CINCINNATI (WKRC) - Two years ago, Local 12 investigated serious abuse and deaths of inmates who had been strapped to restraint chairs. Hamilton County’s Sheriff Charmaine McGuffey promised to reform the way the chairs are used in the jail. Quietly, the sheriff made good on her promise, revamping policy to make restraint chairs safer and more humane.
VIDEO OF ABUSE AND CLAIMS OF NEGLECT AND DEATH
Claims of abuse and neglect of inmates helplessly strapped in these chairs are numerous and, in some high-profile cases, those abuses were captured on camera.
In 2019, a deputy punched Jeremy Mooney 11 times in the face while he was in a restraint chair. The deputy resigned shortly after the incident.
Inside the Montgomery County Jail in 2015, Amber Swank -- a 24-year-old woman arrested on a domestic disturbance charge -- was in a chair when a sergeant pepper-sprayed her, causing her to pass out. In 2017, Swank filed a federal lawsuit, and in 2018, she received a $375,000 settlement.
At the same jail in 2016, Charles Wade, was pepper-sprayed by a different sergeant. He can be heard in the video of that incident, screaming, “I can’t breathe!” Wade, who also filed a federal lawsuit, received a settlement of $115,000.
And in a 2018 case that Local 12’s investigation also covered, 33-year-old Pierre Howell died in a restraint chair inside the Hamilton County Justice Center. Security video revealed Howell was left alone in the chair for more than four hours before dying alone in his cell. A federal lawsuit filed by Howell’s family was dismissed. An appeal is pending in the case.
Sheriff McGuffey, who was swept into office on a platform of reforming the jail, told Local 12 in May 2021 that she was already working on reforming the use of the restraint chair.
“We should be able to recraft that policy,” she said.
Nearly two years later, the sheriff proudly announced she has done what she said she would.
“You kept your promise?” asked Local 12’s Duane Pohlman.
“I did, yes,” she said. “I made the changes as immediately as I could.”
The old policy and procedure at the jail was quietly replaced with a new one, dramatically altering how inmates are treated when they’re placed in restraint chairs at the Hamilton County Justice Center.
Among the key changes, the new restraint policy and procedure manual governing the use of a chair at the jail clearly states that it is to be used “to maintain the safety of the inmate, not as a form of punishment.”
The sheriff reiterated that approach in her follow-up interview with Local 12, saying, “That chair is not being used as a use of force tool. It is being used for what it was invented for, which is restraint.”
In addition, the new rules include simple and humane changes, such as mandating offering water and toilet breaks to inmates in the chair at least once every hour, rather than after two hours.
And while inmates, like Pierre Howell, were often restrained for four hours or more, the new policy makes it clear that inmates “should be considered for removal from the Safety Restraint Chair as soon as possible.”
Figures from the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office reveal that, in 2022 -- the first full year after the reformed rules were put in place -- the restraint chair was used 777 times, with the time inmates spent in the chair averaging two hours and 59 minutes.
Sheriff McGuffey says she would like to cut that time by a third.
“If we can help it, they do not spend more than two hours in that chair, sometimes less,” she said. “We want it to be less.”
The sheriff says the most important part of her reform is the enforcement of accountability and oversight by leadership at the jail, to make sure the use of the chair adheres to the new policy.
Inmates also must now be observed every 10 minutes, which officers must record in a new log, along with detailed remarks about the restrained person’s condition.
Finally, if the time in the chair exceeds two hours, those new mandatory in-person observations move up the chain of command.
“At two hours, it goes to a lieutenant. At four hours, you wake up the captain, and they have to come down and visually view the person and make the call,” said Sheriff McGuffey.
She says this change is crucial, in order “to make sure that we're not holding someone in the chair for reasons that we don't need to hold him in the chair.”
Human rights organization Amnesty International believes the changes don’t go far enough and wants to ban the use of restraint chairs altogether, but Sheriff McGuffey insists the devices are needed to protect everyone in the prison.
She believes her new policy and procedure will ensure no one is harmed in the process, saying, “We're not only saving lives, but we're changing the culture of that jail.”