Lawsuit alleges 'be sweet' chair is back as torture tactic at Knox County jail

The agency is again being accused of turning a restraint device into "the devil's chair"

By Jamie Satterfield
Knoxville News-Sentinel

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Two decades after a federal judge barred the Knox County Sheriff’s Office from such torturous acts as “angel-cuffing” jail inmates to bars and strapping them into the “be sweet” restraint chair, the agency is again being accused of turning a restraint device into “the devil’s chair.”

Two lawsuits — one filed in U.S. District Court and one filed in Knox County Circuit Court — show then-inmate Lavonte Simmons was handcuffed with his arms behind his back, his legs shackled and his body strapped into a restraint chair for nearly 48 hours in September 2014.

The agency’s policy forbids use of the chair as punishment and limits any use of what Sheriff Jimmy “J.J.” Jones calls a “therapeutic restraint” device for more than two hours without a report detailing why a longer time is needed, which must be approved by the on-duty commander of the Roger D. Wilson Detention Facility on Maloneyville Road.

Attorney Troy L. Bowlin II filed the two lawsuits, which combined seek damages of well over $10 million, earlier this week. Two separate lawsuits are necessary because constitutional federal claims and state law violations are alleged.

The lawsuit names as defendants the KCSO, Jones, two jail supervisors, corrections officers Christopher Fustos and Paul Saah, 10 nurses and a licensed social worker.

The News Sentinel in 1994 uncovered a routine practice at the downtown Knox County jail of punishing inmates through abusive, sometimes torturous, acts. Inmates were cuffed spread-eagle to cell bars with feet suspended from the ground. Jailers called the practice “angel-cuffing.”

Other inmates at the time were strapped into restraint chairs like the one named in this week’s lawsuits, along with a helmet with the words “be sweet” on it. Jailers would hit the helmet with objects and fists, and inmates were strapped down for hours at a time.

Attorney John Eldridge filed a class-action lawsuit against the county over the practices. In 1995, Senior U.S. District Judge Leon Jordan issued a permanent injunction banning the agency from engaging in torturous acts. That injunction has since been placed in archives and was not immediately available this week, and Eldridge said he was unable to recall whether use of the restraint chair was banned or strict limitations placed upon its use.

In the Circuit Court lawsuit, citing a 2000 article in The Progressive, the restraint device is described as the "devil's chair."

"Jail and prison employees call it the 'strap-o-lounger,' the 'barcalounger,' the 'we care chair,' and the 'be sweet chair,' the lawsuit states, citing the article. "Inmates and their lawyers have other names for the device: 'torture chair,' 'slave chair,' and 'devil's chair.' "

The KCSO has a detailed policy on the use of the chair, a restraint technique only to be used for suicidal inmates and under strict supervision, including being placed in full view of video cameras. Bowlin alleged in the lawsuit Simmons was initially strapped into a chair that was within camera view but later moved to a second chair in a location in which no surveillance cameras are located.

The sheriff said in a statement Simmons, who has since been convicted of first-degree murder and moved to state prison, was suicidal when placed in the chair.

“Simmons was placed in the therapeutic restraint chair per the self-harm policy by the medical staff,” Jones said.

Jail records show Fustos sought permission to put Simmons in the chair after he and Saah struggled with Simmons and kneed him in the groin during that encounter. There is no mention of any threats of suicide, and Saah wrote in a report Simmons was being “locked down” until a disciplinary board could meet on the earlier struggle, which is a violation of the agency’s policy.

The sheriff said he could not address specific questions because of health privacy guidelines.

Bowlin included in the lawsuit a log sheet of Simmons’ time in the chair. In every entry, either nurses or jailers listed him as “calm,” “quiet” or “sleeping.” He was allowed bathroom breaks every few hours with no outbursts or threats of self-harm. One arm was uncuffed at least twice so Simmons could eat before he was handcuffed anew. Those entries also listed him as calm and cooperative.

The agency’s policy requires a mental health evaluation and further mental health follow-up care for any inmate placed in the restraint chair. Bowlin’s lawsuit stated there is no record of any mental health evaluation or treatment of Simmons once he was freed from the chair and returned to his cell.

The lawsuit alleges Fustos and Saah beat Simmons when he refused to turn over a single dose of an antidepressant for which Simmons had a prescription and that was being administered to him in the detention facility. Fustos wrote in his report he believed Simmons was “hoarding” the pills, so he and Saah tried to search Simmons. Fustos wrote Simmons was compliant, placing his hands on the wall but then popped the pill in his mouth. Then, Fustos wrote, he “took Simmons to the ground” and kneed him before strapping him into the chair.

A month after the incident with Simmons, Fustos was one of four deputies who were caught on video beating inmate Louis Flack, who is mentally ill, even after Flack was restrained facedown on the floor. Deputy Jeremiah Breeden was fired and charged with official misconduct and assault. That case is pending.

Fustos was suspended two days without pay. The sheriff wrote in the suspension letter that Fustos repeatedly hit Flack “in violation of policy.” Fustos has since filed his own federal lawsuit, alleging he suffered post-traumatic stress disorder in the Marine Corps in 2007 and accusing the KCSO of ignoring his pleas for help with the condition. He specifically cited the Flack beating as an example of what he said was mistreatment of him by agency supervisors. That lawsuit is also pending.

Simmons was convicted in the June 2013 fatal shooting of a bystander in a retaliation shooting on Nolan Avenue. He is serving life.

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