Use of restraints in corrections and lessons learned

Hope v. Pelzer U.S. Supreme Court decision contains several important use of restraints lessons learned for corrections officers


Article updated October 1, 2018

The use of restraints in corrections is a frequent job-related task performed by correction and detention officers since such tasks are used for prisoner transports, medical intervention, controlling combative prisoners, protecting a prisoner and correctional personnel, and preventing escapes. Restraint devices used in corrections can include:

  • Mechanical handcuffs
  • Leg shackles 
  • Belly chains 
  • Restraint straps for ankles
  • Soft restraints 
  • Straitjackets
  • Restraint chairs 
  • Restraint boards 
Two restrained fugitives. (Photo/Tennessee Bureau of Investigation via AP)
Two restrained fugitives. (Photo/Tennessee Bureau of Investigation via AP)

The use of restraints has a long history in prison and jails. Over the years lawsuits have emerged alleging that correction officers have abused or injured prisoners with restraint equipment.

In a "Use of force for COs", I portrayed the liability trends of use of force claims filed against correction officers from 1992 to 2002. Of the six frequent litigated areas, the use of restraints comprised the second most common litigated area, accounting for 35 percent of the claims. Although correction personnel prevail in 78 percent of the lawsuits a review of a 2007 litigated jail case where a Midwest Sheriff’s department failed to prevail and lost $96,000 is instructional and worthy of consideration in order to identify the lessons that can be learned.

Hope v. Pelzer

Prior to discussing the case example it is important to describe the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Hope v. Pelzer (536 U.S. 730, 2002). The Alabama prison system instituted a restraint process for disruptive prisoner conduct known as the “hitching post.”

As a punitive measure, a recalcitrant prisoner would be restrained to the post with his hands extended above the shoulder level for several hours, usually outside in the sun. While restrained to the post a prisoner would have little mobility to move his arms, the handcuffs would cut into his wrists, causing pain. Frequently, the prisoner’s ankles would also be shackled.

Prisoner Hope was restrained to the hitching post for fighting and disobeying orders to work on two occasions. In the first incident, Hope was restrained to the post for two hours and was offered water and bathroom breaks every 15 minutes. On the second occasion, Hope was restrained to the post for several hours without his shirt, provided water but not permitted a bathroom break. He claimed that he was taunted by an officer and filed a lawsuit claiming excessive force. The appellate court found that the hitching post constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment but affirmed the lower court’s ruling of qualified immunity for the officers.

Hope appealed and the United States Supreme Court reversed ruling that restraining a prisoner in such a manner established and Eighth Amendment claim which exhibited cruel and unusual punishment. The Court further held that the restraint process constituted an “unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain for reasons totally without penological justification.” The Court ruled that Hope was treated in a way antithetical to human dignity and that the wanton treatment was done not out of necessity but as punishment for prior conduct.

This decision is instructive as it provides a framework for justifying the need and the use of restraints. Restraints can never be used for punishment, retaliation, or revenge. The decision to use restraints and the prolonged use of restraints must be based on a reasonable justification, the current need, and based on legitimate penological objectives.

Case in Point

Prisoner Smith (fictitious) was confined in a small sized jail for 276 days and for 260 days he was kept in handcuffs and/or belly chains, and frequently he was restrained in both. Smith was charged with murdering his girlfriend by poisoning her. During his transport to the jail after his arrest, Smith was able to project himself through the protective partition screen of the patrol car, grabbed the steering wheel which caused the car to run into a ditch.

The two arresting officers fought with Smith, who attempted to disarm one of the officers. Several bursts of pepper spray were sprayed at Smith, back-up responded, and Smith was eventually brought under control. He was transported to the hospital for injuries sustained and later lodged in the jail.

Smith was booked, placed in a holding cell, and shackled with handcuffs (hands in front) and leg irons. A day later he was moved to a cell near the officers' station and restrained in handcuffs and leg shackles. By order of the Sheriff Smith was kept in restraints in his cell and when he was escorted out of his cell as he presented a security risk.

One week later, Smith obtained access to binding twine and attempted to commit suicide. Officers responded and thwarted the effort. Smith was referred to a psychologist at the forensic center and it was recommended that Smith be placed on suicide watch and kept in the restraints. Several days later, mental health workers assessed Smith and recommended that he be removed from the suicide watch but did not comment further about the need to use the restraints. At this juncture Smith had only been incarcerated for two weeks. The restraints were removed from Smith for about two weeks by the officers.

