A photo of the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office’s rapid response team. Credit: Channel 2 Action News

In new lawsuit, 75 Gwinnett inmates allege abuse

A military veteran, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, strapped down and stripped of his clothes.

A mentally ill woman shot in the head “with what appeared to be rubber bullets.”

Another woman repeatedly restrained for hours after experiencing an apparent “psychotic break.”

Seventy-five stories like this are included in a federal lawsuit recently filed against Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway and one of his commanders. The suit accuses Conway, Lt. Col. Carl Sims and the jail’s “Rapid Response Team” of excessive force that violated inmates’ constitutional rights.

It specifically homes in on the jail’s use of medieval-looking restraint chairs, which bind inmates’ arms, legs and head. The rapid response team routinely employs them to subdue inmates deemed as unruly or dangerous.

The chairs have been the subject of litigation filed by Georgia attorneys Craig Jones and John Cicala in the past and has come under national scrutiny as well. The two lawyers filed the new lawsuit last week, four months after one member of the Rapid Response Team was charged with battery and about three months after a federal grand jury subpoenaed related records.

“Defendants are supervisors who have created and now perpetuate a policy of unlawfully permitting the Rapid Response Team to use unreasonable and excessive force with impunity,” the lawsuit says. “Defendants have not only condoned and failed to control unconstitutional activity by the Rapid Response Team, they have directed and encouraged it.

The 123-page document accuses the sheriff’s office of using excessive and unnecessary force against the inmates, violating the Fourth and 14th amendments. It asks for unspecified damages.

It points out that many of the inmates — including pre-trial detainees — had mental health issues. Others, it says, may have been “loud” or “intoxicated” but didn’t pose any real threat.

The Rapid Response Team was created in 2008. Sims is currently the sheriff’s office’s field operations division commander but has not directly led the team for several years.

In a statement released through a spokeswoman, Conway defended the team and its actions.

“An independent expert familiar with these matters reviewed our practices four years ago, and we are confident that the Rapid Response Team has been acting well within legal bounds while protecting the institutional security of the Gwinnett County Jail and minimizing injuries to inmates and deputies alike,” Conway said. “Our staff continuously assesses all areas of operations in an effort to follow best practices and provide the best services possible.”

In previous litigation, one expert determined the jail’s use of restraint chairs is “reasonable and consistent with generally accepted police practices.”

Another expert, though, called it “a ruse for implementing excessive force.”

Paragraph after paragraph, the latest lawsuit outlines alleged abuse involving dozens of mentally ill inmates, as well as Donovan Lowe, who says he was first placed in a restraint chair after having a seizure in the jail’s booking area.

He suffered a brain bleed and lost vision in one eye due to multiple forceful encounters with the response team, according to the suit.

It also details team members using pepper spray projectiles or other non-lethal weapons to subdue inmates before rushing into cells and pinning them on the ground using “pressure point techniques.” Inmates are then placed in restraint devices for as many as three or four hours, the suit says.

Cicala, one of the attorneys who filed the suit, said there’s evidence that such force is sometimes used unnecessarily. Videos show inmates who are “just sitting there quietly in their cell not doing anything,” he said. “But, all of a sudden, the RRT is unleashed on them. And it’s just for practice, basically. This is a unit that is being trained as a dynamic entry SWAT team in a contained environment.”

Gwinnett County’s is not the only jail that uses restraint chairs, nor is it the only one facing questions about that use. In 2004, the ACLU of Georgia filed litigation against Dooly County over its use of such devices; the two parties reached a settlement. And a mentally ill California man died last year after being left in a restraint chair for 46 hours.

Existing case law from the U.S. Supreme Court and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals says that restraints should not be used to inflict “wanton and unnecessary pain” and should not be used after a prisoner has been subdued.

Said Sean J. Young, legal director for the ACLU of Georgia, which is not involved in the Gwinnett suit: “People who are incarcerated deserve to be treated like humans, not animals. If these allegations are true, all Georgians should be deeply disturbed.”

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