmate from, escape, harm to themselves, harm to others, prevent physical damage to the facility, or only when all other restraint methods have been ineffective. Restraints are a tool that should never be used as a punishment or in a way that would cause unjust physical pain. They are never to be placed around the head, neck, or in any manner that restricts blood circulation or breathing. Health and well-being checks should occur and be documented no less than every fifteen minutes. Supervisory and medical permission should be in place if the use of restraints extends beyond two hours.

  2. Restraint chairs are only supposed to be utilized by competent and certified instructors. For example, instructors who have multiple certifications and specialties such as a general instructor, field training officer, defensive tactics officer, supervisor, and firearms instructor would all be considered a competent and certified instructor. These individuals are responsible to teach the use of mechanical restraint. Think about it, we don’t label brand new firearm-certified officers as “firearms instructors” as they have a lack of tactical knowledge that could lead to incorrect instruction. Instructors who are teaching the rules of a life-or-death situation need to be knowledgeable about the most current case law concerning use of force and restraints. Even giving negative nicknames to restraints can land you in hot water, so it’s important that instructors teach staff the “Malicious & Sadistic” standard of training. When referring to the restraint chair as a “strap-o-lounger,” “barcalounger,” “we care chair,” “be sweet chair” or any alternative name other than Emergency Restraint Chair, Violent Person Restraint Chair, or Restraint Chair creates a case that the use of the chair was used “maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm.” In short, don’t fool around. Know the rules and stick to them.

  3. The application of the restraint chair should be overseen by a supervisor. Considering that the restraint chair is a tool utilized only when other means have failed, the likelihood that an inmate is going to resist is highly likely. In turn, the application of force to respond to their resistance increases the risk of injury and liability. The supervisor needs to ensure that the restraint chair is being used in accordance with training and facility policy. The “Deliberate Indifference” standard applies to supervisory personnel in instances of use of force. If supervisors know about the misuse of restraint devices and fail to correct the behavior, a causal connection between the supervisor's actions and the subordinates' use of excessive force can be formed. Apart from the liability, there is inherent risk for corrections staff. Supervisors are responsible for enforcing tools to be applied correctly and officers to wear the proper personal protective equipment. 

  4. Medical staff should oversee the application of the restraint chair. Not all facilities have the luxury of 24-hour medical staff, but there are thankfully other ways to document and report to off-site or contracted medical staff. Having medical staff oversee the application of a restraint chair helps identify possible medical related issues that could cause severe injury or death such as excited delirium, hypoxemia, aspiration of vomit, positional asphyxia, and blood clots. The purpose of using a restraint chair is to minimize the risk of the inmate being harmed. If the inmate (who is already in a highly vulnerable state) starts to show signs of a psychological crisis, the medical staff is trained to jump into action and secure the situation. 

  5. Finally, staff should create documentation processes that support the effective use of a high-liability tool. Restraint chairs are instrumental in life-saving efforts to those who need it. The modern correctional officer is more tactically proficient in the use of restraints than ever before, receiving hours upon hours of valuable training to safely apply and administer restraint devices. It’s important to use the tools available to document all available information to prove that officers were conducting their duties as expected, and compliant with the law. All officers who were involved should complete a department incident report outlining their actions during the application of force. Beyond incident reports, below is a concise list of examples to increase accountability and defensibility: 
  • Collect video evidence of the event
  • Document 15-minute health and wellness checks with video and photos
  • Document all interactions with staff include demeanor
  • Record when restroom options are provided
  • Record when water or food was offered/accepted/refused
  • Take note of restraint tightness and capillary refill
  • Notate which limbs were ambulated 
  • Document that the inmate received instruction on expected behavior that results in the removal from the restraint chair

Knowing these TOP 5 things when utilizing restraint chairs is crucial if you don’t want to wind up behind bars yourself. Lawsuits involving the restraint chairs have boiled down to the chair being used improperly, lack of knowledge on how it works, and absence of supervision, ultimately costing taxpayers millions of dollars. Don’t be one of these guys. Don’t be one of the staff who contributes to a tragedy like this. Do your research. Know your stuff. Memorize these 5 things. Get your team home safe. 

References:

For more information on learning the most up-to-date laws regarding restraints, please visit: The National Institute of Jail Operations (NIJO) https://jailtraining.org/about-nijo/ and the Force Science Institute (https://www.forcescience.org/)


Strout, T. (2010). The experience of being physically restrained: An integrative review of the qualitative literature. 

Retrieved from:

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21054728/


Instruments of Restraint

Retrieved from:

https://cdn.penalreform.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Factsheet-5-restraints-v6-web.pdf