However, about a week later the sheriff issued a standing order to place Smith back in restraints as he determined that he presented a security risk. The order stipulated for the duration of his confinement that while in the cell Smith was to be restrained with handcuffs and when outside of the cell he was to be further restrained in leg shackles. For the remainder of his confinement, through his trial (about 7 months) by order of the Sheriff, Smith was kept in restraints. Smith was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

Shortly after his confinement in prison, Smith filed a Section 1983 lawsuit claiming that his Constitutional rights were violated while confined at the jail. He alleged that being restrained in handcuffs and leg shackles constituted excessive force, was cruel and unusual punishment, which caused nerve damage to his wrists and ankles. He further claimed that he incurred psychological harm as a result of being kept in restraints for a prolonged period of time.

His case proceeded to federal court (2007) and the court found in favor of Smith. His family was awarded $96,000. Citing excerpts from the Hope case (among others) the court agreed that confining Smith in restraints during a significant percentage of his confinement constituted cruel and unusual punishment, not used for legitimate detention purposes but rather for sadistic, retaliatory, and punitive purposes. The court reasoned that the officers followed the Sheriff’s orders which were arbitrarily fashioned without legitimate justification.

What Lessons Are Learned?

The court found in favor of Smith in this case as the Sheriff could not demonstrate or articulate a justifiable reason for keeping Smith in restraints during the 6-7 months after mental health personnel released him from the suicide watch. During trial it was determined that the department did not have in place policy or procedures which addressed restraining prisoners during confinement or using restraints for a prolonged period of time.

Further, it was shown that the Sheriff did not consult a physician, a mental health worker, legal counsel, or the risk manager regarding using restraints for a prolonged period. There were no periodic checks made by medical or mental health workers during Smith’s confinement after the consult with the psychologist. Moreover, officers failed to document the use of restraints or security checks performed during Smith’s confinement.

There are several lessons to be learned from this case.

Lesson 1: Discipline and prolonged restraint use

Restraints cannot be used as a form of discipline and that the prolonged use of restraints without ongoing  healthcare review will increase an agency’s liability. Issuing a standing order to keep a prisoner restrained for the majority of his confinement must be critically evaluated. For less than $96,000 the sheriff could have consulted health care professionals, county legal counsel, and the agency’s risk manager to determine the issues which might emerge from restraining Smith prior to issuing a standing order.

If it was determined that the restraints were to be used, the duration for such usage should have been determined and how often Smith would be monitored by health care and detention officers. Also, any application of the restraints should be documented and all monitoring procedures identified. Health care workers should be summoned to regularly evaluate Smith while he was confined and progress notes shared with jail personnel. Had these procedures been in place and practiced, defending the legal challenges could have perhaps proven more successful.

Lesson 2: Review the facts of the case

This case offers several suggestions. First, it would be instructive for jail supervisors to review the facts of this case with their officers in order to identify the varying issues which emerge. Second, such a review should be conducted by applying the facts of this case with an agency’s current procedures for using restraints within the facility. It is recommended that the agency determine how its current policies and procedures align with the facts presented here.

Lesson 3: Policy and procedures need to be in place and followed

Third, the court’s decision should direct administrators and officers to review their restraint policy and procedures to ensure that they are current and that they guide officers in their proper usage and application.

Procedures should guide officers within several levels of restraint usage as suggested:

  • Use within the facility/cells
  • Use by cell extraction teams
  • Use for transport outside the facility
  • Use for medical/therapeutic intervention purposes
  • Use of a restraint chair
  • Time duration for the use of all restraints or the restraint chair
  • Documenting health care and officer monitoring of a prisoner secured in restraints for prolonged periods of time

The policy should identify the various types of restraints which are authorized and the procedures should direct officers in the proper application of the various types of restraints, including documenting their use and indicating how the restraints were checked for tightness or loosened. Developing a separate policy and procedures for using the restraint chair should be considered.

Procedures should also be developed which address using restraints for medical care purposes in conjunction with the department’s healthcare provider. Administrative personnel should develop/revise their policy within the correctional standards implemented within their respective state and consider other correctional standards as well.  The policy should emphasize all rationale for using restraints and should also specify that the use of restraints shall not be used as a form of punishment or discipline.

Lesson 4: Reporting and training on restraint use

Supervisory personnel should report on a regular basis the frequency of the use of restraints and the purpose of their use. Jail personnel should receive initial and ongoing training in the restraint policies and the proper application of each type of restraint authorized. Training should include addressing the manufacture’s recommendations for proper use of each type of restraint authorized. Training should be documented for each officer who attended the training.

In assessing this case in point, it suggested to further review a Michigan case which addressed the use of restraints in prison, particularly with mentally ill prisoners, Hadix v. Caruso (W.D. Mich. 2006). Implementing proper procedures for the use of restraints with prisoners and ensuring that officers apply them appropriately will assist in reducing the risk of litigation. It will also assist in enhancing the operational effectiveness of the department.

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